“I’m not quite sure how Young has made an entire suit out of a piece of lint.” – Graydon Carter

Podcast of Last Night’s Debate
Friday 22nd June 2007
The Times has just made a podcast available of last night’s Intelligence Squared debate. Click here to download it.


Julie Burchill’s Retirement
Friday 22nd June 2007
I blogged on Comment is Free yesterday about Julie Burchill’s retirement from journalism. You can read my post — and the mainly negative responses — here.


Lord Reith is Dead. Long Live Big Brother
Friday 22nd June 2007
I spoke in an Intelligence Squared debate yesterday, proposing the motion “Lord Reith is Dead. Long Live Big Brother”. The other speakers on my side were David Elstein and Tim Gardam. Opposing the motion were Stephen Bayley, Lloyd Evans and Howard Jacobson. The chair was Peter York. (Stephen Bayley and I rehearsed the arguments on the Today Programme yesterday morning — and for those who are interested the “disco” between Stephen and me starts about 17-and-a-half minutes in.)

Before the debate began, 216 people were for the motion, 386 against and 260 undecided; by the end, 287 were for, 567 against and only 17 undecided. So we lost pretty comprehensively.

The mistake we made on our side, I think, was in taking the motion too seriously — a mistake exacerbated by the fact that it was the last Intelligence Squared debate until the autumn and the audience have come to expect these end-of-season affairs to be funny. David Elstein made a very considered, well-thought out speech in which he argued that the BBC’s historic monopoly and the Reithian ideology that evolved to justify it were both the product of an outmoded technology, and Tim Gardam made a persuasive case that the problem with contemporary British TV is at the highbrow end, where programme makers and commissioning editors haven’t matched the energy and ingenuity displayed by the makers of shows like Big Brother (which he commissioned as Channel 4’s Director of Programmes). After the debacle of my last attempt to be funny in public, I, too, decided to play a straight bat.

All the speakers on the other side, by contrast, were very funny. Howard Jacobson, who spoke last, had them falling about in the aisles and when the audience came to vote afterwards they probably had his performance uppermost in mind. Jacobson’s best joke was his opener, which went something like this: “I was in the Groucho Club last night telling a young, Channel 4 commissiong editor that I was speaking in this debate. He said, ‘Is Lord Reith dead? That’s terrible. When did he die?'”


How to Lose Friends: the Movie
Friday 8th June 2007
Copyright: Whyaduck Productions
“How happy do you feel at this moment?” asks Simon Pegg.

It’s my first visit to the set of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and the answer is pretty happy, as you can see from the above picture. How many authors are lucky enough to have their books turned into films? And how many of them are blessed with such an incredible cast and crew? If a genie had popped out of a bottle five years ago and said, “Tell me who you’d like to turn your book into a film and I will make it so” this is exactly the team I would have chosen.

I’m not just staying “on message” here. Who better than Simon to play the lead? Not only is he a proven box office star — Hot Fuzz has taken over $66 million to date — but there’s something irresistibly likable about him. (If he’s going to turn me into a sympathetic character, that’s an indispensable asset.) He’s also very, very funny. During my time on set, the editor shows me a rough assembly of a scene that was shot on the first day of principal photography and by far the funniest thing in it is Simon’s expression in the final few seconds. Not to diminish the achievement of Peter Straughan, the writer who’s adapted my book for the screen, but a gifted comic actor can toss something off on the spur of the moment that is much funnier than anything a screenwriter can come up with, no matter how good he or she is.

Simon also says that it must be pretty strange for an author being on set and watching an actor pretending to be them, but the truth is that the character he’s playing — Sidney Young — only bears a fleeting resemblance to me. That’s not to say he isn’t based on the central character in my book, but that person isn’t really me, either. One of Sidney’s key attributes — the thing that makes him such a “comic” character — is that he’s completely unaware of how he comes across to other people. (Simon manages to convey this effortlessly, even though it’s a big departure from the characters he played in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both of whom possessed a modicum of self-awareness.) That is undoubtedly how I portrayed myself in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People — it’s why I commit one faux pas after another — but it’s not strictly accurate. Like most comic memoirists, I took one aspect of my personality and exaggerated it. In real life, I’m not quite that autistic — at least, not all the time. Watching Simon play Sidney, then, isn’t particularly weird. Rather, I feel a kind of paternal pride in seeing a character that I created on paper being so expertly brought to life.

