When Season 1 of Serial started near the end of 20141, it inspired many serious pieces of analysis. Whether it was taking on the subject matter itself and probing further, or discussions about whether the podcast was even a moral thing to produce in the first place, the world was not exactly short of Serial thinkpieces.
I’m not here to talk about any of that. What I want to talk to is altogether sillier, so by all means click away if you’re expecting anything about the main topic of the podcast itself, about which I can offer no insight. We’re nowhere near any of that territory.
What I want to talk about is: Mail…kimp?
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with TV pilots.
TV pilots of all kinds. Shows which eventually made it to the screen virtually untouched as part of a series, like The Young Ones episode Demolition. Shows which made it to screen, but which were substantially or entirely reshot for the series proper, such as Citizen Smith. One-offs which aired, but never became a series – remember Mirrorball? And then there’s my favourite: pilots which were never broadcast, either because they were never intended to be in the first place, or because substantial changes happened between the pilot and the series… or because they were a complete fucking disaster in every single respect.
There are so many of these unbroadcast pilots I’d love to see. There’s the 1986 pilot Dungeon Doom… followed by a second, also unbroadcast pilot under the more familiar name Knightmare in 1987. Similarly, 1983 saw an unnamed pre-pilot, followed by a full pilot called UNTV… with a series appearing the year after, a certain Spitting Image. Then there’s Paul O’Grady’s version of The Generation Game, which by rights should have been the BBC’s big entertainment hit of 2003… and wouldn’t you just love to watch the two pilots they made to see exactly why that didn’t happen?
Occasionally, such pilots get to see the light of day on DVD, if they ended up as successful shows. Sherlock saw its unbroadcast 60 minute version of A Study in Pink released. The Day Today is one of the most obvious comedy examples, with the bare bones of the show there… but the visual panache of the series very much not. And then there’s Doctor Who, where the DVD set The Beginning contains the complete unedited pilot recording, and a brand new edit combining the best of all the raw session’s takes. Because, y’know, Doctor Who.
With comedy, it’s easy to wish so much more was released.1 Blackadder is the most obvious example here, with a pilot which had never been officially put out on DVD, presumably due to somebody not wishing it to be out there.2 Slightly further afield, I would do anything3 to see A Big Bunch of Hippies, the pilot for the underrated sitcom Hippies – and even if you didn’t like the show, its unbroadcast pilot was the last TV show scripted jointly by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, which is surely of interest to the discerning comedy fan.4
But occasionally, we get lucky. Hello Drop the Dead Donkey, Channel 4’s truly excellent 90s newsroom sitcom… which actually released its unbroadcast pilot on DVD in 2005. And watching it in the context of that first series from 1990 is rather instructive.
Let’s instruct ourselves, shall we?
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Andy Baio, “Middling”, 16th October 2014:
“Twitter’s for 140-character short-form writing1 and Medium’s for long-form. Weirdly, there really isn’t a great platform for everything in the middle — what previously would’ve just been called “blogging.” Mid-length blogging. Middling.
I think that’s partly why seeing Matt Haughey, Paul Ford, and Michael Sippey restart regular blogging on Paul’s delightfully retro tilde.club is so refreshing to me. I miss seeing people I admire post stuff longer than a tweet.
So I think I’ll try doing the same thing here. In the early days of Waxy.org, before I launched the linkblog, I used to blog short posts constantly. Multiple times a day. Twitter and Waxy Links cannibalized all the smaller posts, and as my reach grew, I started reserving blogging for more “serious” stuff — mostly longer-form research and investigative writing.
Well, fuck that. I miss the casual spontaneity of it all, and since I’m pretty sure hardly anybody’s reading my site again after the death of Google Reader, the pressure’s off.
What do I have to lose?
Update: Nice, Gina Trapani’s in too.”
Four years on, how did all this work for Andy? Since he posted the above – and forgetting about his linkblog – he’s done 38 posts on waxy.org. An average of nearly 10 a year, although in fact the rate has really slowed – he’s only posted two so far in 2018.
Sadly, all three tilde.club sites he mentioned stopped updating by the end of 2015. As for Gina Trapani, whose post also contained lots of great ideas? She also stopped updating at the tail end of 2015, and her blog isn’t even online any more: it redirects to her professional site instead.
