Happy ending for “Happy Birthday”

June 28, 2016

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After years of avoiding it, film-makers and performers can now include “Happy Birthday To You” in their work without paying a huge music corporation for the privilege.

God knows why, but I follow stories about music copyright sort of keenly.  It’s not like I have any personal interest, it’s just a curiosity.

Today’s news that a US judge has ruled on “Happy Birthday To You” inevitably caught my eye.

For years, Warner/Chappel Music has been collecting royalties for public, commercial performances of the popular song, which was written by two Kentucky sisters in 1893 and published in a collection of songs for kindergarten children.  Over the years, the rights ended up with the Warner corporation who now must pay back $14 million that it has collected in royalties.

For while the tune remained the same, the lyrics had changed.  The original was a welcome song for children to sing at the start of the school day: “Good morning to you, Good morning to all…”

US district judge, George King, ruled that the tune had long been in the public domain – i.e. no longer subject to copyright rules.  The lyrics were less certain.  The birthday words did not appear in print until 1911; it was not until the 1930s that Patty Hill (one of the two sisters) claimed to have written them at the same time as the “Good Morning” lyrics.

Anyway, King ruled that Warner/Chappel no longer had any claim over the song and must pay back money collected.

Variations of “Happy Birthday To You” are sung around the world in different languages.

  • In Spanish it’s Cumpleaños Feliz
  • Portuguese, Parabéns par Vocé, 
  • German Zum Geburstag Viel Glück
  • Italian: Tanti auguri a te

And so on.

(According to Wikipedia, the Swedes sing a version that goes, Har Den åran Idag…only I have never heard it (and I have been to a few Swedish birthday parties.) Instead they sing Ja, må han live, expressing the hope that the celebrant will live to be 100.)

Back to copyright: my favourite copyright story again involves a schoolteacher, this one in Australia.  In 1932, Marion Sinclair wrote Kookaburra (“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree…” etc) the tune of which was substantially used in the worldwide hit Down Under by the Aussie band Men At Work. (It’s the flute part: you can’t miss it).

The supposed copyright infringement did not come to light until 2008.  Larrikin Music, who owned the rights, had not noticed the infringement, and began legal proceedings.  The protracted case which ensued cost Men At Work, and especially the song’s composer Colin Hay, a very substantial sum.

He has now rewritten the song with a new flute part.  Sadly, it’s not as good.

 

 

Game of Thrones spoilers: I give up!

June 16, 2016

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I was watching the news the other night and the newsreader said something like: “Coming up next, news of the opening game of the Euros as England faced Russia earlier today.  So if you don’t want to know the result, time to leave the room.”

It’s familiar enough stuff; we hear it all the time.  Then it struck me: how many people still do this?  In the age of Twitter, Facebook, text and so on, does anybody anywhere watch a football game on TV that has been played earlier in the day without knowing the score?

There was an episode of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads back in the 70s which revolved around Bob and Terry’s desperate attempts to win a bet by remaining ignorant of the outcome of an England-Bulgaria game before it came on TV.  I can’t remember if they succeeded or not.

The-Likely-Lads-James-Bolam-and-Rodney-Bewes-539563Like Bob and Terry (above), I’m engaged in a struggle not to know what happens in Game Of Thrones, except my struggle is lasting for weeks, and it’s not working.

Thing is, I’m too tight-fisted to shell out for a full Sky subscription, and I want to wait until I can buy the box set on DVD.  That way I can binge-watch and save money.

Naturally, I don’t want to know what happens before I watch it, but it’s next to impossible if you’re even vaguely engaged with the news and social media.

Before series 6 had even started I knew that Jon Snow had not died properly and that Melisandre might have something to do with his resurrection.  It’s not as if I went looking for information – far from it.  But when you see headlines saying “Jon Snow: Is He Really Dead?” then you begin to wonder.

I know that Bran Stark  makes a comeback (though – to be honest – I could have guessed that much, otherwise where was he for all of series 5?)

I know that Theon Greyjoy/Reek makes it through at least almost the end of series 6 because there he was on the front of a magazine headlined “Alfie Allen – Thrones’ Great Survivor”.

