Friday, 28 December 2012

London Falling, by Paul Cornell

Opening London Falling reminded me of how out of practice I am at reading fiction; it took a while to reaccustom myself to looking for indications of character and absorbing detail. Befitting a police procedural, there is a lot to take in and a lot which is unfamiliar to the uninitiated. The same is true of the fantasy-horror genre to which London Falling also belongs. Its protagonists - DI Jimmy Quill, intelligence analyst Lisa Ross and undercover constables Sefton and Costain - are also on a learning curve, and most of their first investigation consists of them finding their depth in the sea of magic which underpins the novel's London. Paul Cornell's worldbuilding is as dependent upon London mythology - specifically that of West Ham United Football Club - as it is on the culture of the Metropolitan Police, and it's an author's right and perhaps also obligation to refashion and add to both as necessary. If footballers start exploding, be afraid.

London Falling features concerns familiar from Paul's earlier work, but demonstrates a more mature understanding. There's a stronger grasp of how the historical process shapes mythology; the reader is (gently and then pointedly) asked to consider what this does to the identity of a person who lives for a very long time, feeding from an ever-changing society from the margins. Concepts less than half a century old, such as the Hammersmith and City Line and a Greater London of thirty-three boroughs, are ritually invoked in the name of tradition. His police protagonists ask questions about their own understanding of themselves as well as the organised crime case which brings the Sight (second and more) to them, but they are rationalists throughout, two characters in particular laying emphasis in different ways on the application of the scientific method to the supposedly irrational. There are preoccupations about intimidation, particularly school bullying and 'discipline' among criminals, but also how accent expresses not only locality and social class but also tribalism and individual or collective self-respect and self-loathing.

This is self-consciously the first novel in a series. Several important threads belong to a wider arc. The conclusion to the main plot, though satisfying, horrific but true to the characters concerned, reveals a larger mystery; and the epilogue opens a long barrow of backstory. The origins of what the back cover blurb calls the Shadow Police novels are traced in the author's afterword to a television series proposal put together under the auspices of Steven Moffat and Sue and Beryl Vertue, and there are times when one really wants to see what actors would make of the protagonists. There's a viscerality to this magical underworld which leaves the mind's camera foaming with blood and dollying precariously over bridges of soil. Watch out, also, for a very personable cat.

London Falling is a confident book, one of those adventure stories with some thought. There's a conjuring trick underway for most of the book hidden in plain sight which is achieved with some force. Only occasionally is there anxiety that characterisation has been compromised by the need to make authorial preoccupations too concrete. Resolution is achieved, but not closure; there are boxes still to open, darknesses to be charted, and diminutive entities to be punched against the wall of the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Quill, Ross, Sefton and Costain deserve their chance.

London Falling by Paul Cornell is published in the UK by Tor at a RRP of £12.99.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Children of the Stones

I missed Children of the Stones when it was first broadcast, and only caught up with it about twelve years ago. That occasion was enabled by a domestic television in a medium-sized university lecture room, the province of a cult television society who cheered at every appearance of the HTV West animation. This one was served by a projection screen in the back room of a terraced house, which made the viewing much more immersive and played to the serial's claustrophobic nature.

As most British television enthusiasts of a certain vintage could recount, whether or not they had actually seen Children of the Stones, the serial recognises the stipulation that ITV franchise holders had to make programmes which reflected or represented their region. Executive producer Peter Graham Scott and producer-director Patrick Dromgoole pursued it to limits probably undreamed of by the Independent Broadcasting Authority. For seven weeks at the start of 1977, viewers of ITV children's television were given a fictionalised tour of the Wiltshire village of Avebury - here reinvented as Milbury - its stone circle and the mythology surrounding them. Woven in with the factual material, including several historical instances relating to the stones and authentic archaeological detail, were a plot inspired by contemporary speculations about astral science known to prehistoric humanity and lost to recorded history, and drawing on astronomy and astrophysics.

The plot advances slowly, but inevitably, as if a wheel is being turned tightening a snare. Young Matthew (Matt) Brake (played by Peter Demin) accompanies his father, Professor Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas, a year before Blake's 7), to Milbury, where Professor Brake intends to complete his research into magnetic fields associated with Milbury's stone circle. Almost immediately apparent is the division of the population into recent arrivals and longer-established 'Happy Ones', who hail each other with the words 'Happy Day'. As described in dialogue, it's more like a password than a greeting. Adam Brake, who is widowed, is attracted to another recent arrival, Margaret Smythe (Veronica Strong), who runs the archaeological museum. Matt finds a near soulmate in her daughter Sandra (Katharine Levy). A looming and ambivalent presence is the lord of the manor, retired astrophysicist Raphael Hendrick (Ian Cuthbertson); his counterpart, skulking on the fringe of the village, is Welsh poacher Dai (Freddie Jones).

The serial's imagery establishes early on that Milbury is a trap. Matt first meets Dai while riding a bicycle which is actually Hendrick's property; he crashes and damages the bicycle's front wheel. Later, Matt rescues a rabbit from Dai's snare (itself positioned by a stone) and replaces it with a drawing of the broken bike, both a message and a symbol of the predicament Matt is only beginning to recognise. Once Matt has established the correspondences between the network of ley lines converging on the village through the stones, his father's magnetic fields and the astronomical feature at which the stones appear to be pointing, then characters and viewer feel bound within a psychically electrified net.

In their different ways both Adam and Matthew are sensitive to the powers concentrated in the stones. On touching the stones, both experience visions before being rendered unconscious, but Matt also manifests telepathic powers associated with items of clothing, adding useful insight into what happens when newcomers to the village are invited to dinner at Hendrick's house. Neither of the Brakes succumb to irrationality. Even when captured through apparently paranormal means in episode six, Adam Brake calmly lays before Hendrick his hypotheses about having missed a "time turning" which would return Adam and Matt to "our present" before Hendrick as a fellow man of science. He leaves Hendrick to condemn himself by admitting that he exercises powers which he does not fully understand. Adam and Matt both strive to comprehend their situation before they act.

Like most other television fiction of the day, exterior scenes were shot on location, on film, while interiors were recorded in studio on videotape. Children of the Stones's location filming took place in the hot summer of 1976, and in some scenes the grass on the fields of Avebury is noticeably yellow. This is turned to advantage by the cinematography, especially in the scene at the end of episode three where Jimmo Browning, classmate of Matt and Sandra, unexpectedly takes a prominent role in a morris dance. There is something barren about the rural rituals upon which Hendrick smiles with appropriated patriarchal feeling. Though the integration of sound and image is of a high standard throughout, it's particularly powerful during the filmed sequences, which include those of the villagers standing in a circle singing the tonal hymn (the pervasively characteristic element of Sidney Sager's precise and haunting score) which provides incidental music even when it seems not to be part of the linear narrative. The line between diegesis and extradiegetic commentary is pointedly blurred.

Several important scenes early in the serial are set in the village school, a one-classroom affair of wood-panelled walls where children of all ages are taught advanced mathematics by tweed-skirted Miss Clegg (sometime Forsyte Saga heroine June Barrie). Those who perform the calculations with ease sit together on the High Table, implicitly working as a collective. Those who do not sit as individuals, like dunces, struggling to understand the equations Miss Clegg chalks out on her blackboard. At this viewing, the mathematician in the room described one equation, which served to show the transformation of Jimmo from slow learner to mathematical genius, as gibberish; but as this equation was inscribed by the actor playing Jimmo, one hopes that scientific adviser Peter Williams provided astrophysical in-jokes at least for the others.