In contrast, since 16th October 2014, Dirty Feed has done 137 posts, including this one, with 23 posted this year. And I don’t even update this site nearly as much as I would like. Moreover, although the posts range from deep investigations to “hey, look at this”, there isn’t a single one which doesn’t have at least some kind of analysis of sorts.
* * *
OK, OK, I know. This looks like some kind of pathetic macho pissing contest. So yes, I fully admit: “how often you update your website” isn’t exactly the most useful metric when it comes to judging how your life is going.
I bring up the above just to point out: when it comes to keeping a blog updated, I have at least proved I know how to do it. And it’s very easy to blame social media when it comes to people finding this difficult. Hell, Andy Baio does it in the post above: he says Twitter “cannibalized all the smaller posts”. This seems to be a common thread: I’ve heard endless people talk about how the more they used Twitter, the less they blogged.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think this should be an either/or situation. Twitter is extremely good for coming up with ideas, thinking things though, and getting feedback… and then you can use all of that to write something a little more permanent on your own site. (And perhaps most importantly: under your control.)
A good example is my short post yesterday on why all television deserves a little theatrical sparkle; it all comes from this Twitter thread I posted a few days ago. I didn’t mean to come up with an outline for an article – I was just thinking aloud – but huge chunks of the language in those tweets actually ended up verbatim in the resulting post. Moreover, the post didn’t even take very long to write, because I’d already done a lot of the thinking behind it when writing that set of tweets.
And to me, the above seems obvious: obvious to the point that it seems weird even writing and publishing this post. But it always seems that Twitter and blogs are put into opposition: that Twitter is taking up all the time people used to spend writing on their own site. That might be true: but it doesn’t have to be the case.
You can have the best of both worlds: the ease and immediacy of Twitter, and the more thoughtful and permanent record of your own blog. It just involves you getting round to actually writing up that post, once you’ve done your thinking on Twitter. If you don’t want to do that, then fine – nobody is obligated. But blaming Twitter for it probably isn’t the best idea.
Personal sites will only die if we let them. Of all the many, many things we can currently blame Jack Dorsey for, this isn’t one of them.
Here’s a nice little find: a good quality version of the second title sequence to BBC political programme On The Record, from 1993:
The clip was uploaded by one of the creators, Stephanie Chappell:
“This was designed and directed by me and my fellow designer Dimitri Kevgas. It turned out to be one of the longest running titles on the BBC – running over 11 years until the programme was retired in 2004.1
We created a story for the UK political animal – the crocodile based on one of the gargoyles at Westminster. Because we were moving into the EU in the early 90s, we sent the crocodile on a journey, reflecting the interaction with his European allies. The whole project took 3 months to complete – with 1 month of solid single frame animation covering a second of the sequence each day.”
Here’s my question: could you ever imagine a political programme commissioning such a title sequence today? A piece of stop motion animation which took three months to create from beginning to end? I can’t. The money for such luxuries has long gone.
And this is the kind of thing I mean when I say: a lot of TV looks cheaper these days.
Oh, sure, there are endless newspaper columns and blog posts going on about the current golden age of television, and I’m not going to sneer at shows like Killing Eve. But they aren’t the only kinds of television there is. And over the years, imperceptibly at first, huge swathes of TV has been squeezed. Sometimes fundamentally: we’ve all read endless stories about the lack of rehearsal time on the soaps even compared to the 90s. And sometimes just with the fun stuff at the edges.
Because of course: On The Record didn’t need those opening titles, per se. But they did set a certain… tone. TV’s no fun if you cut everything to the bare bone. Television shouldn’t just be utilitarian, in the same way that your dinner shouldn’t just be about nutrition. Blockbusters didn’t need this glorious set of titles, but surely we can all agree it’s brilliant that they did… and also agree that there’s not a chance in hell they would ever be made now.
When I think back to my memories growing up with television, it’s often that fun stuff on the edges I remember the most. When TV just goes all-out on something beautiful, brilliant, and a bit mad, just because it can. Like, for instance, spending three months on a stop motion animation sequence of the Palace of Westminster acting like a crocodile and taking a short holiday around Europe. When budgets shrink, that stuff is the first thing to go. And I miss it like hell. 2
I’m not particularly pinning blame on programme-makers here. They do the best with the resources available. Nor is this really the place for my long, uninformed thesis on how to fix television. I’m just saying, for all the talk about the current golden age of TV… it’s worth remembering some of the fun stuff we’ve lost, just because it has the temerity not to be a “premium” drama.
