Sunday, 25 August 2013

I love the smell of radio in the morning

If the eyes are the windows of the soul, the nose is the cat flap of the imagination. 

Smell is the most evocative sense. If I could show you a photograph of you, opening a Christmas present when you were five years old, you might say, "I remember that teddy bear. I wonder what happened to it?" But if you suddenly smell the particular fragrance of that teddy bear as you unwrapped it, mingled with pine scent of the Christmas tree and the Chocolate Orange you'd been eating since dawn - WHAM. A flood of memory engulfs you. You're there, reliving that moment.

(what does this have to do with radio? - ed.)
(don't worry, I'm getting there - me.)

Why does an aroma have the power to create an experience so completely? One answer may be neurobiological. The amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotions, is located close to the top of the nose. And it's next to the hippocampus, which plays a big part in the function of memory. You can read a proper scientific article about it here. So, smell stimulates the imagination to engage us, and that investment by our brain makes us participants rather than observers.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we listen to radio through our noses. Although I'm not ruling it out, either. I had an uncle who claimed to get excellent radio reception through the fillings in his teeth. But he also heard other voices in his head which probably weren't being broadcast by the BBC, especially the ones advising him to save the souls of sinners by exposing himself to them on the bus.

But for me, the process of listening to radio has affinities with the sense of smell. A radio drama, for example, can summon up an entire world. You may be hearing nothing more than a voice and a couple of sound effects coming out of a small, tinny speaker, but they can transport you to distant places and times, and conjure landscapes that are real even if they're fantastical. They can take you inside the mind of a character, plunge you into the thick of dramatic action, and engage your most profound feelings. Radio can liberate your imagination more effectively than any other medium.

Here's an example. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was a cult success that eventually appeared in many formats. But here's the crucial trajectory:

  It was a brilliant radio series
  It was adapted into a mediocre TV series
  It then became an even more mediocre film

The more money they spent, the worse it got. The radio series was a wonderful journey through a sci-fi multiverse that existed entirely inside your mind. But the physical actuality of television curtailed the boundless possibilities of your imagination, and defined every person, place and artefact as this, rather than whatever my mind's eye can see. The film version simply went to more elaborate lengths to disappoint you. The playfulness of the radio series depended in part on the kind of surreal paradox that is killed stone dead if you start taking it literally. The mind can entertain two contradictory ideas at once, but most television can only manage one, or less in some cases. As for film, many mainstream movies are now pure spectacle, erecting both a physical and a metaphorical screen between the viewer and any kind of meaningful experience. Audio stimulates the imagination, spectacle replaces it.

And for a performer radio is a dream. You don't have to wear makeup or a costume, or even any clothes at all. Not many people know that most of the classical music presenters on BBC Radio 3 work in the nude. Probably. Meanwhile, the great advantage of acting on radio is that you can give a misleading impression of your appearance. I've done some radio acting, and when people meet me they're often surprised by how tall they are.

On the subject of the BBC, it's a fact that while other platforms are growing (especially for podcast), UK broadcast radio is still dominated by the corporation. I don't know if that dominance is fair, but BBC radio is unique. It's not perfect, and like the rest of the BBC it has a top-heavy management structure.

A typical BBC management training exercise

Mao Zedong spoke of Permanent Revolution, and BBC management, fixated on endless assessments, visions, and indicators, is perpetually revolving around itself like a troupe of bureaucratic dervishes attempting to whirl themselves into a posture from which they can inspect their own performance in a delirium of auto-proctology. But the BBC is huge, complex organisation, and that's probably all I can say about it. 

As a listener I don't always like the content, and as a writer I'm sometimes frustrated by the commissioning process. But never mind that. For me, audio at its best can be a transcendent experience. If you think about the way that something as simple as a sound coming out of a box can draw you into infinite worlds of endless possibility, what is that if not a kind of miracle?

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Sit down, comedian

The last time I did stand-up comedy the audience voted with their feet. They kicked my head in.