Theme and execution have brought comments over the years that Children of the Stones is too disturbing for children's viewing. This was supposedly the view of an executive at HTV when the serial's concept was first pitched. However, its central premise is one familiar to many children, the unease which new children feel at school when facing a different set of cultural norms to those which they are accustomed. Making friends with other recent arrivals is an obvious strategy, but as they are assimilated one by one, picking up the incomprehensible local mannerisms and jargon, what happens when only you are left? The pressure to conform to the rules of the herd manifests itself as the beam of light which the viewers see burn negativity and autonomy away from Margaret and Sandra, just as a schoolchild might feel their attitudes and personality changed by interactions with new people in a new setting. Though Matt feels his psychic connection with Sandra broken as she becomes a 'Happy One', Sandra and Margaret do not become strangers to the viewers, who see them discussing the effects of the change on their mood and abilities, Sandra thereafter finding the calculations performed at school easy. In an unnerving exchange Katharine Levy's performance becomes much more mature and self-possessed, Sandra appearing preternaturally knowing in front of the now isolated Matt. Seeing Sandra and Margaret bask in their transformations is more chilling than making their changed personalities unknowable: one can believe, as Sandra says to Matt, that the villagers "will see you soon" and that there will be no escape.

The serial's atmosphere is reinforced by its reluctance to provide anything except a working hypothesis as an answer to its questions, underlined by the viewer being left with more information than its rationalist protagonists. The Roadline lorry which disappears as it turns a corner to enter the village in episode one is never seen again, perhaps the clearest indication - but only an indication - that there is a 'linear time' Milbury which luckier travellers might enter. The most enigmatic character is not Raphael Hendrick, but John Woodnutt as Link. He only appears in the final three episodes and to the Brakes appears only to be Hendrick's butler; but while a subordinate in the household, he is at least a partner in Hendrick's scheme, and possibly even the puppetmaster, disappearing into a control cubicle to operate astronomical technology while Hendrick plays the part of High Priest as part of his recruitment ritual. At the conclusion, as the time cycle restarts and Sir Joshua Lytton arrives to take possession of the house that had and had not been Hendrick's, Link appears again, but with dark hair and a moustache and in the character of an estate or land agent.

Children of the Stones advertises its sources. Entirely fictional finds are combined in Milbury's museum with those drawn from the archaeological digs of Alexander Keiller and others at Avebury. Though the production team added many of their own polystyrene 'stones' to the circle, the title sequence advertises in word and image that Milbury-Avebury is a real and dramatic part of the Wiltshire landscape. Some details are conflated - the Sanctuary of Children of the Stones is (as far as its exterior is concerned) West Kennett Long Barrow, not the real Sanctuary of the Avebury complex, south of the village by the A4 - but this does not compromise the story's imaginative response to a landscape of lost ritual. It also draws from the countercultural currents of the period, when speculation that the 'lost' knowledge of ancient civilizations might be rediscovered was rife, when extrasensory perception was a well-publicised subject of scientific study, and the ancient stone circles of the British Isles were adopted as places of worship by the emerging New Age movement. The association of the stone circle with cyclical time united both interest in the possibility that stone circles were observatories or astronomical timepieces (one drawn on explicitly by the script) and western fascination with the Buddhist bhavacakra.

The row of books in the Brakes' cottage includes at least one contemporary magical text, Elizabeth St George's The Casebook of a Working Occultist (Rigel Press, London, 1973). St George - otherwise Sandra West - was an active magical practitioner in the late twentieth century who died in 2007. Her semi-fictionalised, quasi-Sherlockian account of past projects includes an overlap with the world of fantasy television when she summons the 'thought-form' of Star Trek's Mr Spock to aid the rescue of Apollo 13 in 1970, having earlier rejected Doctor Who - 'an old man in a frock coat' - as inappropriate. If the book has any more significance than someone's idea of witty set-dressing, it's the last chapter which has relevance for Children of the Stones. There, the narrator confronts the guardian spirit of a long barrow. It's possible that this figure provided some inspiration for Dai in his role as guardian of the Sanctuary against Hendrick and the Happy Ones and against the time cycle, though ultimately it is the barrow itself, rather than Dai, which offers protection.

The conflation of archaeology, magic and knowledge of ancient or non-western civilizations marks Children of the Stones out as a late-postwar British work. Hendrick's wish to bring together the fifty-three villagers as one happy family, with himself as patriarch, can be read in terms of both imperialist and social democratic ideals, if one is so minded. Stewart Lee, in BBC Radio 4's Happy Days: Children of the Stones, has commented that revisiting the series as an adult makes him much more sympathetic to Hendrick's world view in that Hendrick wishes to take away the suffering of others by making a sacrifice of himself. However, the society which results is one where there is only one imagination left and only its posessor has any real capacity to learn. The era of the Happy Ones might seem to be that of the ultimate welfare state - the extraction of 'negative energy' has removed even ill health, as the unprocessed Dr Lyle comments - but this social security rests on disempowerment rather than democracy. To be a little more tendentious, it's tempting to imagine that for the career freelancers who wrote Children of the Stones, actor-writers Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, the overthrow of Hendrick by the Brakes might have symbolised a rebellion against corporate culture in government and business with which they identified. The Brakes' inability to save Margaret and Sandra from being turned to stone demonstrates both the limits of the gesture and attempts at a less general reading.

Children of the Stones is carved from stratum upon stratum of apprehension, a psychogeology of fears. So much of the drama takes place in blazing sunshine or under the open sky of a summer night, or in well-lit sets which stress mundanity over mystery, but this only emphasises how in Milbury the strange permeates every person, every stone (almost a tautology). The story is told deliberately between visual images which haunt and arrest, sometimes marrying film and video techniques in a fashion which is a reminder of how common a union this was in the 1970s. The viewer is left considerably less sanguine about the naturalism of television storytelling. Just as Adam and Matt Brake leave Milbury desperate for the tangible reality of the sandwich after their experiences with the uncanny, Children of the Stones itself encourages doubts about its reliability as a witness. The production's voice is closer to Hendrick's than to that of the Brakes, because it feigns not to understand itself and leaves the viewer to answer questions. Children of the Stones continues to preoccupy viewers long after most of the fare which surrounded it has been forgotten, as demonstrated by its internet following, the recent radio documentary, and the series' continued presence on Network DVD's catalogue and its role as a gateway (through a bonus disc) into HTV's other ventures into the fantastic from the period.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Recent activities

Long time, no post; so here is a summary of my recent activities.

Throughout this year I've been undertaking freelance editing work proofchecking the translations of print works to annotated online texts for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, published by Oxford University Press. The site was launched in September and is a powerful addition to OUP's arsenal of online educational publications. To quote the site itself, "The launch content (as at September 2012) includes the complete text of more than 170 scholarly editions of material written between 1485 and 1660, including all of Shakespeare’s plays and the poetry of John Donne." More is to follow in 2013, including authors such as John Milton and John Locke.

Work on The History of Oxford University Press, volume one, to 1780, is well advanced, and that should be seeing print next year, including three chapters by me. My old ODNB colleague Professor Ian Gadd of Bath Spa University is the volume editor and he has spent much of the last few years shepherding the words of different contributors into one work, which should do much for understanding of the early history of scholarly publishing in England as well as the book trade as a whole.

The first Doctor Who DVD to which I have contributed production information subtitles, Planet of Giants, was released in August. I'm glad that the work everyone involved has done to make this 1964 story a release of such high technical, informational and dramatic quality has been so well received, particularly given the marginal nature of the story to most histories of the programme and its defiance of the historical/science fiction dichotomy traditionally imposed upon the series' first three years. I set out with my notes to build on what was already known about the debt Louis Marks's script owed to Rachel Carson's book warning of imminent ecological catastrophe, Silent Spring, relating it to other ecological stories, as well as highlight the achievements of the production team in designing a story in two scales, with our miniaturised heroes clambering over giant telephone handsets and threatened by giant flies and a cat whose curiosity would have been fatal were it not for ruthless editing to curtail the story's length.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Best of Men

My review of The Best of Men by Lucy Gannon (BBC Two, 16 August 2012) has just gone live at Reviews in Time and Space. The one scene which I really liked, which set off a lot of the ideas in the review, and which I somehow neglected to mention is the VE Day party, where Wyn Bowen (Rob Brydon) appears as Britannia, but after the joke is over removes his Union Jack outfit and the fake breasts under it and contemplates a self he regards (like the obnoxious Cowan) as disenpatriated, disgendered. Furthermore, the scheduling of this piece on BBC Two rather than BBC One might suggest that the acceptance of the disabled as part of society has a little way yet to travel.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Split Screen: Poetry Inspired by Film and Television

Edited by Andy Jackson. Stannington: Red Squirrel Press, 2012. £6.99

As the new accessions shelf (where I found this volume) at the Newcastle Lit and Phil made clear, poetry is the realm of the small publisher; and from Northumberland, Red Squirrel Press bids to reign. Though it defines itself largely as a fiction publisher, its drey includes a flourishing nest of poets.

