On a short trip to Amsterdam last weekend, I visited Anne Frank House, somewhere which feels depressingly relevant to 2018 in a way I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. And while I am not a religious man, when I actually walked into the Secret Annex, where Anne hid with seven others for two years… it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to stepping into a sacred place.
I cannot hope to get across my feelings as I walked round the annex. But I want to just mention one thing that I found really striking.
As you enter the museum, you pick up an audio guide from the wall. You can either use your own headphones, or just stick the guide next to your ear. As you cross into the various rooms – and up some startlingly steep staircases – you scan the number on the wall, and off you go.
Except when you reach the Secret Annex. The entrance stands before you, hidden by a movable bookcase. And your audio guide calmly informs you… no, there won’t be any entries while you’re in the annex. You’re on your own. They’ll pick up again once you leave.
This does a number of things. It stops the perhaps slightly tasteless sight of a load of tourists walking around the annex with an audio guide jammed up against their ear. More importantly, it makes each visitor to stop, and actually experience the annex first hand, rather than zone out listening to someone else talk about it. It forces you to actually be there, in other words.
But subtly, it does something else. It says: this part of the museum is different. That it’s all very well walking around the rest of the house, half looking around, half listening to the audio guide… but the annex is special. This is not just another random part of a random museum, where data flaps unbidden into your mind.
And so, when you leave… it lingers.
…or certainly up there, anyway.
I’ve talked before about Jon Wolfert’s Sunday Jingle Show, and how you should all be listening to it. If you can’t be bothered to click on that link: Sundays, 3pm ET/8pm GMT on Rewound Radio, stuffed full of great radio and advertising jingles.
Well, usually great, anyway. Unless I send in a request to the show. Then, I’m afraid, you get the dregs.
Download “Rewound Radio (04/11/18) – Ecology” (12.5MB MP3, 8:41)
After a week’s break, the show is back tonight. So if you want to listen to someone who knows damn well what they’re talking about take a little trip through the history of radio, then give it a listen.
It’s often the highlight of my week; if you like the kind of thing I post here, I think it could be yours, too.
Here’s something from the Radio Times, brought to my attention via TV Forum: an odd little piece about the BBC2 Dad’s Army ident that never was.
Odd, because unused TV idents aren’t exactly the kind of thing the Radio Times usually writes about. I mean, I’d love it if it was, but let’s face it: the only reason this article was published is because it’s about Dad’s Army, a sitcom everyone is still obsessed over, despite the fact that It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi!, and You Rang, M’Lord? are all much better.
Enough of my irritating opinions on comedy. I’m here to give some irritating opinions on TV presentation instead. Let’s take a look at the rejected ident in question:
I mean, it’s beautiful. Really beautiful. Very nicely animated, and the inclusion of the Isle of Wight on the 2 really sells it as what it’s supposed to be. In and of itself as a standalone thing, it’s one of the best pieces of TV presentation I’ve seen for ages. It’s clearly made with a tremendous amount of love and respect for the show.
It wouldn’t have worked as an ident in front of Dad’s Army. Not even remotely.
You could perhaps query the inclusion of Nazi symbols on a piece of TV presentation, but that’s not my main problem with it. Nor is my problem covered in the reason the BBC gave for rejecting it:
“Ultimately, however, the BBC decided not to use the homage to those original opening credits. “They said some very nice things about it and it was clearly something that was under discussion for some time,” continues Norton. “However, they told us that they wanted to move away from content-specific idents on BBC2 and wanted more general idents that could serve all programmes across the channel.”
Here’s my problem with it: stop thinking of the proposed ident as a nice standalone piece of video, and start thinking of how it actually would have been used, in front of an episode of Dad’s Army. Just imagine the ident running, the announcer talking over it, introducing the episode… and then going into the actual title sequence, which looks identical. It would be such a weird, jarring repetition of what you’d just seen. Something which looks utterly magical in isolation, would look naff when used in context.1
Linear television is more than just individual elements, slammed next to each other. What the viewer has just seen impacts on what they’re just about to see. And as the various parts of television get ever-more siloed off, seeing the big picture of what is transmitted when everything gets put together becomes more and more difficult. It’s vital that this overview is protected, and strengthened, across all of television.