I'm speaking metaphorically. Which was also the problem with my act. As it happens, I have been physically attacked while performing comedy, but it wasn't strictly speaking stand-up. Many years ago I opened for The Stranglers a few times. I came onstage pretending to be a roadie, whose microphone checks evolved into an increasingly surreal monologue that ended when I appeared, by means of a cunningly constructed wig, to remove the top of my head and expose my brain. Stranglers fans could get boisterous, and as well as throwing bottles or chairs they would sometimes pick up the smallest person available and throw them, too. It's unnerving to perform while a small punk, arms flailing and teeth bared, hurtles towards you, but as the band judged the success of their gigs on the liveliness of the riots they provoked, it was all part of the fun. I've also been chased by Turkish butchers wielding meat cleavers while doing street theatre in Rotterdam, but that's another story.
These reflections are prompted by the Edinburgh Festival fringe, which has mutated, over the years, from a forum for theatrical innovation to a trade fair for the comedy industry. The transformation began in earnest in the late 1980s, (about half way between my first Edinburgh performance, in 1979, and my last, to date, in 2001). It was partly in protest at this process that in 1989 I took an uncompromisingly experimental show to the festival, called Slave Clowns of the Third Reich, on the principle that if you can't perform fringe theatre at the fringe then where the fuck can you perform it? If I seem bitter, it's only partly because I dislike the dominance of stand-up comedy as cultural hegemony. It's also because I'm no good at it. Which makes me unusual, in a perverse way.

The world is full of stand-ups and most of them are pretty good. The comedy business has undergone a radical improvement in the quality and standard of its goods and services, just like many other businesses. Forty years ago it was quite easy to purchase a crappy stereo system or an abysmal car. In the motor trade, for example, two words spring to mind and those words are Princess and Austin, but not necessarily in that order. But these days it takes real dedication to find a truly execrable car or a rotten sound system. I don't miss those lousy products at all, but I do rather miss some of the hopeless performers from the early days of the comedy boom, and what was quaintly called "alternative comedy." And there's a simple reason for that: they may have been bad, but at least they meant it. In other words, they weren't products like stereos or cars.

I'm full of admiration for comedians who've worked hard to become good at what they do, especially when it includes gruelling years on the circuit, learning and perfecting their craft. Sure, certain people have a natural ability to make other people laugh, but it takes fortitude to become a good stand-up, as well as talent. People say stand-ups need to be supremely confident, but I think stand-ups also need humility (another quality I'm short of). However, there's more to my disillusionment with stand-up comedy than my own personal failings. 

No, it's because I believe most current British comedy lacks moral courage, engagement with the real world, and experience of life.
Not long ago I was at a storytelling gig. There are some wonderful storytellers out there, but what struck me at this gig was that the stories the younger performers told were excruciatingly boring. If the only experiences you've had are: childhood, school, university, a few relationships, and the risky thrill of being late with the rent once or twice, what have you got? A pilot on BBC3, probably. However, my point is that if your experience of life is limited, you need to be an exceptional performer to make up for it. 

I'm not saying that to be a good comedian you need to have been a lumberjack, pulled off a jewel heist, worked with lepers, or spent time in prison - although I can think of some comedians whose incarceration would be a public service. However, you don't need to experience something to get an angle on it.  Shakespeare didn't need to be a murderer to write about murder. But he was Shakespeare, and you're not. Better start planning that jewel heist. (Don't forget to film it for YouTube.)

Lack of life experience doesn't have to disqualify a comedian from engaging with an audience. The most mundane lives can yield profound truths; you don't need to travel the world to investigate the heart you carry with you wherever you go, and all you need to illuminate the fundamental comedy of human relationships is the nerve and determination to interrogate the subject even (or especially) if it's painful. But that's not what most comedians want to do. For many of them, their subject is simply themselves. But if your subject is you, and you haven't done anything, what else have you got to offer? Somehow, you need to engage with the world we all live in with enough passion, imagination and originality to say something about it that's meaningful to the rest of us - and I'm not talking about flirting "ironically" with bigotry. Let's not even go there.

Which brings us to politics. Many comedians don't seem interested in politics. There are some honourable exceptions, but they tend to be among the older generation. I'm not demanding that all comedy should be political, but I miss an approach that explores our shared humanity, rather than the narcissism of an individual. I can't help feeling that an entire generation is growing up with a belief that comedy has no power to impinge upon how anyone thinks or feels and is simply a spectator sport in which competitors deploy their own ironic self-absorption to score points against each other. Is it too much to ask for material that goes deeper? How about some discourse on the fucking zeitgeist here? 

Stand-ups work very hard and need great devotion to their craft in order to excel. But for the most part, if you ask them what challenges they want to tackle, they talk about the challenges facing them in their career. These are, indeed, formidable, as it’s a highly competitive, stressful business. But for me it would be far more interesting, and potentially inspiring, if comedians were to tackle a bigger challenge, one that seems to have become so unfashionable that it's almost treated as an embarrassment. I’m talking about changing the world.

You know you want to.

By overwhelming public demand, I continue to refrain from doing stand-up, and I confine myself to writing. For now.