It has been a long time since I was any sort of poetry reader, but I was drawn in by the subject matter of this anthology. Split Screen: Poetry Inspired by Film and Television reflects the experiences of the viewing generations of recent decades, when professional promotion and performance were brought into the domestic environment on a scale never before possible.

The emphasis in this collection is on the specific and personal rather than the general, albeit appealing to an expectation of shared individual experience. Ian McMillan's musings on the influence exerted on a developing sexuality by Diana Rigg's Emma Peel (in The Avengers) doesn't break new ground ('There'll be a cloudburst soon...'), but relies (as one former television writer-producer once said) on cliches being cliches because they work. Less sure-footed is Alan Buckley's 'Walmington-on-Sea', which in its interpretation of Dad's Army as 'the old England, where each man / must know his place' obscures Jimmy Perry and David Croft's deft observations about interwar social mobility and the limits of hierarchy.

Other voices ring more sure: Liane Strauss's 'The Dark Days are Done' weighs audience expectations of Italy alongside those which shaped The Godfather's Corleone family, and sees Sonny Corleone's death as that of an Icarus born from the Medici. It's twinned with Luke Wright's mordantly concise study of Michael Corleone's character development, 'Godfather'. Where these poems about cinema engage with their films as texts, it's those on television personalities which make the case for the box in the corner as maker of the most enduring myths: Paul McGrane's 'And the doctor says' adopts Tommy Cooper's sense of rhythm to turn the story of his televised death on stage into a routine, though the reader is left to imagine what conjurer's props would be most appropriate. Angela Topping's 'Doctor Love' claims Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who as a sex symbol for adolescent girls and as a model for teenage rebels, even as the poet's maturation causes her to leave the Doctor behind. There was, as Naomi Woddis's 'Always Ours' argues through the career of Diana Dors, always a pragmatic end to British postwar fantasies.

This is a collection about time and place and personhood, and in closing with 'The White Dot' by Andrew Philip, it suggests that the age of the LCD and plasma screen and multiple channels is a death of sorts. When television closed down, when the device itself had to be switched off, it died and was brought back to life the next day. In an age of perpetual standby and twenty-four hour broadcasting, it is still not simply a machine, but instead undead, drawing greater and greater masses into communication with it. The old order mourned in much of this volume is lost in a depersonalisation as sure as that felt by the last survivor in some televised conflict. The contemporary hero of these poems is perhaps Jude Marr's Meerkat - but the choice between that of 'blood and sand realities' or the comforting comic figure advertising insurance is for the reader.

The night editor

It's in the nature of freelance work that it doesn't necessarily respond well to being penned into the working day. This editor has been kept awake by the knowledge that he is tantalisingly close to completing a range of bibliographic data for a forthcoming online project. The work can be time-consuming and sometimes involves buttressing the foundations of scholarly publications compiled in eras which allowed a more relaxed attitude to referencing than is now acceptable. It's at this point that the remote researcher falls back on online catalogues and has cause to thank the unsung heroes behind them. Such a resource is the agglomerated catalogue of seventy major libraries in Britain and Ireland, Copac. Its interface has recently been redesigned with a softer colourscheme and a more user-friendly layout which provides more information than was previously available on the old search results screen. The links to the holdings of individual libraries are an especially welcome feature of a redesign which probably reduces the number of clicks most visitors need to make on their mouse or touchpad.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Eric Sykes 1923-2012

A few years ago, I heard of a successful young stand-up comedian who had become baffled when conversation turned to great figures in the British comedic tradition. Who, they asked, was Eric Sykes? For someone who grew up with the television of the 1970s, this response revealed how time and changes in fashion had pushed Sykes to the margins of public consciousness during the 1980s and after. The confused early press reports of his death refer to his deafness of 'later life' - in reality, most of his life was spent profoundly deaf - and emphasise his role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, as if this is all a readership would be able to remember. Indeed, in later years Sykes was known for materialising in unexpected places, whether as one of the mysterious new servants in The Others, or as a solicitor in an episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot. Part of his power in his later career was talismanic, a figure from an earlier and perhaps more straightforward time whose appearances authenticated the works of a later entertainment age. The combination of evident strength of character and physical frailty was startling, as if performance alone kept Eric Sykes alive.

This wasn't the case. A BBC television documentary several years ago depicted Eric Sykes on the golf course and poring over documents with the help of magnification and computer screens, guarding his business interests carefully but avuncularly with the help of the formidable Norma Farnes, in what was still then 'The Office of Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes' in Orme Place on the borders of Bayswater and Notting Hill in west London. This was one of the fragments of the old Associated London Scripts, and with Eric Sykes's death another link to the heyday of that creative collective and agency has gone.

I'm too young to have seen Sykes and a..., but I watched its successor Sykes as a child, and recognised something funny in it even if I couldn't quite say what it was at the time. I've seen very little of it since, but in my mind the humour of Sykes had an openness of possibility to it, the consequences of Eric's ideas could be imagined playing out in wider society even if we didn't see them do so. There's also a determined ordinariness to the setting of Sykes; aspiration tends to be personal and while not without material objectives, these are often couched in terms which have more to do with inner personal obession and self-assurance of identity than wealth. There's a recognition that most people make their way through common frustrations. Eric and sister Hattie dwell in a sort of claustrophobic contentment, where everyday privations are reassurance that one still exists. Sykes is idiosyncratic, but it's for that reason it has something to say about a post-war suburban Britain of moderate incomes and ill-articulated expectations.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Adventures of Robin Hood 1.1-4 (1955)

A few years ago I watched the Michael Eaton BBC/HBO telefilm Fellow Traveller. At times langorously reflective but at others nailbitingly pensive, it starred Ron Silver as Asa Kaufmann, a blacklisted Hollywood writer working in 1950s Britain on a film adventure series for television, patently Sapphire Films‘s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960). I’d not seen very much of The Adventures of Robin Hood itself, bar catching the odd episode on satellite channel Bravo in its ITC back catalogue phase, but watched the first four episodes last night. All were written or co-written by Eric Heath, a pseudonym for Ring Lardner Jr., one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ sacked from their studio positions in 1947 following their refusal to confirm or deny their present or sometime membership of the Communist Party before the House (of Representatives) Un-American Activities Committee.

Richard Greene is a reliable Robin, somewhat heavy-set by the standards of Flynn, Praed, Connery (J.) or Armstrong, but this physical solidity is used to underscore his moral integrity. Found sick by a pilgrim at the gates of Jerusalem, and nursed back to health before returning to Nottinghamshire to claim his estate, this knight back from the dead is sick of killing, but finds himself in an England where he is told by an ailing old retainer that the law has been reduced to the rule kill or be killed. Robin’s enemies are killed only when they attack, or die when their own plans turn against them. The centre of villainy is the Sheriff of Nottingham, played with calculated coldness by Alan Wheatley, but more often than not Robin and his outlaw band fight his faceless, helmeted soldiers. Presumably they can be discounted as collaborators, who have surrendered their humanity to become automata in the service of the Norman lords, or adopted their materialist value system.

