Monday, September 29, 2008

He did the music for 'Octopus Volcano' you know

I'm starting to realise just how little I really understand about how television is put together, mainly because if you're a writer, your involvement in the process tends to end just as everyone else's starts. So I thought I'd maybe start asking a few people at the more technical end of things some questions, and put the answers up here.

Chat One: Garry Judd, a composer who has scored for over one hundred television programmes. He knows his onions and was cajoled into revealing them thusly:
What you done music for then? Anything me and the missus would have seen?
Trinny And Susannah Undress, Highland Rescue, All About Me, Robbie Coltrane’s B-Road Britain...over 120 TV shows (oy!!!) and my library stuff has been used on...Gardeners’ World, Dalziel & Pasco, That 70s Show etc...
How did you get into composing scores for television shows? Is there a recognized career path, or is it something you sort of wander into?
I always wanted to do it whereas others can fall into it between writing pop music and stuff like that. My brother and I teamed up about 14 years ago and started from scratch...He is my agent and gets me most of my TV work.
What's the job of a composer exactly (and is that the right job title)? Is it one of those annoying jobs where, if you do it right, no-one notices you were even there?
I like 'composer'...I write, arrange, record and get the music into the edit/dub. If I’m lucky, I can use the occasional real musician, so I have to organise them, or get a fixer to do it for me and book any extra studio time that’s needed. Mostly though, it’s just me, my computers and my instrument collection!!! Yes, really good music helps rather than sticks out, although there can be moments where the music can be enjoyed in its own right.
What particularly annoys me at the moment is that a lot of music in television dramas seem to simply underline every emotion, telling the viewer what to feel all the time. How do composers get round this sort of 'swannee whistle' problem? Or am I just being picky?
Yes, there’s really too much music in each show in my opinion. I do a lot of wildlife/Discovery-type docs and they’re about 99% music. There’s no need for it all...I think it’s lack of confidence really.
Do you tend to get pigeonholed in certain genres, or can you skip across different types of show like a mad thing?
Yes, I’m typecast as a light entertainment/documentary/reality composer, whereas I’d love to do dramas and films.
Why, in stuff like Doctor Who, does the music often seem louder than the dialogue? Something wrong with my telly? Or have my ears gone mad?
It’s probably bad mixing...I watched the Ocean’s 11 etc... films recently and the music was mixed far too loud so I had to watch it with one finger on the remote.
What kind of brief do you get given? Do you get briefs on specific scenes, or is it more 'here's a finished episode of telly, go on stick half an hour's worth of music on it'? 
The far extremes are writing lots of pieces in various moods specified by the director which they can then put where they want to writing everything to picture. If I do it that way, then I usually get to either watch it with the director (spotting) or I get notes on each scene where they need music.
If a producer actually knows a bit about music themselves, does that make them harder, or easier to work with?

If they know a little about music, then it’s a recipe for disaster, because they can put you off track by using the wrong technical words. If they know a lot about music, then...Well, I’ve not worked with one like that, but I can imagine it would help up until a point.
Are there briefs/instructions you dread being given by producers?
“We’d like something totally different...Something that you’d never expect on this type of show”, or, “We’d like something that we could release as a single.” Negative instructions are the worst “I don’t like the fuzz guitar.” Doesn’t give you anywhere to go.
What briefs/instructions do you like being given by producers? What makes you think 'ooh I'm looking forward to this one'?
I’m happiest doing orchestral stuff. I did an online drama for the BBC recently (Signs Of Life) and it was great working with a proper drama director who wanted the music to reflect character motivations etc... I loved all that!!!
Are there any shows that from your point of view have particularly good score (is it a bit insulting to call it 'background music')?
I particularly liked the music for Kid A. There wasn’t much of it, but it was very effective.
Any film scores you think do a particularly great job?
Just about anything by John Barry, Quincy Jones, Bernard Herrman and James Horner, John Williams, In particular, Midnight Cowboy, The Ipcress File, Cocoon, Apollo 13, Psycho, The Italian Job, The Indiana Jones fillums etc...
What are the cool gigs to get, that make all your composer mates jealous?
One that has lots of parts and lots of repeated music, because of the royalties!!! Personally, I get HORRIBLY jealous of anyone doing a drama, particularly if I know of a bit of politics that got them the job while I wasn’t in with a chance.
Do you get to pick the top three indie tunes to play over the emotional bit in a episode of Skins or whatever, or is that someone else's job?
No...The writer or director will usually do that with the help of a music clearance expert.
What would you like to be doing in the future?
Dramas and films.

