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.”

Tuesday, 23 August 2005

total:spec - Elbow

Guy Garvey is the first to admit that few people like a musician getting political. “It's by far the quickest route to career suicide isn't it?” laughs the Elbow frontman. “To stand on a soap box and pretend you're Bono.”

And yet the title track of the Elbow’s recent album, Leaders Of The Free World, is Guy Garvey getting very political. The lyrics vehemently declare that ‘the leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones, and it’s easy to ignore ’til they’re knocking on the door of your house.’ The song was inspired by footage Guy had seen of George Bush senior and junior when Bush junior had been voted in for his second term. He was horrified to watch as the president all but shrugged his father off so he could hog the attention.

“I could suddenly see him as an eight-year-old,” says Guy. “A spoilt nasty little shit-for-brains. He’s officially the most powerful man in history.”

And so Guy wrote Elbow’s first political song, at least the first one that’s made it to an album. Although the song lends it’s title to the whole album, Elbow - also made up of drummer Richard Jupp, organist Craig Potter, guitarist Mark Potter, and bassist Pete Turner – haven’t made a record full of political messages.

“There's only one political song on there so it seems quite odd to give it that title, but at the same time we're living in pretty horrible times,” says Guy. “We've seen neat segregation of an otherwise peaceful country. I really feel for the Muslim community at the moment. It's very, very difficult for them. And hate is on the rise, on the march and I think it's important that you make your voice and opinion heard. I'm not after leading anyone into the valley of death, I'm just trying to let everybody know that Elbow won't be counted into this bullshit. We all know why [the London bombings] have taken place. People feel disenfranchised enough to be brain-washed to do these heinous things to their fellow countrymen and it's because of our involvement in illegal, immoral wars worldwide. The point is that Tony Blair has to accept some responsibility for what he's done against the wishes of the people of his country. Because now it's resulting in innocent death."

Despite his strong opinions on how our country is currently being governed, Guy says he has no desire to be the ‘indie Bono’. Instead he just finds it unusual that anyone wouldn’t have an opinion on such important issues.

"Of course I had qualms about doing a political song,” he says. “But I also feel a responsibility to the people of the country that I enjoy living in. And I also feel that everybody has a responsibility to have an opinion at the very least. It's not like everyone can sit back and watch everything now, because it's not happening on the other side of the world any more.

"I mean, it sticks in my fucking throat that nobody's pointed at him [Tony Blair] in the media. Because those [the anti-Iraq war demonstrations of February 2003] are the biggest public demonstrations this country's ever seen, and it wasn’t about the death of unions, it wasn’t about the poll tax and it wasn’t about anything that effects people on British soil directly. It was about our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world. It was the biggest public demonstration that the country has ever seen and he went ahead and did it anyway. And he lied in order to make it happen.

"Now this shit's [the bombings] been visited on us and he can stand there and say, ‘I told you so’? I don't fucking think so. He under-estimates the intelligence of the people in this country and he's a bad man. He's gone from mildly disappointing to thoroughly fucking destructive. So that's what we're trying to talk about with the record."

Whether Guy’s statements make any difference – to how our country is governed, to making people aware, to changing their opinion - remains to be seen. He’s one of many dissenting voices in the music world and beyond at the moment, and Guy’s unhappiness will certainly make his band’s fans look twice at Tony Blair.
As he sings in Leaders Of The Free World, ‘I think we dropped the baton like the 60s didn’t happen.’

"I'm sure musicians can make a difference,” he says. “This is the thing you see, it's impossible to measure creativity and positivity. We support the anti-landmine charity MAG, they are our charity of choice if you will. And the Mines Advisory Group operate in war zones all over the world. It doesn’t matter what the war was, where there's unexploded munitions, there are people cleaning them up. They unearthed a million volatile munitions in Iraq in one year. Now it's impossible to measure how many lives they saved but it's very easy to say how many lives were lost in a conflict. So how do you know whether these things make a difference? How do you know what would have happened if, for example, Live 8 hadn't taken place? It's impossible to measure."

So it's worth doing whatever, in that case?

"It's not even a case of that. It's not about whether it will do any good. It's everybody has a responsibility. I think the problem really with Western society is that everybody claims the right to every junction and nobody takes their responsibilities. They're absolutely outraged if they fall over a loose paving stone and break their knee but you'll step over a half-dead tramp without thinking about it. It's like, it can’t take all that much of people’s time.

“There you go, rant over," he laughs.

Elbow weren’t invited to play Live 8 but Guy would happily have got involved. The event’s effectiveness and point was debated hotly at the time – Would the world’s eight most powerful men take any notice of a rock concert? Wasn’t it more effective in selling records for those who performed? – but Guy feels there was too much criticism.