And now I learn that there will be a big “Battle of the Bastards” because of a headline this morning.  I didn’t read the article but it can only be Roose Bolton and Jon Snow.

Gaaah!  Perhaps it’s all a devious scheme by Sky to get me to subscribe.  If so, I think it has worked.

The Encounter: time-travelling magic

June 14, 2016

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I’ve written before about my, shall we say, complicated relationship with the theatre.  I take the approach once described by Sir Michael Parkinson: “I have never sat in a theatre without wishing I were in a cinema instead.”

Except…sometimes.  This was one of the sometimes.  Tempted by a friend who promised that it would appeal to my love of magic and illusion, I saw The Encounter, a one-man show with  Simon McBurney, produced by Theatre Complicite.  It was on at the Oxford Playhouse and is now touring France, a nice change for football fans tired of the Euros.  It’ll be back in the UK soon, I’m sure: it’s terrific.

This is how the programme describes it:

Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.

In 1969 Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. 

Simon McBurney traces McIntyre’s journey into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, incorporating innovative technology into his solo performance to build a shifting world of sound.

It’s this “shifting world of sound: that provides the illusion aspect of the evening.  Audience members are asked to wear headphones and McBurney uses multiple tricks and devices to create a truly three-dimensional picture of McIntyre’s extraordinary  – and true – Amazonian adventure.

When he encounters the more-or-less undiscovered Mayruna tribe in the depths of the jungle, McIntyre realises to his astonishment that at least one of the tribe – an elder he nicknames “Barnacle” – is communicating with him telepathically – the so-called “Amazon Beaming” that is the title of the book on which the play is based.  Subsequent research reveals that this “beaming” has been a long-standing, if little-understood, mystery.

TTWAHThere was another aspect of the drama, however, that caught my imagination, and that was the Mayruna’s concept of time.  In my research for Time Travelling With A Hamster, it became clear to me that our “Western” perception of linear time was not the only one.  Other cultures viewed time as more fluid, and often “circular”.  In the legends of Australian aborigines, this is called Dreamtime; ancient Hindu texts refer to a “wheel of time”.  The Mayruna, too, regard time as cyclical.  In The Encounter, the Mayruna are attempting, in effect to “time travel” back to pre-Columbian times to escape the encroaching modern world.

McBurney is superb in this show, which is bare theatre at its best.  The set is non-existent: a desk, some sound equipment, that’s it.  It’s a bit like watching a radio play, except it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good on the radio.

 

Blackadder Rides Again

May 24, 2016

It’s hard – and painful – to think that Blackadder Goes Forth first appeared on TV in 1989.  I know.  Twenty seven years ago.

And for 27 years, those of us who loved it have wanted it to come back.  We have lapped up rumours and weighed the options.  Could it be Blackadder in WW2?  (Nah, too much like Blackadder 4)  How about Blackadder in the swinging 60s? (I’d love to see that!)

Either way, it never happened, and the likelihood has retreated still further with the debut of Upstart Crow (BBC2). Ben Elton has sort of recreated Blackadder 2 (the Elizabethan one) but instead of Rowan Atkinson playing Blackadder we have David Mitchell, whom I usually find tiresome, playing William Shakespeare.

The similarities are endless, and tantalising.  I find it impossible to watch Upstart Crow without thinking that Atkinson would make a far better fist of playing Shakespeare, or that the part of Shakespere’s rival, Robert Greene must have been written for Stephen Fry.  The actor Mark Heap certainly seems like he has Fry’s booming, bombastic Lord Melchett in mind.

What was going on?  Did Elton write this, hoping that his pals Rowan and Stephen would agree to be in it?  Could the BBC not afford them?  Did they turn it down because it would inevitably be compared with Blackadder?

And what of Spencer Jones, playing Kempe, an actor in Shakespeare’s troupe?  Jones actually impersonates Ricky Gervais.  This is not a performance “inspired by” Gervais, it’s an outright impersonation: gestures, voice, physical tics: the full David Brent.  It is very odd, and – after a minute or so – not at all funny.  Why would an actor do that?  Why would a director encourage an actor to do that?  Why would a writer as powerful as Atkinson allow a director to encourage a actor to do that?  It’s mystifying.