Robin is egalitarian: he wants to wait his turn when told he can jump the queue and see the Sheriff, after first having been told to wait in line by a jobsworth clerk who thinks returning soldiers expect preferential treatment, which must have elicited nods of identification from many viewers. He abandons his aristocratic identity when among the outlaws in Sherwood and claims no automatic authority. On robbing the moneylender Herbert of Doncaster, Robin and his aide of the first two episodes, Alfie Bass as Edgar, carefully go through Herbert's accounts to return excessive interest payments to poor villagers. Robin rises to succeed Will Scathlock as leader of the Sherwood outlaws on grounds of intelligence and the inspiration of his redistributivist, compassionate message. It is not for nothing that at Scathlock's death Robin breaks the outlaw chief's sword and places the stump of the blade and its hilt on his chest as a funeral cross, and Robin's friar's outfit in 'Friar Tuck' is perhaps not just a disguise.

The world of the Sapphire Robin Hood is on first acquaintance a masculine one, where women are motherly figures or else sycophantic adornments. This changes with the third episode, which includes a brief glance of Marion and establishes that she has turned down all proposals of marriage, most of them from the Sheriff, as well as introduces the semi-regular character of Joan, barmaid at the Blue Boar Inn where the enforcers of the regime loosen their tongues. The first female guest star in the episode is the Countess of Bedford, who exists to demonstrate aristocratic decadence and the racialism of her husband the Earl of Bedford, who disparages his wife (who resists his caresses) as a ‘Latin’. While attempting to co-opt Little John's physical vigour in the service of his own feeble sexuality, the Earl justifies his treatment of Little John as a chattel by boasting of Norman intellectual superiority to Saxon stock, in a scene with echoes of the American slave market as well as the racial policies of the Third Reich. Strong stuff, perhaps, for a series broadcast by a US network as well as by ITV in the UK, even if it was innocuously placed in early-evening children‘s/family viewing. Uncomplicated stories of good and evil they may be, as The Times remembered on Richard Greene's death, but it is these political notes which sound the series’ moral chorus.

There is fun recognising actors in guest roles. Leo McKern appears in two different parts in two consecutive episodes, one a rapacious but self-satisfied Norman lord who has stolen Robin's estate, the other the cruel but bumbling moneylender Herbert. This is nothing given the doubling-up by other performers within the same episodes, with some actors appearing among the outlaws and the Sheriff’s men almost simultaneously. Leslie Phillips appears in the fourth episode, ‘Friar Tuck’, as the curiously-named Sir William of Malmesbury - approximately anticipating the 'Geoffrey of Monmouth' of the latterday BBC/Shine Merlin. Phillips makes the most of his role as a young member of the foppish ruling elite whose passion for his intended bride, Mildred, runs less deep than hers for her blacksmith lover. The intended bride herself is introduced in jerkin and hose and knocks Robin out with a bottle, mistaking her protector Friar Tuck's satisfaction with his credentials.

Robin awakes to find Mildred changing into feminine attire, represented first by the camera focusing on her hose-clad hips as she removes the jerkin, and then her calf being revealed from beneath her stocking as a frilled petticoat falls to cover it. Richard Greene's face expresses the alarm of a serious adolescent who doesn't want to acknowledge the existence of that, and he pretends to be asleep. Sadly with her masculine outfit goes Mildred's assertiveness and she has some particularly fragile dialogue. Nevertheless after nearly fifty-seven years the first few episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood remain spirited entertainment on their own terms as well as capsules of the preoccupations of North Atlantic popular culture in the 1950s.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Reflecting the nation: the BBC and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee

Kilometres of space have rolled from presses and tumbled across screens in the past few days expressing criticism of the BBC's reporting of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, with particular opprobrium being reserved for its coverage of the Thames Pageant. Initially this household watched the BBC's programme, but soon turned to Sky News. While the BBC had more vantage points and more presenters than Sky News, the latter concentrated on describing the pageant and seemed better informed, with substantial thanks to the presence throughout of Alastair Bruce, whose multiple personas as soldier, historian, herald and broadcaster were thoroughly utilised during the entire weekend. The BBC instead regularly cut away from the pageant to the antics of their own presenters on shore or on their own boats, whether Angelica Bell meeting newborn 'Jubilee babies' and their parents in hospital, Anneka Rice doing something forgettable by the side of the river, Sandi Toksvig and Griff Rhys Jones looking puzzled as they interviewed guests and sheltered from the rain below deck, or (worst of all) principal anchors-away Matt Baker and Sophie Raworth sinking rapidly under a weight of conflicting expectations and watery instructions through their earpieces. Matt Baker, confident at the helm of Countryfile and The One Show, and one of the pillars of Blue Peter's now-passed third or fourth golden age of the 2000s, at least seemed conscious of his own inadequacy given how defensive his body language was.

The press have drawn upon the negative reactions to the coverage expressed on Twitter. At first it appeared that many of the critics weren't actually watching the BBC's coverage, as they mocked the supposed subservience of the people they expected and imagined to be leading the broadcast. However, their early targets, Huw Edwards and Nicholas Witchell, were barely glimpsed, despite a promise in the Radio Times - no longer published or licensed by the BBC, but still in the minds of many associated with them - that Huw Edwards would be the chief presenter of the BBC broadcast of the pageant. Instead much of the burden in the later part of the event fell to Chris Hollins, battling with rain and spray on a boat, who at least managed to describe what he saw competently, but athletics commentator and sometime Olympian Paul Dickenson was evidently thrown his hammer too far, and demonstrated no grasp of the symbolism offered by the different vessels and their roles in the event, nor the way the pageant related them to the existing furniture of the river landscape.

Some interests connected with particular vessels, led to believe that their effort was to be broadcast as part of a national expression of thanks to Elizabeth II, appear to feel cheated. The Guardian reports that the BBC coverage ignored the special compositions for the event performed on thirteen 'music barges', leading to outrage from composer Orlando Gough. I had the impression that Sky woke late to the presence of these barges too. Somewhere communications had been lost between the organisers and the broadcasters, with their conceptions of the event not overlapping as well as they might in the case of Sky, and barely touching in the case of the BBC.

Other media outlets have been crowing at the apparent absence of BBC management from the airwaves, presses and net cables as the reign of Elizabeth II seemingly gives way to that of the public broadcaster's critics. Gillian Reynolds, doyenne of broadcasting journalists, drew attention to the inadequacies of jubilee reporting when taking part in a discussion on Radio 4's Today programme, including Richard Bacon's alleged dismissal of the thanksgiving service, in his Radio 5 Live commentary, as "a bit stiff". In response Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4 and now master of St Peter's College, Oxford, defended what he thought was an attempt to be "informal and to use the modern idiom inclusive". Presenter Evan Davis seemed to miss the point as well, suggesting to Gillian Reynolds that she wanted every royal event covered by a Dimbleby, as if only members of a particular family were capable of communicating certain details to the public, and confusing contextualisation and information with tone and mood.

I only saw the end of the thanksgiving service on television, and have not heard Radio 5 Live's coverage, but didn't think what I saw of the service "stiff". Indeed, the relaxed post-party poses of the young senior royals in the front row would not have been imaginable twenty years ago, and Rowan Williams's archiepiscopal sermon was straining with some success to mix warmth with the inevitable formality of the setting. So I don't know whether the broadcasters put the thanksgiving service into context as part of a history of such services at St Paul's to mark public occasions, such as the several thanksgivings to mark victories in the War of the Spanish Succession during the reign of Queen Anne, or that in 1715 to mark George I's survival on the British throne after the defeat of the Jacobite rising that year, or those which followed later military victories and indeed the recovery of George III from insanity in 1789; or indeed that such services can still be controversial, leading to the designation of the 2009 service to mark the end of British military operations in Iraq as one of memorial rather than of thanksgiving. During the Thames pageant on Sunday comparisons with the river pageant with which Charles II welcomed his queen Catherine of Braganza in 1662, and 'that painting by Canaletto' were repeated, but opportunities for exploring the comparison were few and fewer were taken, beyond reminders that Canaletto's painting depicted London civic pageantry and not a royal event. Had I been wearing my royal historian hat and pressed into broadcasting service, I'd have wanted to contrast Charles II's pageant with this Sunday's one, emphasising the need for Charles II to depict the strength of support for his recently-restored monarchy to the Portuguese, as well as show respect to the Braganzas as a fellow-reigning house at a time when many European monarchies regarded that dynasty as only enjoying squatters' rights in a Lisbon where the more powerful Spanish Habsburgs insisted they should be reigning.