A bit of theatrical sparkle shouldn’t be restricted to a narrow set of programming.
Recently, I’ve been making my way through the excellent Adam Buxton podcast. And out of all the great jingles, funny stories, and debates about whether you should nick stuff from a hotel’s breakfast buffet, I want to talk about Twitter, like a boring twat.
Let’s focus then, on Episode 20 with Iain Lee from 20161, 26:36 in:
IAIN LEE: If I wasn’t doing this career, I would get rid of Twitter, but Twitter’s a really good tool for selling stuff, for selling, you know…
ADAM BUXTON: Yeah, is it? I don’t know.
IAIN LEE: Well it is… I think here, because this is a brand new radio station, you’re building an audience from nothing, so for me to say to 47,000 people: “I’m on tonight at 10 o’clock and I’ve got Adam Buxton on”, some of those people will listen.
ADAM BUXTON: But if you weren’t on Twitter, I just don’t believe it would really materially affect the way that your show went.
IAIN LEE: I’m going to bear that in mind, thank you for that.
ADAM BUXTON: I just don’t believe it. I really don’t. I mean, I’m sure it’s different if you’re sort of a pop star, or maybe if you’re younger, I don’t know.
IAIN LEE: That’s rude.2
ADAM BUXTON: But I often say at gigs: “Raise your hand if you’re here because I tweeted about this” – two, three hands go up.
IAIN LEE: But those three people, though… loud laughers.
ADAM BUXTON: I mean, they are amazing. They’re the best chaps in the audience.
Of course, Adam Buxton can only talk about his personal experiences, so that’s fine. I’m certainly not saying that he shouldn’t do that.
But here’s my experience. Right down here, when you’re not even remotely famous, I can say that the only way anybody knows about the stuff I write about on here is through Twitter. Looking through my stats, Twitter accounts for the vast majority of clicks I receive.
Take, for instance, my short piece about how I love the churn of television. It hasn’t spread in any particularly meaningful way. But a fair few people saw the link on twitter, liked it, retweeted it, and talked to me about it. My stats hardly went through the roof. But through Twitter, a fair few people read it and enjoyed it. That’s all I really expected from it.
Without Twitter, how would people know about it? I’m not on Facebook.3 Sure, there are potential replacements for Twitter, and stuff like forums, RSS, etc has never entirely gone away. But nothing has the reach and ease Twitter has. If I left Twitter, I’m fairly certain my stuff wouldn’t be read nearly as much.
I’m not obsessed with stats. I don’t care about scraping every single reader my way. Some articles I actually write almost entirely for myself. But for some pieces, “people read and enjoy my stuff” is nice to have.
Just because you have a certain profile, never forget how useful things like Twitter can be for others.
* * *
All the controversy last month to do with Jack Dorsey and Alex Jones – leading to Jones’ eventual banning – has weighed heavily on my mind. I’m not about to recount it all here; you probably know it all anyway. Click the links and read if you don’t, I’m not your mum.
Out of all of that nonsense, for me it was Dorsey going on The Sean Hannity Show to defend himself which seemed to me to indicate… shall we say, a lack of good faith. That would not have been my choice of outlet.
And I’ll admit it: through it all, I seriously thought about leaving Twitter. In the end I decided I couldn’t, for various reasons, but chief among them is what I talk about in the first part of this post. We can wax lyrical about RSS all we like – indeed, I’ve put some new, more obvious links to Dirty Feed’s RSS feed in the navbar – but it’s just not where my audience is, at least right now.
Still, it was fun watching people get outraged, say they were leaving Twitter, delete all their tweets… and then slowly crawl back. To take just one very prominent example: Matt Haughey made a big deal of leaving Twitter, and yet is still bloody tweeting.
I have a great deal of respect for anyone with the moral scruples to leave Twitter. But if you’ve announced that you’re going, then Just. Go. You don’t get to performatively leave the service and have people cheering you along… and then still get all the benefits of sticking around as well.
Just make a decision.
It isn’t a game show crossed with a sitcom, of course.