Do you ever have proper shouty fights with producers?
No, I am English, so I am charming and lovely to their face and I then go away and plot to kill them in various painful ways in my leisure time.

Many thanks Garry.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The other 43 minutes and 50 seconds of Merlin

UPDATE: I quite liked the rest of it, stilted dialogue and REALLY ANNOYING MUSIC (Here's a sad bit! Here's a happy bit!) aside. Perfectly good young person acting, which isn't always the case, and sets up the relationship between the young Arthur and Merlin nicely. When the blue kitten's a bit older, would I be happy to watch this with her? Yes, I think I probably would.

Did like the bit spotted by Boz though:

He went down about ten steps to get into that cellar - WITH THE HUGE CAVERNOUS ROOF GOING UPWARDS

Yes. Entire sessions of Dungeons and Dragons have been scuppered by less.

I was about to have another rant about the CGI dragon looking, as most CGI dragons look, like badly-lit plasticene. But then I remembered I'm currently writing two episodes of a thing with a CGI dragon on it, so I'd better not say that. I think I'm just always going to be biased towards animatronics, and knowing a couple of people who do CGI effects,they've often done wonders with an extremely small budget, so having a go at them seems rather unfair. And to be fair, this could also apply to composers, couldn't it? Hmm, it's tricky, this criticism lark.

People reading this who have kids themselves: how does it go down when you lay older, CGI-free stuff like Labyrinth, Robin of Sherwood or Jim Henson's The Storyteller on them? I've heard horrid reports that some children, blinded by the CGI toyfest that is the new Star Wars films view the originals as being in some way 'inferior'. But that can't be true, as surely in those cases, the child would be simply given away and the matter hushed up, so how would the story get out? Doesn't make sense.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Five seconds into that new BBC Merlin thing

UPDATE: Just to clarify, I really have watched hardly any of Merlin so far; the voiceover and score instantly made me so cross I needed to get it out of my system. I thought it probably wasn't fair to watch the rest of it while I was in such a bad mood, so will get back to it later. TREMBLE IN YOUR BOOTS BBC.

Dear British Television People,

Look, you fucks, stop insisting every last bloody series has to have a voiceover on it! You're only doing it because the Americans do it. Yes, alright, sometimes a voiceover brings something extra: in Dexter, for example, there's a whole level of irony generated by contrasting Dexter's outward appearance (neat, clean, polite) with the reality (smirking serial killer), as well as bringing some of the flavour of Jeff Lynsey's original novels (in fact I reckon adaptations get a free pass for use of voiceovers generally).

In Arrested Development, Ron Howard's narration allows focus to shift between a large number of characters with the minimum loss of momentum. The narrator himself also starts to become a character in his own right as the series goes on, although not all the viewers approved.

The rot started though, with Pushing Daisies, the start of which went something like this:

A boy runs across a field.

NARRATOR: This is a boy running across a field.

The boy's dog dies. He brings it back to life.

NARRATOR: The boy's dog died. But look, then he brought it back to life!

ME: Yes, I can see that. Because it just happened.

NARRATOR: I wasn't sure if you were looking.

ME: I was looking.

NARRATOR: But what if you blink? OH GOD, WHAT IF YOU BLINK!

ME: You're going to do this all through the entire episode aren't you?

The boy grows up and opens a pie shop.

NARRATOR: And then the boy grew up and opened a pie shop.

I decide never to watch Pushing Daisies again.

ME: I decided, right then, never to watch Pushing Daisies again.


This happens, you see, because the American networks are all too horribly aware that their show is just one of five hundred alternate distractions, and that if at any moment you get confused about what's happening on screen, you'll just wander off and fall down a mine, and never watch any television ever again. Consequently, just seeing what's happening on screen isn't enough; the viewer needs it laying out in black and white at the same time, in case they become confused, freak out, and fall down that mine again.

Which means, if you're working on television series over in the States at the moment, and increasingly, it seems, over here, the chances are you'll be asked to work a voiceover into at least the pilot episode. Which completely fucks over the whole point of screenwriting, which is to show, not tell. You may as well retitle The Sixth Sense: 'OMG He's Dead'. Voiceovers also give those screenwriters who are frustrated novelists (most of us) the chance to use all the pompous verbiage they've had stored up since sixth form. The results aren't pretty.