My perspective on these events is perhaps unusual. There is a direct line from my experience of the Silver Jubilee of 1977, to my undertaking a doctoral thesis on the eighteenth-century royal family in the 1990s. The relics which I have from 1977 suggest to me that it celebrated the House of Windsor as crowning a social democracy where old hierarchies of heredity sat alongside new ones of education and expertise, each validating the other; and it was probably a similar impression that made 'kings and queens' a childhood enthusiasm. Looking through the broadcasting schedules for the era, the Jubilee was a celebration of the generations which had fought the Second World War, in which Princess Elizabeth had herself ended the war a commissioned officer, which apparently has left her a dab hand with a car engine. Entertainers such as Arthur Askey were prominent. The interpretation of the 1981 royal wedding as a 'Thatcherite' event, much retailed by commentators last year during media coverage of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, has never satisfied me; the Thatcherism of the late 1980s did not emerge fully-formed at the start of her ministry and the event seemed much more an attempt to perpetuate certain symbols of the early post-war consensus into the succeeding decade, with little understanding of the chief actors in the drama nor the surrounding context. My research into eighteenth-century royalty was inevitably coloured by perspectives formed in childhood and was probably at some level an exploration of them, though principally an attempt to show how the British ruling elite dealt with the emergence of a large 'family on the throne' for the first time since the Plantagenet and post-Plantagenet royal kindred of the later middle ages and early modern period; and while this might seem an odd comparison, there were many in the eighteenth century who would not have found it so and warned darkly of intra-dynastic warfare.

This background of childhood passions and academic interest means that I don't share the assumptions of the BBC's producers, if one can indeed infer them from the Diamond Jubilee broadcasts. If Mark Damazer's assumptions are right, then the emphasis on playing games with the crowds, or Fearne Cotton's notorious review of Jubilee merchandise with Paloma Faith, surely missed the point of why the crowds were there. To make them the focal point of coverage when they were there to watch and as spectators participate in the Thames pageant and Tuesday's carriage procession was to miscalculate and obscure the interrelationship of watchers and watched. (There were times when Sky News were just as bad as anything the BBC broadcast, given one Sky reporter's decision to attempt to conduct some royal-watchers she had corralled by the Mall in a chorus of God Save the Queen.) 'Inclusivity' belittled the experience of all participants, whatever their job descriptions. Interviews with crowd members on all channels worked when an attempt was made to reach a level of identification with them as members of the public, rather than as people to be belittled for wearing face paint.

The involvement of sport and leisure presenters on Sunday and the apparent dominance of general 'live events' specialists over news people during the Diamond Jubilee broadcasts suggests that the BBC, like other aeas of the political and media establishments, waylaid by the 'Jubilympics', the proximity of the Jubilee and the Olympics next to one another having led to preparations for the two events to merge and the Jubilee being treated by some bodies as a rehearsal for the Olympics rather than an event itself. This seems to be an unfortunate and mistaken consequence of the inevitable and necessary exploitation of synergies in an age of supposed public austerity. The controversy seems to have sparked keen reporting of BBC in-fighting relating to the succession to the director-generalship. This story is not finished yet.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Three Johnston relaunches, part two

The first part can be found here

Presenting Harrogate

There are recognisable local news priorities given good coverage across all three papers. The Harrogate Advertiser integrates stories about the Olympics well, including a routine story of police transfers from North Yorkshire to London for the games. Its Diamond Jubilee coverage, too, blends together experienced presentation of reports from village correspondents, listings and short features on particular events and local history features drawing on the photographic archive to leave this reader assured that the Harrogate Advertiser knew how to synthesise a common sense of what the Jubilee meant to its coverage area from disparate events and agendas, essential for a publication such as this where its personality needs to appeal to as much of the area as possible. There is solid crime and court reporting too, with a lead court story about a child rapist on page 7 and a double-spread of mid- and minor-ranking reports on pages 22 and 23. There is a 'School of the Month' with photographs of several classes and teachers from Brackenfield School (but where precisely is it?), prominently labelled with reference numbers; one hopes photographic sales have done good business. The byline for the school's headteacher, who wrote the piece, is almost misleadingly small, and I couldn't find any mention of it being an independent school. There was no advert or contact details so it wasn't blatantly advertorial.

The editorial-advertising balance is good and juxtaposition of advertisers and stories appropriate without being obvious. An antique jeweller props up the main nostalgia story, page 5. On the three court news pages bed retailer Dreams dominate, as if to reassure readers that they will not be murdered in their sleep. Dreams have also taken two business pages - 56 and 57 - but editorial does its best to show this is not a commentary on North Yorkshire's economy. On page 6 a story under the 'Bizarre' tagline (which I regret - far better for the presentation to be matter-of-fact) concerning the forthcoming sale of a vampire-slaying kit at Tennants Auctioneers in Harrogate is diagonally alongside an advert for the Royal Bank of Scotland, while it appears that though Harrogate Phoenix Players can take you to the United States in song and dance, editorial suggests the most exotic place Leeds-Bradford Airport can send passengers is Glasgow. Were I the proprietor of the Monkey Bike Company of Harrogate, who have taken 80% of the left-hand side of page 54, I'd want urgent discussions with the paper as the resolution of the ad is very low and the e-mail and web addresses illegibly pixellated. The more obviously barely digested press releases are towards the centre of the paper, with a story apparently about the restoration of Allerton Castle, near Knaresborough, really emphasising that it's available to hire through events specialists Dine. The Johnston Press Jubilee supplement encountered in The Bucks Herald here appears in pull-out form wrapped around the central property section. Further back, entertainment section Weekend appeas a little lost and teething troubles are evident on pages 127 and 128 where listings appear in the wrong font. The Food and Drink double page manages some intrigue among the copy drawing attention to initiatives by local businesses, with the paper reporting it's been unable to identify the Harrogate restaurant for sale at the price of £1.25million - though locals might know better.

The sport pages manage very well in the new format - the template alows for several photographs of cricketers in action to be placed prominently alongside reports of matches, and team pictures of swimmers, rugby players and taekwondo students. The template allows for little advertising on the sport pages, with the Harrogate Advertiser sport section backed by a page mixing of entertainment, holiday and sport ads and a bar on the back page of dating, safetywear and windows, and the Northumberland Gazette attracting motoring display ads instead. The Bucks Herald goes for smaller car ads than the Gazette, with a solicitor advertising their conveyancing services too.

For Alnwick and the County - and Jessie J

The Northumberland Gazette is the northernmost of the three titles and the one with which I am most familiar. Its crowded broadsheet pages have given way to an elegant application of the Cases i Associats template, though this could do with more polishing. Sadly, the strong lead story about continuing delays in replacing Duchess High School in Alnwick with a new building appears in two different versions, with the front page version ending mid-sentence and a trailing caption 'For more see page 4', but the new story with which the reader is faced on page 4 doesn't pick up on the sentence about sport provision on the possible 'all ages learnng campus'. Likewise a story in the right-hand column about an Alnwick pensioner's flight to hospital in Newcastle is left unfinished. The last incarnation of the Gazette's Gothic masthead has been left behind with the broadsheet and a smart new serif logo adorns the new paper. Its effect is unfortunately compromised by a cut-out of Jessie J, with whom the Gazette and its stablemate the Morpeth Herald have shown some editorial preoccupation over the last few weeks since it was announced she would be performing at Alnwick Castle on 21 July. The Gazette are admittedly running a competition to win four tickets, and both this prize and the stay at Linden Hall (designed by my old acquaintance Sir Charles Monck, which adds to the approbation) are superior to The Bucks Herald's bacon butty or the Harrogate Advertiser's free sausages, which makes one wonder how prizes were sourced and where the budget was allocated.