"I do think [the event] could have been more effectual,” says Guy. “But I think it was a positive gesture, definitely. I wasn’t very fond of all the criticism. There were some good points made about African musicians not being invited to perform, but at the same time it was to raise awareness amongst white Western kids, really. I’m not very fond of the armchair critics who don’t do anything themselves. How that's seen as a cynical money-grabbing gesture, I don't know. It was so obviously something positive, something benevolent."

Reaching out to people and getting them involved has become a running theme with Elbow. They’re very much an everyman band with none of the airs and graces of celebrity. Five blokes whose fans could be as comfortable sat down with them in the pub as come see them at a gig. A few thousand of Elbow’s fans have even appeared on one of their songs on their appropriately named second album Cast Of Thousands. For the single Grace Under Pressure the band recorded the crowd at Glastonbury 2003 singing the line, ‘We still believe in love so fuck you’ back at them.

“It kind of happened on stage,” remembers Guy. “I was just looking round at everybody and thought it would be great to hear them sing, so I thought, what's a good vibe? I said, 'Do you want to be on the next record?' and they all said yeah. I wanted it to have some anti-war sentiment because it was in the build-up to the whole thing that summer and it was on my mind. They were more than happy to oblige. We wrote Grace Under Pressure quite separately, we didn't know where we were going to put the crowd, but when we realised it was in the same key and a similar tempo we thought, it's meant to be, obviously."

Not all of the recording of Elbow’s last album was so easy. The genesis of Cast Of Thousands was beset by problems, beginning with the loss of Guy’s lyric book at the beginning of 2002. While the band were still promoting their debut album Asleep In The Back, Guy lost his notes and ideas for its follow-up on a train between their hometown of Manchester and London.

Then when recording finally began the five musicians experienced a great deal of pressure after the success of their debut.

“There was a sense of bewilderment and not really knowing what the root of your happiness is,” says Guy. “When all your dreams are delivered it's a very odd thing. It's almost like you feel you’re not allowed to be upset about anything anymore. It made us wonder about the root of happiness and that certainly comes through on songs like Ribcage on Cast Of Thousands. I mean, it was pressure from ourselves, it wasn’t from anywhere else. The first album never got a bad review to my knowledge and it was nominated for a Brit and a Mercury award. It couldn't have done better, and yet it still flew in under the radar. We were quite happy that it wasn't shoved down people's throats. It just sort of bubbled up and the record carried on selling steadily through word of mouth after we'd finished promoting it. We knew that there were a lot of people waiting for the second one, who had found the first one quite a personal record. So it was a lot of pressure to follow it.”

That pressure made the band ill. Guy suffered from psoriasis and insomnia while the rest of the band were unable to shake off a persistent flu bug. This went on until their record label stepped in and told them to take a break.

“Contrary to what people usually believe about record companies, that they stand there pointing at their watches, they actually said, 'You look like shit lads, have a bit of a break.’ So we did and when we came back and listened to what we’d done with a bit of distance, we realised we had the bulk of the record done and it was good enough and we all loved it. It was easy to carry on after that."

The band are used to working against the odds. Formed way back when in 1992 after meeting at college in Bury, the band (who took their name from a line in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective which said that the elbow was the most sensitive part of the body) based themselves in Manchester and toiled away for six years before finally landing a deal with Island Records in 1998.

“We always used to say, 'If it's not happened by March...',” says Guy. “I don't know why it was always March. But come March we'd have another gig at The Swan With Two Necks or The Frog and Bollock and that was enough to keep us together. There was always something on the horizon and there was always the 'who wants to be Pete Best' situation. We were always really paranoid that if any of us left then the rest would do it without us. That still keeps us together these days," he laughs.

When Island was bought up by Universal in 1999 the band were dropped, just as they were close to completing their debut album. EMI then showed some interest but just as quickly withdrew their offer. Then the band, who had gone back to working in part-time jobs, were saved by Manchester-based label Uglyman Records. An EP release caught the attention of V2 and the rest is history.

“When I listen to Asleep In The Back now I can identify frustrations that I wasn’t aware were in the record at the time,” says Guy, “and that gives it a sort of rawness, an edgy vibe which it would be wrong to try and recapture because that's not how life is anymore.

"Similarly the mood of Cast Of Thousands, aside from all the problems, was really celebrating success and trying as much as possible to include as many people in that as we could. Hence experimenting with gospel choirs, and the whole Glastonbury experiment coming off was just a joy. Getting that many people involved with a record, we were really proud of that.

"This album [Leaders Of The Free World] sees everybody settled into their roles a little bit more. Being comfortable with being respected and paid for what we love the most. I think of the three it will be the classic Elbow record, the one that defines us in the future."