So here's the new rule: if there's a valid, story-enhancing reason to use a voiceover, then by all means, go mental. If the only reason you're putting one in is because some suit is worried stupid people won't be able to follow the action, tell him or her you don't want to make television for stupid people. And if fact, those stupid people mostly exist on the suit's imagination anyway. And then PUNCH THE SUIT IN THE FACE.

Right. *puts Merlin back on*

Almost immediately:


*passes out*

Still, that's ten seconds further than I got with Bonekickers.

The Parade Organisers Are Very Strict

Just wanted to surface from the daze of sleep deprivation and bouncy-walking* that is the first ten days of parenthood to put a shout out (as I believe the young people say), for the makers of the (organic, oh yes) re-washable nappies the blue kitten seems to be getting through at a rate of knots. People laughed when we said we wanted to use washeable nappies, laughed and pointed and called us names and pulled our hair.

But they reckoned without cool Cornish nappy technology, or 'Kernow Nap-Tech' (as I reckon it should be called), the company being called One Life, and it's working really well. You buy a job lot of about three hundred, which come in a wicker basket with a load of extras (including liners made of coconut matting something nice and soft, which you just flush away), and then you're done and don't have to buy nappies again. Just bung the used ones in a plastic bucket (provided) and wash them all together when it's full. I think the only disadvantage is they're a bit hotter than the disposeable ones, so you have to take that into account with blankets and stuff.

Blue Kitten and I have come to a pleasing arrangement that on the rare occasion I physically do the nappy changing, there's nothing nasty there, which is working well so far. My role is mostly to sit next to Patroclus as she does the real work, saying things like 'do you want a wipey thing?', 'you missed a bit', and 'hurrah! Princess Pooeypants has turned into Princess Cleanypants and is now ready for the Penryn Clean Bottom Parade!'. Not sure where the last one came from.

* You sort of have to say this. Actually, it hasn't been too bad - I've had time to play Bioshock again from the beginning, for example and get three hundred pages into the new Neal Stephenson, in which, so far, Nothing Has Happened. I shall stick with it though, ho yuss.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Radio Show That Launched A Thousand Writers

Originally uploaded by jamesandthebluecat
Hurrah, friend of the blog Ian Greaves' book on Weekending is out!

"In the spring of 1970, BBC Radio 4 premiered a new late-night topical sketch show. Initially an unassuming antidote to the week's events, Week Ending grew to become the nerve-centre of new writing in British comedy. It existed in part as a place for scriptwriters to learn the ropes, before graduating to Not The Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image and beyond. It also provided an early platform for Britain's best-loved performers, amongst them Steve Coogan, David Jason and Tracey Ullman. However, by its eventual demise in 1998, Week Ending had become a neglected and much-maligned programme. What caused it to lose ground as the respected entry point, and how did it sustain itself for so long?"

Available to pre-order at Amazon, or you order straight from the publisher (and slightly more cheaply) here.

UPDATE: my attempt to Flickr the cover are laughably poor, so I should probably add that it's called "Prime Minister, You Wanted To See Me?" - A History of Week Ending.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Thanks for all the lovely comments.

All much appreciated. My Mum came round last night, saw Blue Kitten grizzling in her cot, and swiftly had her in her arms, gently bouncing her gently up and down. Grizzling stopped in about half a second. Cue astonishment from me and Patroclus, who'd are still worrying about how you pick her up without her head falling off. However, we have now adopted the practice, and are thinking of starting a series of workshops set in the South of France to bring this wise old folk remedy to the masses.

Next Week: Babies like shiny things, apparently.

Stephen Mangan is already trying to set up Blue Kitten with his own infant son, although there are some complications about the dowry. I've had to explain that I'm considering a wide range of portfolios, including Blue Kitten going into indentured servitude to Steven Moffat until 2026, when she will be playing the first female Doctor Who. Anyway, it's early days yet.

Note to casual readers whose attitude to babies are that they're all pretty much pink bags of shite, so why go on about them : yes, I'm afraid this blog will go off the boil for a bit. Probably come back in a couple of weeks, when the novelty has worn off, and I'm back to whinging about producers again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Blue Kitten

blue kitten

Patroclus knackered, but did very well. We made a blog baby!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cross blog pollination.

As t'were. Currently it's all happening over here.

Earlier I went out to get some raspberry teabags.

Outside, a load of Cornish scaffolders are taking turns to call each other to prayer.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tum Te Tum


I have completed the raised seed bed, converted from the old futon base. WHERE'S MY SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT INTERVIEW? Hmm? Although I haven't actually put anything in it yet. In fact, I'm not sure what I'm going to put in it, other than a load of compost from the bin, with a layer of Paid For (boo) compost on top. And then a cut-down shower curtain on top of that, to stop weeds getting in while I look at it, and go 'hmmm' a lot.