The Gazette is strong on human interest. The threatened closure of Horsdonside sheltered housing scheme at Wooler is told through 86-year-old Sybil Straughan, and the story tells something of her marriage and children and lost world of Northumberland small railways and how she brings this lived experience to sustaining community life at Horsdonside. A pity, then, that a vital informational point, the name of the housing association who operate Horsdonside, is not mentioned. Almost the other end of the age scale is a picture of Alnwick's finalist at Miss Northumberland, Stephanie Grieve. It's a good third page let down by a question a sub-editor should have asked; and a story about lack of money for housing maintenance shares a page with an advert for Kitson Windows mocking unlikely offers. Another subbing error emerges on page 16, where a story headed 'Staying one step ahead of terrorism' would make more sense without the double dividing line above it which divides it from the report on RAF Boulmer's role in preventing terrorism above.

The Northumberland Gazette follows a different approach on page 2 to the other papers, going for the heading 'Happy Weekend' and mixing information with photographs. I'd have wanted to put Holy Island crossing times, something that visitors to the area are likely to buy a paper for, in a more prominent font. There are two photographs, of small boys at Alnmouth beach and of a cross in a mysterious location, by Gazette photographer Jane Coltman; the latter is the first of a series of 'Where is This...?' pictures where the answer is promised next week. Editor Paul Larkin introduces the new paper on the same page and urges readers to give their feedback 'through whichever channel you prefer - email, letter or telephone, through an online survey on our website, by popping into our Alnwick office or via social media like Twitter and Facebook'. As mentioned in the first part of this review, invitations to scan QR codes are plentiful in the Gazette, though not on a story on page 4 headed 'Revision - there's an app for that' about Northumberland schools' tie-up with course material provider GCSEPod.

The Gazette's unusual angle on the Olympics is the prospect of the Olympic Torch arriving in Alnwick on the 101st anniversary of the maiden voyage of the RMS Olympic, sister to the Titanic. The Olympic's lounge and other fittings were installed in the White Swan, Alnwick, following the break-up of the Olympic on Tyneside in 1935. Where the previous week's retrospective remembered a time when Gazette headlines concerned coal mining, tourism is prominent in the modern Gazette, with a caravan park and a spa on its site both winning awards for staff to display on page 14. There is no property pull-out in the Gazette, and so the centre pages given over to local jubilee listings and a summary of major events with an endorsement of communities' plans by MP Sir Alan Beith.

Where in the Harrogate Advertiser the leisure section was dominated by visiting performers, its equivalent section in the Northumberland Gazette has prominent stories about local artists Francesca Simpson, painter, tying in to Alnmouth Art Festival, and fabric-sculptor and painter Helen Cowans. With Simpson being pictured by the sea, another story noting an award given to a long-serving RNLI man from Craster, and the main story on the sport page being about a golf club and another concerning a charity run in Druridge Bay, there's a definite sense of the Northumberland Gazette's patch as a coastal community. Editor Paul Larkin even chooses to revive the restaurant review column with a review of The Joiner's Arms at Newton-by-the-Sea. Higher ground is represented by a story about dog agility champion Megan Young, who broke her arm while winning third place in a competition (though it's not clear from the text which one). There are livestock market listings, though, but no survey of the farming scene as appeared in Northumberland papers of thirty years ago; instead, emphasising the role of the paper as a leisure accessory, there is a column by a local vet about watching out for pancreatitis in dogs.

And the winner is..?

The Northumberland Gazette is probably my favourite of the three. Although I know its area better, that's not the only reason I find it brings its readership into focus most sharply of my sample. There are no pointless head-and-shoulders vox pops like the Harrogate Advertiser's one on the United Kingdom's continued participation in the Eurovision Song Contest here. It does seem to have fewer inappropriately-sized photographs (the bane of The Bucks Herald in particular) than the others, but is let down by errors in subbing. Nevertheless, it's friendlier than The Bucks Herald, whose business columnist urges Vale of Aylesbury businesses to engage with the battle for global supremacy rather than hide away like hobbits in Tolkien's Shire. In emphasising local creative talent over visiting performers in their events page the Gazette acknowledges that the visitors are probably in need of less publicity than locals and that it's the local events rather than the national and regional tours which need the local weekly press more, though they would not turn down their advertising.

These three examples of relaunched Johnston Press papers leave me with mixed impressions of the future of the local weekly press. The Bucks Herald seems most impatient to shepherd its readers online, though as yet the group's websites are still disappointing and there is an emphasis on the latest fashionable interfaces which doesn't leave one confident that the group has a clear internet strategy. Of the three titles, the Northumberland Gazette presently has 2781 Facebook likes and 1186 Twitter followers; the Harrogate Advertiser 81 Facebook likes and 3221 Twitter followers (being fronted online by a dog, Harrogate Hound, evidently has some benefits) and The Bucks Herald 447 Facebook likes and 2967 Twitter followers, though whether anyone can gather anything useful from these statistics is questionable. Urging readers to go online to access extra illustrations and longer reports is acceptable but if taken to extremes can leave one to feel shortchanged if the online edition isn't yet taking fullest advantage of the format, which is difficult when a company has as much debt as Johnston Press has. The internet might be the future but print is by no means dead. The newspapers need to be solid and distinctive products which serve their niche within the collective audience of what I gather we must now call the 'news brand'. The reader of the Northumberland Gazette who said on Facebook that there was no need to turn the paper into The Times might have a point if the new designs are widely felt to be more remote. In this age of communication, though, it is welcome that the relaunched papers all emphasise bylines and give portraits (in the case of the Gazette) and individual contact details across platforms for their staff; though given pressures on their time in these understaffed days this might be tempting fate.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Ponteland Diamond Jubilee Exhibition: Ponteland in Print

Ponteland has been commemorating the Diamond Jubilee weekend with an exhibition in the Memorial Hall where several local organisations are represented. These include the Ponteland Local History Society, whose panels include a section on Ponteland in Print. There's a reproduction of the front page and first editorial from the Ponteland Observer, as well as the enigmatic but apparently short-lived Ponteland Gazette of 1946, and a couple of Ponteland High School newspapers from my era, as well as several other publications including Ponteland Local History Society's own Pont Island News. The oldest newspaper on display, though, was Welle 69, typed in German as it was published by the German prisoners of war at Darras Hall POW camp. This later became a civil defence training establishment and was only closed and demolished in 1961; the display commemorating it commemorated some of the prisoners and later displaced persons who resided there in the 1940s.

Three Johnston relaunches, part one

The turmoil at Johnston Press continues to reignite my interest in newsprint. This week saw the first wave of redesigns within the company's stable of local newspapers, with most attention being devoted to the conversion of five daily titles to weekly ones. Several existing weeklies from different Johnston Press subsidiaries were redesigned too, with the three titles I picked up all apparently being moulded to the same template, one of five designed for Johnston Press by Cases i Associats.

The new looks are familiar ones. Cases i Associats designed The Independent titles, including the i, and headline, byline and text fonts in the three Johnston papers resemble those used or formerly used by the Lebedev stable. Both The Bucks Herald (Aylesbury, Premier Newspapers) and the Harrogate Advertiser (Harrogate, Ackrill Newspapers) run in their new compact formats to over a hundred pages, 152 in the first case and 180 in the second. Despite the editor of the Advertiser saying that research shows that readers prefer their papers in single sections, this reader finds his 200+ page Oxford Times (a Newsquest publication rather than Johnston) unwieldy and suggests that compact newspapers which reach that size follow the example of the Lincolnshire Echo which has become a multi-section newspaper. The final relaunched Johnston paper I've seen, the Northumberland Gazette (Alnwick, Northeast Press) reached a less weighty 64 pages.