Thankfully, the rest of the show much better.  In fact it could end up being very funny.  So far.  I’ve only seen episode 1.

Instead of comparing it favourably or unfavourably to Blackadder, perhaps we should just accept that this is how Ben Elton writes sitcoms, regardless of who’s in them.

UPDATE: I’ve watched episode 2 now.  I don’t think I’ll be hurrying to watch more.  It was the same jokes again, more or less.  Some very funny lines and Shakespearean in-jokes that we can congratulate ourselves for understanding, but I’m still wishing that Will Shakespeare was played by Rowan Atkinson.  I suppose if there’s nothing else on…

How I dodged a bullet in Chicago

May 16, 2016

I can summon hot waves of shame just thinking about it.  It could have been soooo embarrassing…

There I was in Chicago at Book Expo America.  I had been invited by my US publisher, Schwartz & Wade (Penguin Random House) to promote my children’s book, Time Travelling With A Hamster which had been selected as one of the titles to be given extra exposure through their “Book Buzz”.

I know: nice.  Thrilling, in fact.  And definitely NOT an opportunity to squander by making an absolute tit of oneself.

burlesque-dancing_2So I’m there on Friday night with all these lovely people from the publishing world, most of them women, as well as some other authors, and it’s after dinner, and I’m a dry Martini and half a bottle of wine bolder, and I think,”Wouldn’t it be great to go to a Magic Bar?”

You see, Chicago to magicians (both pros and amateurs like me) is like, I dunno, Wimbledon to tennis fanatics.  Sort of.  It’s just that for about thirty years from the 50’s, Chicago spawned a version of close-up magic done in bars: funny, fast-talking, often card-based.  It was an influential fad, it died out, but remnants of it linger and I thought it would be fun to see it.

No one else did.  And I thank God for that.

I turned up, Billy No-Mates, at one venue where magic still thrives: the aptly named Chicago Magic Bar.  I took my seat, and eagerly awaited a performance of mystifying and hilarious conjuring.

Instead, on came a dancer, most politely described as Rubenesque.  She took all her clothes off.

I’m no prude, but this isn’t what I had come to see.  Nor was the next very curvy stripper.  Or the next…

Turns out I had got the night wrong.  Fridays are “Burlesque Night” at the Chicago Magic Bar.

I had almost taken a bunch of people I had just met, and who could make or break my fledgling authorial career, to a strip show.

“Let’s talk about adverbs,” he said, swiftly

April 21, 2016

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Stephen King’s splendid book On Writing, and referenced his personal ban – which I think he’d like extended – on adverbs.

“The adverb is not your friend” he said, adding, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.”  Loudly, no doubt.

swiftI’ve since discovered (because I have never been aware of it) that my own writing does include adverbs.  Not that many, I don’t think, but too many to please Stephen King (for whom I have, lest it be doubted, the utmost respect).

King’s dislike of adverbs comes down to his dislike of sloppy writing; he thinks there is nearly always a better way of indicating how an action is being carried out, which is all that adverbs do.
But I’m not sure, now, that King isn’t overreacting somewhat.  Earlier today, I wrote, “He waved his fist limply.”  Realising I had transgressed the King’s Law, I reconsidered the sentence and realised that “limply” was exactly how the character had waved his fist and that the adverb would stand.  There are others that I found.  None offended me.

To further illustrate his point, King makes reference to the favourite old game of creating “Tom Swifties”, named after the adventure books by Victor Appleton.  Appleton was probably over-fond  of using adverbs to describe how someone said something, apparently terrified of using the word “said” on its own.

“Come here,” said Tom, gruffly.

That sort of thing.  It has given rise to endless joke variations.  There’s about a million on the web, but I’ll give you a handful of my favourites.

“It’s pretty windy today,” said Tom, breezily.

“I think someone’s turned the heating up,” said Tom, hotly.

“My bicycle wheel has broken,” Tom spoke out.

“I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked.

“I’ll have a martini,” said Tom, drily.

Years ago I lived in Sydney, Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald asked readers for suggestions.  I was thrilled when mine was printed.  Obviously I still remember it and relish the opportunity to boast about it at every chance:

“There’s just no atmosphere up here,” said Major Tom with an explanatory air.