I meant to use this calm before the storm as an opportunity to get loads of fiction reading done, as all I've been reading lately are 4E D&D manuals and pop histories about the seventeenth century (Lisa Picard's 'London', v.good). But the new Neal Stephenson doesn't seem to have been published yet, and my ability to read any other work of fiction by anyone other than Nealy or Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman seems to have been wildly compromised. I lose patience with fiction writing incredibly quickly these days. In fact pretty much all my reading at the moment goes like this:

1. I have heard good things about this book, I will purchase it (or at least get it out of the library).

2. Bah, this book annoys me! I will go on Wikipedia to find out what happened at the end.

3. Ooh I quite liked the ending.

4. I enjoyed that, I will read it again. *hits 'Refresh'*

This Wikipedia reliance reached ridiculous heights the other day, when I bought a DVD of that 10,000 BC thing, knowing it would be rubbish, put it in the machine, then within seconds, was on Wikipedia to see what was happening, because I couldn't be arsed to watch it. Madness.

UPDATE: although I am enjoying Charles Stross's 'Halting State', despite the irritiating 'written in second person thing', which I'm sure is supposed to remind you of the Worlock of Firetop Mountain or something (Chez Blue Cat's cultural touchstone of choice), but actually makes it unnecessarily hard to gain any traction with the characters. Some really interesting stuff though, and interesting that all the top SF writers are slowly migrating over to writing stuff that's barely SFual at all. I would also like extra double geek points for knowing that the D&D 'slaadi' monsters one of the characters encounters were in fact invented by Charles Stross himself, back in nineteen tumpty tum, for the Fiend Folio. I ROCK!

Sunday, September 07, 2008


If there's one good thing about the load of old plop currently describing itself as comedy on BBC 3 and C4, it's that it's finally motivating people to get off their arses and do their own thing*. 'Radioface' is a group of people from the Cook'd and Bomb'd comedy forum. Done with a budget of about three pounds twenty, and yet the first video made me laugh more than anything I've seen on UK television in about three years. Something about the sheer confidence of it, added to the great timing, and the fact that none of it lingers too long on any on bit, gives it a zip that 'properly' produced shows with a thousand times the budget can only dream of.

EDIT: no, no sign of the Blue Kitten yet, will of course put an update on the blog when she arrives, unless something more interesting happens, like a new D&D monster, that sort of fing.

* Actually I may be imposing my own agenda on to the creators' motivations there, they haven't said anything about the current state of comedy on BBC 3 or C4.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

"Never, ever, under any circumstances, cast an actor unless they've appeared in Green Wing."

I liked this: How To Be A Commissioning Editor, off the E4 site.

Also liked: "Remember, the secret of comedy is not writing or performances. It's about having great meetings." So, so true.

"Presently the proper person arrived from the consignees, but found the gold-dust gone."

Coo, you go looking for more details about the ghostly coach drawn by headless horses that drives through Penryn 'just before Christmas' (when is that? 11:48 Christmas Eve? Some time in October?), and end up reading about Falmouth's great gold dust robbery of 1839.

My nan once saw a ghostly coach at Weybridge, and Pendennis Castle has a ghostly coach that drives past the main gates every now and then. My theory is it's the same one, which means it'll have to comes down the A39 and turn off at Truro, go through Penryn, then up past the 24-hour garage, over the rugby ground roundabout then along the seafront to the castle.

Anyway, "Lost In Austen".

I really liked this opening episode. Well-acted, beautifully-lit (I seem to have become a lighting nerd), the background music isn't overdone, and writer Guy Andrews has completely resisted the opportunity to crank up the pseudo-Austeneque dialogue for laughs. Which isn't to say it isn't properly funny. Favourite line thus far: 'Elizabeth is presently to be found disporting in the otter-strewn thoroughfares of Hammersmith'.

I think the main reason I like it (apart from fancying Jemima Rooper since 'As If'), is that it's a big, pleasingly silly idea, that has been treated with great seriousness, allowing the natural humour of the situation to sort of bubble though, like the stock in a good risotto.

Available to view online here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Charlie Brooker's Dead Set

Mmm, zombies. I'm a sucker for the 'small group of survivors gazing out over a ruined landscape' shot (although it did take me a while to realise you have to click on the eye to get the teaser trailer).