Looking back...

I live on the western fringe of the Bucks Herald circulation area and picked up its last broadsheet issue last week; its look suggested a recent redesign with uncluttered broadsheet pages and white space. The Harrogate Advertiser seems from internet records of its front pages to have gone down a similar route, though I remember it having had a busier look in the not-too-distant past. The broadsheet Northumberland Gazette was a weekly of more traditional appearance, with a busy front page and births, marriages and deaths on page two. The last Gazette in its old format was little changed to my eye from its last major redesign in the early 1990s, save for evolutionary changes brought by changes in technology such as colour printing. Both The Bucks Herald and the Northumberland Gazette included commemorative features on their histories in their final broadsheet numbers, the Aylesbury paper emphasising headlines in the last thirty years as well as early history - though their front page claim that the black-and-white group photograph of Herald staff showed the founding team of 1832 was extremely unlikely on the grounds of the late Victorian fashion displayed, quite apart from the underdevelopment of photography in the early 1830s. The Gazette raced through the history of periodical publishing in Alnwick, recalling long-lost early nineteenth-century attempts before the establishment of the Alnwick Mercury, the oldest title in the Gazette family tree. A montage of headlines and profiles of editors suggested the Gazette's place in social, business and cultural history in mid- and north Northumberland. With both the Northumberland Gazette and The Bucks Herald, one did wonder if the opportunity to commemorate the paper's role was being taken now in case the banks baying around the Johnston Press campfire decide an end should come to them with no warning.

The Bucks Herald

The Bucks Herald was the first to reach its compact form, on Wednesday; the paper opted for an upbeat look forward to the Diamond Jubilee weekend with the headline 'We're going to party like it was 1952!' Turnovers include a special offer for a bacon butty and coffee at the Bell in Aylesbury - "one of our Fabulous five offers to celebrate the launch of your new Bucks Herald" - with the news story treated as a hook being 'Prisoners involved in hostage drama' on page 5 (though the story itself turns out to be small), and the lead sport story being the appointment of Craig Faulconbridge as player-manager of Aylesbury FC. Inside the paper page 2 becomes 'Your Week...' with a horizontal strap offering a cheery '5 things to do this week' above a 'Picture of the week' showing children from Brill brandishing the hobbyhorses they were to display during the village's jubilee celebrations. MP for Buckingham John Bercow greets the new Bucks Herald in his column 'Speakers' Corner'. Small print on the bottom right of the page promises readers that 'The court list and planning applications will return next week.'

There is some good use of pictures: page 3's lead, 'Phil protests against pricey parking permits', shows Conservative councillor Phil Yerby reflected in his rear view mirror clutching his torn-up Aylesbury Vale District Council parking permit, in a populist attack on councillors' free parking perk. The picture spreads on pages 18-19 and 24-25 largely speak for themselves though some demand reproduction at a larger size. Some individual images could be better-used too, such as the allegedly 'towering' jubilee cake being raffled layer-by-layer on page 9, but which appears little bigger than a postage stamp. On the other hand if readers have a tractor obsession the gallery of Geoff Jarvis's vintage farm machinery on page 27 is worth the 55p cover price. The impression of a team used to being able to make an impact with photographs on broadsheet spreads fighting on with grim determination in the face of an unforgivingly rigid new template.

There are a few other teething troubles - the 'Princes Risborough' subheading in the healthy 'Town & village news' section appears twice, the second time in the middle of a piece on a Jubilee street party, but this gives the impression of a paper with a good relationship with its village correspondents. A pity perhaps that they are shunted towards the back of the paper, next to the bland and generic Diamond Jubilee 'supplement', unsurprisingly similar to the one which appears in the Harrogate Advertiser. The appearance of the May edition of Going for Gold: Countdown to the Olympics within The Bucks Herald as well, placed before the central property section, leaves the centre of the paper something of a swamp, and it's unfortunate that this Olympic feature doesn't fit well in design terms with the rest of the paper, though it seems to have attracted plenty of advertising.

Ashley writes! Few QRs in Harrogate...

Of the three newspapers I've seen, The Bucks Herald is the only one to have a message from Johnston chief executive Ashley Highfield, leading the OpEd double spread (though its heading is 'Letters to the Editor' there is one from the editor to readers there too, as well as from his boss). Highfield promises 'more improvements to come including integration with Facebook and Twitter', remarks on his Buckinghamshire upbringing, and reiterates that he wants to keep the paper 'relevant and useful, across all media - print, web and mobile, and additionally bring in a new audience.' The Bucks Herald and the Northumberland Gazette are now both littered with QR codes throughout their pages. These promise maps of the Olympic torch relay, entry forms for local events, external website links (with the actual addresses buried unnoticeably in text) or - particularly in the case of the Northumberland Gazette - just 'more news' or an extended version of the paper's interview with local MP Sir Alan Beith.

The Harrogate Advertiser hasn't been as enthusiastic for QR codes, and where the Herald and the Gazette have gone for a headline font which is a relative of Bodoni, the Harrogate Advertiser and its close siblings in North and West Yorkshire - who also made the tabloid switch this week - have adopted a warmer kinsfont of Century. A similar but harder-edged font appears in the new masthead, which sensibly emphasises the locality over the noun in the paper's title. Readers are invited to study the 'Essential Guide' to the Jubilee weekend and are promised free sausages from Fodder, who have the advertisement across the foot of the page. The lead story is harder than that in The Bucks Herald, announcing the rebuilding of Harrogate High School; Canon-designate Revd Francis Wainaina gives his blessing to the new paper, of which he holds a dummy, in the front page photograph. Editor Jean MacQuarrie welcomes readers to the new Advertiser in the rightmost column, mentioning her Meet the Editor forum on publication day - early in the paper's shelf life - and attributing the change entirely to readers' requests and making no mention of Johnston Press or the need to adapt to the internet age. Like The Bucks Herald page 2 is given over to a contents-themed miscellany, with an opinion piece and two strong pictures, one large and well-positioned of the staff of Flying Colours flagmakers in Knaresborough anticipating the Diamond Jubilee weekend, and one smaller and less meaningful of pupils from Harrogate visiting Auschwitz. Both link to features later in the paper, and throughout the new-look Harrogate Advertiser makes better use of the new template in terms the balance between copy and communicative images, both editorial and advertising, than does The Bucks Herald.

Continued in part two!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Ponteland Observed - an afterword

Thank you to everybody who has commented on my posts on the history of the Ponteland Observer newspaper. "Almost certainly more interesting throughout than the actual paper" is a compliment it would be false modesty not to share! The journalism news site Hold the Front Page has a very positive write-up with a useful list of links to each instalment. Ponteland Local History Society have also been helpful and I hope to attend their Jubilee exhibition, which will include a section on Ponteland in Print, at the start of next month. I'd welcome further feedback on the paper and on the history of weekly newspapers in north-east England more generally.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Pickwoad Pictures; or, Uncle Monty's Stucco

I only learned on Monday that Michael Pickwoad (picture, left, from his interview at BAFTA's Guru site) was talking to the Friends of the Bodleian in Oxford on Tuesday lunchtime. Not only has Pickwoad's extensive career in film and television design led him through Withnail & I, Lost in Austen and The Queen's Sister among others to his current engagement as series designer for Doctor Who, but he displays a deep appreciation for historical architecture and construction methods, particularly those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To adopt an appropriate idiom, this seemed a fortuitous conjunction of my interests, so along to the Bodleian I strolled and took my seat in the Convocation House beyond the Divinity School. The venue was no stranger to location filming itself, and as was pointed out probably looks much as it did in the 1640s when Charles I held his counter-parliament there.