Otherwise, you don’t just end up with the oddity of seeing a pastiche of a title sequence followed by the real title sequence. You end up with idents accidentally mocking the dead.
WordPress – the publishing software used as the backend for this very website – is undergoing a few growing pains at the moment. Either that, or – depending on who you believe – it’s blowing itself apart, much as Movable Type managed to do back in 2004.
Not that the outcry about WordPress is to do with pricing – it remains free. No, the outcry about the upcoming release of WordPress 5.0 is to do with Gutenberg – a brand new Editor, which entirely changes the way you write your posts. To say it has been controversial is putting it mildly. Just check the ratings on the current plugin version.
I’m not making any judgement on Gutenberg – at least, not yet. I’ll have a play with it when WordPress 5.0 is released, and see if I like it or not. If I do, great. If I don’t, I’ll go back to the classic Editor (available as a plugin), and think about my options. No, my issue is with how it’s being sold to us.
Take a look at this testimonial, on the official page on Gutenberg:
The editor is just the beginning
“This will make running your own blog a viable alternative again.”
— Adrian Zumbrunnen
Question: what do they think people have been doing with WordPress for years? Feeding the cat with it?
Gutenberg is a serious change to the very heart of the WordPress experience. This is a tricky proposition at the best of times: and it needs selling to people who already love using WordPress. WordPress’s answer to that? By quoting someone who says that using WordPress isn’t currently viable.
It’s literally one of the most tone-deaf pieces of advertising I have ever seen. People use WordPress because they love using WordPress. It’s one thing to tell someone what what they’re currently using is going to be improved. It’s quite another to tell your own users that what they’re currently using is shit, and not a viable choice.
Or, as one reply has it:
I try not to patronise you too much on here.1 I write the literal opposite of clickbait. While it’s lovely when something I write gets a few clicks, chasing that leads to utter madness. Writing Dirty Feed is supposed to be fun.2 However, I have to confess that sometimes an element of… calculation comes into the timing of what I publish. So it was with my collection of April Fools jokes played out in the pages of old BBC Micro magazines, published on the 1st April, because… of course that’s when you publish it. And I thought it was something that might gain some traction and find a little bit of an audience.
So I sent it out there, back in 2015. And it did… fine. Not spectacular numbers, even for this site – I thought it’d do more – but fine. I linked to it a few times on Twitter in subsequent years, updated it a little in 2017, and job done.
Until something interesting happened over this last weekend, that is. The piece got linked to in the latest b3ta newsletter. And just take a quick look at my stats for the April Fools article, especially the number for this month:
More people have just read (or at least clicked on) the piece than at any time previously. In fact, over twice as many people have read it this month than back in April 2015, when it was originally published. This was a piece designed to be linked to on April Fools Day to get a bit of interest. b3ta get hold of it just now, nowhere near April Fools and… bang.
You can never tell how stuff will end up being read. All my careful planning meant nothing.
And all this is exactly why I keep bleating on about keeping the archives of what you make online. If I’d yanked that piece offline after a year, for whatever reason, it would have lost the majority of people who ended up reading it. As it was, it was just sitting there… waiting to be discovered, and to have a little moment in the spotlight. Just a little moment – it’s not like it racked up thousands of hits. But that’s fine. I don’t need a piece to get thousands of hits.
Because I love people reading my old articles full stop. I think of Dirty Feed as an archive. What’s on the front page isn’t the most important thing about the site. It’s what’s buried in the archives which makes me happy.3 And my favourite thing is when someone tells me they’ve just spent ages in the archives, clicking around on things which looked interesting to them. I think of the site as a complete entity: the last ten posts are a tiny part of the whole.
There’s far too many things competing for people’s attention these days. Even if it’s a piece I’m really proud of, there’s no guarantee people will react to it straight away. But that doesn’t matter. It can just sit there… waiting. Some of them will be found eventually. And that’s enough.
If you found this piece and enjoyed it in 2028: hey there. I love you.
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.