It’s quite unusual for an author to be given this degree of access to a film set and the unspoken agreement I have with the director, Bob Weide, is that I’m not allowed to be too precious about the liberties that have being taken with my book. In truth, though, I don’t feel too proprietorial about it. Peter Straughan has clearly based Sidney on me and he’s retained some of the other key characters from the book as well as some of the comic set pieces, but within these parameters he’s created a largely fictional story. In other words, it’s an extremely loose adaptation — which is exactly as it should be since the book as written was completely unfilmable. Peter’s done what a good screenwriter should — he’s found the movie in the material.

My other reason for not feeling over-protective is that the lead producer, Stephen Woolley, has shown me each draft of Peter’s script as it has been written and Peter’s been extremely good about responding to my deluge of “notes”. Mine and Peter’s relationship is closer than it normally would be between the author of an original work and the writer adapting it for the screen, partly because Peter is exceptionally considerate and partly because the source material is so autobiographical. My main concern throughout has been that the script should keep faith with the spirit of the book rather than the letter — and in that respect Peter and I have nearly always been in agreement. It wouldn’t be accurate to say he shares my fish-out-of-water sensibility, but he certainly gets where I’m coming from.

Having said all that, I do come pretty close to breaking my compact with Bob Weide on my first day on set. He graciously allows me to sit beside him as he directs a scene — or, rather, one of the numerous shots that a single scene consists of — and I immediately abuse this privilege by giving him “notes” on how I think he should direct it. To my mind, there’s more comic mileage in this particular scene than he’s bothering to extract — and I don’t hesitate to tell him so. His response is very diplomatic — he patiently explains to one of the assistant directors that he’s forced himself to endure my “notes” because I occasionally come up with something worth listening to — but I’m clearly an irritant he could do without.

Afterwards, I realize that my interjections betrayed my ignorance of how to direct comedy. Trying to extract every last drop of humour from each scene would be the kiss of death. If the audience thinks that the filmmakers are under the impression that what’s up on screen is “funny” — if they’re beaten about the head with just how “funny” the material is — the last thing they’ll do is laugh. Rather, the humour must emerge organically from the characters and the story; it’s something the audience must be allowed to discover for themselves. A prime example of this is Curb Your Enthusiasm which, for my money, is the best contemporary sitcom on television — and Bob clearly knows what he’s doing since he’s directed about half the episodes of Curb.

If he’s kind enough to let me on the set again, I’m going to shut the fuck up.


Katie Hopkins Update
Friday 8th June 2007
Okay, I was 80 per cent right about Katie Hopkins. On this week’s Apprentice she was told she’d made it through to the final, only to declare that she didn’t want to play any more. She made this announcement just as Sir Alan was deliberating about which of the final two contestants to fire. She claimed it was because she hadn’t discussed her “child care arrangements” with their various care-givers — which was clearly nonsense. It’s hard to say definitively, but my guess is she didn’t want to bow out after depriving one of the two remaining contestants a place in the final because that would be a bit of bad PR that even she wouldn’t be able to recover from. It now seems clear that her aim throughout has been to secure herself a media career as a kind of female Simon Cowell — and I predict a spot on a talent-show judging pannel — or her own series — in the very near future. If Ruth Badger can get her own show, Katie should have commissioning editors queuing up.

She is, as Mark Frith predicted (see below), a freelance publicity seeker, but she wasn’t acting wholly independently. She’s a client of James Herring at the PR/Management company Taylor Herring and, if I know Herring, he was behind last week’s fake paparazzi pictures. According to the Guardian she’s already sold her story to the News of the Screws for £40,000 and to a consortium of EMAP titles — including Heat — for £25,000. So that’s £65,000 so far and less than 48 hours have elapsed since she bowed out of the show. My guess is she’s on course to make approximately £500,000 by year’s end (though James will keep at least 20% of that and possibly more).

I say hat’s off to her. It’s heartening to see an individual exploiting a reality show rather than the other way round. She played a blinder and she deserves her jackpot.

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