As his presentation revealed, several of the projects upon which Michael Pickwoad has been commissioned have led him to visit country and town houses in various states of preservation, and over the past thirty years he has been able to see the evolution of numerous buildings as well as contribute towards their development himself. A householder might request that the architraves which they insisted be removable should instead be made permanent, or the property company planning to turn a country house temporarily customised for a regency drama might demand that a temporary colonnade be retained as if it were an original feature.

Finding the right location can be an exhausting business. Working for the Children's Film Foundation, with low budgets, made Pickwoad used to being his own location manager; but even when with (slightly) more assistance on Withnail & I it still took several weeks of driving round the Lake District before Wet Sliddale Hall was found at the end of a road which became progressively less suitable for vehicles. Even then, the stucco facade on the house had to be plastered over and painted and the roof altered before it could assume the role of Uncle Monty's cottage. Locations demand sensitivity to the morality of the owners, too, sometimes necessitating arranging a window of time in another house for scenes to which the hosts object. Since first touring Oxford prison - long before it was converted into a hotel - for Let Him Have It, he has carried a profound awareness of the privilege of those at liberty and the isolation of the incarcerated. Reading gaol, used for an episode of Kavanagh QC, is proud of its association with Oscar Wilde, but it was there that cast and crew overstayed their welcome and were held for forty-five minutes while the prison count was taken.

The lecture was rich with reflected experience to which I couldn't do justice. Michael Pickwoad should be allowed loose with a coffee table book budget at some point to produce an illustrated memoir. Doctor Who was mentioned in passing, when Nostell Priory in Yorkshire was cited as the source for a twin-column design which Pickwoad adapted for use in Doctor Who. I asked how his observations on historic architecture fed into his work on more fantastical settings, such as those in the remade The Prisoner and Doctor Who. He replied that both these worlds, and especially the 'African Portmeirion' of The Prisoner, were dream worlds, and what are dreams but assemblages of images and ideas from life?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Ponteland Observed, part six

After the Observer’s departure, voluntary newspapers and newsletters continued to circulate in Ponteland in addition to established church magazines and party political bulletins. For several years from 1988, Ponteland’s two middle schools and one high school produced (by rotation) the Pont and Darras Post, into which the former Observer supplement HighLights was merged. The newsletter produced for several years by Ponteland Neighbourhood Watch attracted several correspondents and widened its interests beyond police matters. When this finished there were briefly two competing monthly newsletters, one a direct successor to the Neighbourhood Watch newsletter and another formally supported by the local authority with commercial involvement, and it is this, Pont News and Views, which survives at the time of writing. This glossy publication is mainly concerned with reports from Ponteland Town Council though it does contain listings from local societies, and it is available in pdf form online. There is also a Ponteland community website run by the local printer, in echoes of weeklies past . A news blog is associated with the site, though it seems largely to repeat news from other online sources.

This latter feature suggests that professional reporters have a continuing role in community life. The Journal’s website includes a Ponteland section, as it does for several other Northumberland towns. The Morpeth Herald website feeds content from the paper online throughout the week and this usually includes several Ponteland stories. Indeed, in the late 2000s (it may still continue) the Morpeth Herald experimented with an occasional tabloid Ponteland Herald, given away free at Ponteland library and presumably elsewhere, anthologising recent Ponteland content from the Morpeth Herald and invoking the memory of the Ponteland Observer. The Herald’s continued interest in Ponteland, despite the removal of the shared district council in 2009, is indicative of a continued appetite for local news. Ponteland has its stringers – one for the Morpeth Herald and one for the Hexham Courant – but has yet to produce its equivalent to Amble’s semi-professional newspaper and website The Ambler, although such an effort depends very much on the individuals concerned as well as the location of the population being served.

Nearly thirty years on from the launch of the Ponteland Observer, Ponteland is gently transformed. It has more restaurants and supermarkets, and like many other places fewer independent shops, though there is still a turnover. Its buses to Newcastle are less frequent, particularly in evenings where they are almost non-existent outside weekends. There are still many independent businesses based in Ponteland, and it’s less precious about its rural identity. Since 2009 and the introduction of a unitary authority for Northumberland, Ponteland's parish council has become a town council with a mayor, and in recent years the town has gained its own Civic Society.

A former newspaper editor and owner, Chris Oakley, pointed out in a recent speech (which can be found in full at journalism news site Hold the Front Page) that the recent round of consolidation in the large newspaper groups means that such large towns as Port Talbot and Long Eaton no longer have their own paper. Consolidation isn’t new: as a submission to an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament from a veteran of the Border press pointed out, it has been going on for decades as publishers sought to corner as much as they could of an advertising market which appeared to be in decline after the rise of ITV in the 1950s and 1960s. Centralisation of printing has a long heritage too: for decades the Northern Press’s titles were printed in South Shields before being sent out to Alnwick, Morpeth, Blyth, Ashington, Wallsend or Whitley Bay. Sharing of copy has been long-established as well. In the present pattern of the CN Group’s Hexham Courant and Johnston Press’s Berwick Advertiser, Northumberland Gazette, Morpeth Herald and News Post Leader, it could be argued that Northumberland has weekly newspapers more clearly distinct from each other than was usual in earlier decades.

However, the Northumberland papers have carried their share of cuts. Since 2009 the Gazette and the Herald have shared an editor, though the Herald maintains its own office in Morpeth with its own reporters. Though not as weighty as Northumberland’s biggest weekly, the Hexham Courant, the Herald staff produce an energetically readable title in full colour which maintains a high level of community involvement. Stories in the 26 April 2012 edition concerned a reprieve for another long-established Morpeth business, Appleby's Bookshop, an exhibition about proposed opencast coal mining at Widdrington Station, news that the mayor of Ponteland is so busy he can't have a summer holiday, and two pages of letters about traffic jams in Morpeth caused by a new set of lights. During the floods of 2008 the Herald took full advantage of the facilities their web template offers to upload video footage and news updates. The Gazette will be among the first wave of Johnston Press titles to be relaunched as a tabloid this year, and the Herald will presumably follow later in 2012. Whether or not the Johnston Press recovery programme succeeds – and a ‘five sizes fits all’ template model seems to this layman to build upon the unsteady foundations of the web platform, which doesn’t distinguish satisfactorily between the different needs of, for example, The Scotsman and the Newtownabbey Times – a way needs to be found to keep communities such as Ponteland represented and moderate the passage of information between businesses and individuals, whatever the platform.

One of the Oxford University entrance examination questions for history in the 1980s was “Are the British a nation? If so, what about the English, the Scots and the Welsh?” The answer (as least as far as one candidate was concerned) involved the idea that communities overlap; there are different communities at different levels and they need to be understood on their own terms. There seems to be little appreciation of this concept in the upper levels of some media companies; and while a lot of attention is paid to the success of Tindle Newspapers in appreciating the distinct needs of individual coverage areas they are only one firm. The Ponteland Observer demonstrates that hyperlocalism is not a new idea, but that executing it successfully has always been difficult. The original Ponteland Observer of 1982 to 1984 combined elements of the traditional weekly newspaper of court and council reports, planning meetings and police notices and details of local sports teams and clubs with features on people and businesses more usual in a magazine, and produced to a higher standard than was common in newspapers at the time. How such an idea would have prospered in the internet age can only be imagined, but it would not have depended on citizen journalists and social networking for its content. If there is someone with the funds and the initiative to devise a hyperlocal news platform for Ponteland or community of similar size more dynamic than what is presently available, they could do worse than look at what Michael Sharman and his team tried to do three decades ago, noting what went wrong, with tragic consequences, as well as what went right.

These posts draw from newspapers in my own collection, research using internet sources, and recollections. Corrections, clarifications and comments are welcome.