Oh, Hat Trick might have tried to sell it like that. It was the line used in all the pre-publicity. But the word “sitcom” simply oversells the narrative element of Cheap Cheap Cheap. If people really tuned into the programme expecting a sitcom, no wonder they were disappointed with what they saw.
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Late last year, I took a month off Twitter.1 No fuss, no drama, no attention-seeking. Just a short tweet saying I’d be back soon, which I was. Among other things, sometimes the news agenda simply becomes a little too much in my feed; considering my job involves watching the news endlessly for a living, I consider the move practical, not ostrich-like. I get more than enough of that stuff elsewhere.
I did, however, use the time away to perform a little experiment, based on something I noticed the previous time I took a little break. When I disappeared, my tweet count was bang on 70,000 tweets. (A move that tells you an embarrassing amount about how my brain works.) But what was my tweet count when I returned?
26th October 2017
21st November 2017
69,964. A difference of 36 tweets. But why? I hadn’t deleted any myself. Surely I should have exactly the same number of tweets when I returned? Is Twitter just really bad at maths?
In order to find out, I downloaded an archive of my tweets just before I took my month’s break, and downloaded another archive when I returned, so I could compare the two and find out what was missing. You may think this was a ridiculous thing to do. I would say it is entirely consistent with the kind of person who decides to get to exactly 70,000 tweets before they take their planned break from Twitter.
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Short version: you should all be listening to Jon Wolfert’s live Rewound Radio show (Sundays, 3pm ET, 8pm BST), full of great 60s/70s music, and loads of talk about radio and advertising jingles.
Long version: why would you want to do this?
Well, I’ve talked before about some of the reasons I love jingles, but hey – I’m just a fan. Jon Wolfert is president of JAM Creative Productions, who have made some of the finest jingles ever made… and also just happens to be the biggest jingle fan in the world. There is literally nobody else in the world who knows more about jingles than Jon. And listening to people talking about stuff they know and love is one of my favourite things in the world.
And he can bring the history of jingles to life in a way I’ve never heard anyone else do. Here’s one of my favourite examples from recent weeks – an eight minute segment from his show, on the topic of 1960s soul jingles:
Download “Rewound Radio (12/08/18) – Soul Jingles” (8MB MP3, 8:32)
Jon takes what could have been a difficult subject, and brings out a fascinating tale of not only music, not only radio, but of history, and people. Every jingle has a tale behind it, and nobody can tell those tales better than Jon Wolfert.
Rewound Radio, Sundays, 3pm ET, 8pm BST. Three hours of jingle fun, and loads of great music too. You can’t go wrong.
Here ends your public service announcement.
Earlier this year, a well-known web rascal died.1 I didn’t know him. I didn’t even really like his writing, despite it being much lauded; I found it a little pretentious, and prone to sweeping judgements. I have no reason to write about him. His death is none of my business.
Except: I can’t stop thinking about it.
It’s gone, you see. All his writing: he deleted it from the web years ago. So when his death was announced, and people across the world went to look for their favourite posts to remember him by… they weren’t there. None of his sites were still online. Sure, people went scrabbling around on the Wayback Machine to find his stuff again, but however amazing the Wayback Machine is, it isn’t perfect at preserving sites. For a guy who cared so much about how the web looked and felt, and gave attention to every detail, to see people being forced to link to the equivalent of a dodgy photocopy was… well, a shame.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not criticising him, and his specific situation. (There are particular reasons for this which are not necessary to go into here.) This isn’t really about him, in fact.
It just made me think. When you die, unless you were a right nasty piece of work, people will want to remember you. In years past, aside from the famous, that might only have been family and friends, gathering together and flicking through a book of photos. These days, if you live your life online, you might have people who read your nonsense who live halfway across the world. For that nonsense to just disappear into the ether means that when it comes for people to mourn… they can’t remember you in the way they would have liked. It’s the equivalent of chucking that book of photos onto a big bonfire.
When I die, I want to leave as much of myself behind as possible. Eventually, I’ll fade, as everything does. But I don’t want that to happen before it has to.
On the 30th July, I went to see The Lenny Henry Birthday Show recorded in TC1 at TV Centre. The following are a few notes from the experience. Nothing too spoilery, if only because my brain has an innate capability for forgetting the funniest of jokes precisely 10 seconds later.
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