 

 

 

Victoria Wood: my unfunny encounter

April 21, 2016

“She won’t be funny, you know,” said our executive producer.

I had booked Victoria Wood, who died yesterday, as a guest on a chat show I was producing for ITV, starring Jimmy Tarbuck (about which I have written before).  wood

She was a late booking, the first guest on the first show in 1996.  Two days before the live recording, EastEnders star and Carry-On favourite Barbara Windsor had pulled out, and none of the other guests was big enough to be promoted to the top spot.

Elaine, our researcher, had a passing acquaintance with Victoria Wood, with whom she had worked previously.  I begged Elaine, and Elaine used up her entire stock of showbiz credibility to beg Victoria: “Please rescue our show.  It’s a personal request from Jimmy who is a huge fan.”

(Not strictly true.  Tarby was a fan – who isn’t? – but had no idea of the difficulties were were having booking guests to his show with a tiny guest budget).

Graham Stuart, the executive producer (now Graham Norton’s producer, so he knows a bit about talk shows) delivered the pessimistic verdict on our booking.  “She’s only funny doing ‘material’ and she’s not going to do her material for £100 and her bus fare.”

I prayed he’d be wrong.  He wasn’t.

Poor Victoria.  On the night, she was pleasant enough, but had the definite look of someone who was there because she was doing a favour for someone.  Far too well-mannered to give monosyllabic answers, she instead engaged in pleasant chit-chat with Jimmy Tarbuck who did his considerable best to make the whole thing funny.  He fed her lines, and she batted them away, he asked her the sort of questions to which virtually every comedian has stock replies: who were your comedy influences, what makes you laugh, what was your worst ever gig?  No dice.

She was unfailingly polite, nice…and unfunny. Afterwards, Tarby was baffled.  A born laughter-maker, he had – has – a wealth of jokes and one-liners with which he could fill the gaps, but he couldn’t understand why he was having to do all the work.

In the edit, we somehow extracted a vaguely diverting five minutes from an excruciating 15 minute interview.

I read in an obituary this morning that she was considered a little dour off-stage.  This seems a bit harsh.  But comics are seldom funny all the time; the ones that try to be are – in my experience – very tiresome.

 

So because I think she was hilarious and gifted, here are a couple of clips.  The first is Victoria Wood’s song, “Let’s Do It”.  I thought I was the only one who loved this song.  Turns out everyone does.  I would have known, only middle-aged men don’t often get to talk about how much they like the comic songs of Victoria Wood.  Listening to it on the news last night, it reminded me of Noel Coward’s song, “Nina from Argentina”.  Both have fabulously complicated lyrics, and both are – essentially – about the same subject: lack of desire.

I’ve got a book of Victoria Wood’s songs somewhere.  In the foreword, she professes that she hates performing “Let’s Do It” – far too many words to remember!  Can’t say I blame her, but it’s great fun to listen to.

 

 

A gem on every page

April 4, 2016

Fifteen years ago I was holiday with my then-girlfriend (now wife) in Zahara de los Atunes in southern Spain.  Three things are especially memorable.  Mrs W told me she was pregnant; Islamist psychos flew aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York (the horror of which we watched unfold on a television in a village bar); and I read Stephen King’s “On Writing”.

kingThe copy that I read then has long been lost.  Perhaps I threw it out: I remember finding its presence a little intimidating. There is so much good advice and encouragement included in it that it seemed to be reproaching me for not following it.  How could I have read this book yet still be slogging away as a producer of largely crap TV, instead of actually, you know, writing?

Then someone last week tweeted me one of its countless bon mots.  Perhaps it was:

Fiction is the truth within the lie.  Or

Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s.

I can’t remember.  Stephen King quotes are pretty common on Twitter.  Anyway, I bought it again and stayed up till 1.00 a.m. last night, rediscovering the wisdom and fun in its pages.  I laughed at this one:

We are writers; we don’t ask one another where we get our ideas from.  We know we don’t know.

Not only is it true (however unsatisfying, “I don’t know,” is the only answer to the question “Where do your ideas come from?”) it revealed something to me that had till now only been on the edge of my realisation.

