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."