And that is: I am a writer.  The way that I smiled in recognition at that quote means that I am a member of a club that includes Stephen King!  A lowly, just-published, starting-out, probationary member perhaps, but still…

Whether or not you like Stephen King books (and I think everyone should read at least one or two just so that you know something of one of the world’s most popular novelists) he’s pretty illustrious company.

He’s bossy too.

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. 

I have  just picked up Time Travelling With A Hamster and opened it at random.  One one double page I found two adverbs, “expectantly”and”warily”.

Sorry, Stephen!

 

 

Did people actually wear these things?

March 16, 2016

I fear they did.  The 1970s was, after all, “the decade that fashion forgot”.

Except, it wasn’t.  It was more like, “the decade that fashion forgot that clothes should not be principally hilarious.”

By which I mean, look around you. There is relatively little in how people dress now that in twenty years’ time will provoke amused head shaking.  OK, I’m not including here the fashion for young men to wear suits at least two sizes too small.  Whose idea was that?  Snug-Fitting I can understand.  Can’t wear, but I can understand.  Snug fits have been a standard option since Paul Smith first started making suits that stood out in the big, boxy 80s.  But even Paul Smith suits had sleeves that came past your wrist and trousers that touched the tops of your shoes.

So, yeah.  Teeny-tiny suits on fully grown men is ridiculous, and we’ll laugh in a few years.

And wearing jeans below your buttocks so that everyone can see your underwear?  That’s dying out, surely?  (“Yeah, grandad, sheesh…”)

And dressing up as a Yukon lumberjack with a massive beard, like some kid doing Call Of The Wild for World Book Day?  That’s gotta provoke amusement before long.

Oh, and ripped jeans.  That’s weird, but they’ve been around for years and don’t look like they’re going anywhere. Or maybe they’ve been and gone and returned and I just haven’t noticed.  It’s possible.  Probable, even.

Anyway, all that notwithstanding, the nineteen seventies were especially silly, and this collection of pictures that I have collated amply proves it.

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First up, the Eleganza ad (left) “Things happen when you were Eleganza” says the ad copy. Like being accidentally cast as an extra in a low-budget TV space opera?  I know we all joke about outsize collars being fashionable in the 1970s, but really?  That is a designer’s joke, surely?  One that he never expected to get away with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So Eleganza may not be a name you have heard of, but Wrangler (above) surely is, and I LOVE this ad for the marvellously-named “Wranglers Wrelaters”, handily marked with a “TM” by the brand name, like anyone’s going to nick it.  I love, too, their line: “Now you can have perfectly color-wrelated clothes – even if you’re color-blind.”  Why bring up colour-blindness?  Did someone mention it?  They should have.  Best of all is the last line: “Wremember the W is silent.”  What?  How else can you say it?  Do they honestly think that, without that reminder, people will be trying to pronounce the W?  I’ve tried.  I sound like Frank Muir doing an impression of Jonathon Ross.

Finally, for today (because I’ve got more!): my favourite.  I’m not sure which bit of this33-1970fashion-thingslife

page I like best.  Is it the guy on the right who looks very pissed off (and who can blame him) even though he’s holding what appears to be a CD long before CDs were invented.

No, it has to be the three fellas on the left.  Do you remember that ad  a few years ago for Dove soap, when they got women of all shapes and sizes posing in their underwear as a “celebration of real women”?  Not such a new idea, was it?  This is what it would look like if me and my mates Olly and Dave became underwear models.

What happened here, really?  Did the models not turn up?  I think they were delayed by a 1970s three-day-week transport strike, so the photographer said to three lads from the factory floor, “OK boys – you’ll do,”?

 

Mysterious object in the mail

March 12, 2016

IMG_9339This arrived this morning.

It’s a self-assembly mini-drone, so far as I can tell.  There was no sender, no return address, no instructions.

All I can tell is that

1.  It was sent by Swiss Post

2. The sender’s signature is printed as YANWEN which appears to be a Chinese shipping company

3.  There’s a barcode and an order number, but the YANWEN website doesn’t recognise it.

What can it all mean?