Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tomorrow’s transport art today

Never mind the weather. The mother of all icebreakers is public transport. Every city dweller has an opinion on public transport, an opinion which is often swiftly followed by a disaster story or two. And, given the demands of modern life, it’s not surprising that so many of us cringe at the thought of public transport.

We’ve got ourselves so wrapped up in how much of a ‘nightmare’ it can be that we rarely stop to appreciate the special moments that do occur on public transport. Those quiet introspective thoughts that bubble up as you wait for your Tube train. That victorious and slightly relieved feeling of catching the last train home, while your mind plays back strange encounters from that night. The stories told and the secrets shared with friends as you travelled together.

Gail Brodholt makes oil paintings that bring forth precisely these feelings. Much of her work depicts the London transport network, and it’s a world away from the dull, robotic discourse of the news, with its ‘commuters’ and its ‘maintenance works’. There’s a stillness to her work, and a continuous reaffirming of distance. Train tracks, power lines, lighting and platform edges draw your eye further into her intricately detailed paintings.

Take the image above, ‘Remember Me’. The figures, and their trailing shadows, against the pastel sky perfectly evoke the atmosphere of the end to an unusually long day. It’s about bidding someone farewell, and perhaps the guy and girl in the foreground are the focus, but there are many other ways you could interpret this: A memory long past, the final parting before leaving for a new town and a new life or the end of a relationship.

That’s what I love about Gail’s pieces: they’re each in their own way individualistic snapshots of life on London transport that, deliberately or not, invite the viewer to put their own narrative, their own mood, at the heart of it. For me that’s a dash of solitary epiphanies, a twist of melancholy and at least as much romance as some of my favourite detective films.

It’s wonderful to see an artist expressing another side to London’s transport system, which is so often vilified as just an urban nuisance: noisy, uncomfortable rides between one temporary space and another. Transport in London has always had a strong identity. Gail’s oil paintings express the stillness, the intricate genius and the unappreciated beauty we encounter every day on our journeys across the city. That’s a sentiment I never want to forget.

Image: Gail Brodholt

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Midas Touch

The importance of academic reputation becomes painfully apparent when applying for skilled jobs. Chances of getting to the interview stage are judged even before your actual qualification, because a First from Derby University isn’t the same as a First from Oxford University. This kind of presumptive classification can unfortunately be damning for us all. But if you happen to be on the positive end of the scale more doors in society open.

And opening more doors in society, and the world of media specifically, is exactly the effect that I hope being an MA student of Goldsmiths will have on my future.

I’m thankful and proud of the teaching I received while in Nottingham, but part of me has always felt slight inadequate calling myself a ‘journalist’. The core of this has been because my university course was heavy on cultural studies, while the print journalism students got to work in a newsroom environment and learn all the practical skills to be ‘serous reporters’, such as law and shorthand.

On the other hand, the realisation I’ve had in my four years pursuing a career in journalism is that taught skills alone do not make a good journalist. It’s about getting out there, talking to people, witnessing events and learning from experience, about having ideas for angles that nobody else has thought of and it’s about having a tireless love of your art that keeps you writing every day.

Through my commitment to Platform and especially my freelance work in the last 12 months, I’ve proved to myself that I’m just as worthy to call myself a journalist as any other upcoming writers. Goldsmiths is the next step on my career path and the final step in my full-time academic education. This is about acquiring new skills, new experiences and pushing myself in new directions. I have the knowledge to be a good journalist, but to survive in the unstable media landscape and keep my services in demand, I’ll need to become a great journalist.

I’m ecstatic to have earned a place at Goldsmiths as its MA Journalism course suits my interests perfectly. Firstly, its PTC accredited and has a healthy focus on magazine and online media specially (other NTCJ courses still appear to be fixated on newspapers and some barely cover new media). The tutors, lead by course leaders Angela Phillips and Terry Kirby, have heaps of knowledge between them and have collectively worked for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, GQ, Cosmopolitan and more. Being a respected course in the heart of London, its links to newspaper and magazine publishers are near unparalleled. Finally, scanning the MA postgrad success stories solidifies the courses credentials (Olivia Solon of wired.co.uk fame when to Goldsmiths too).

I’m leaping headfirst into my toughest academic year yet, but if I survive it the career rewards will be so sweet. Although, most of all, I hope the small class size will make for a close-knit community feel (read: with all the excitement, irreverence and camaraderie of The Hour) and, at the end of it all, I hope I’ll have at least a couple good friends to make my time at Goldsmiths worthwhile. I can only be sure of one thing: I’ve know idea where the river will take me next.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Decline of Children’s TV

It was a time of innocence, of compassion, of playfulness. A time before the Nanny State, rampant gang culture and too many road accidents caused parents to forbid their children from “playing out.” Before the web became everyone’s favourite distraction, before video games conquered the home and before Toy Day was brushed aside by schools for being “too childish.” It was the golden age of children’s television, and I never imagined I would feel such an attachment to it.

During my school days in the 90s and very early 00s, children’s TV was unmissable entertainment for me and the rest of my generation. The faces of children’s TV were the studio presenters. Engrained on so many memories, these affable souls, who weren’t afraid to have a laugh at themselves, had the enthusiasm to make every show feel like a treat for those watching. And with the daily dose of cartoons, factual entertainment shows, dramas and game shows filling the terrestrial schedule at breakfast and after school, why wouldn’t they be?

There was an unspoken sensibility to children’s TV programming from the 80s to the early 00s. It wasn’t merely an after-school saviour for busy, working parents, it was a destination for children to be entertained, educated and inspired. Watching CBBC, CITV or Milkshake! made you part of a nationwide community that was far more inclusive than the rest of life at that age.

Tuning into the familiar faces of presenters was akin to seeing mutual friends. Though it didn’t become apparent to me until much later, the multiculturalism in children’s TV presenters, especially during the 90s, was a pioneering step for television media. Andi Peters, Josie D’Arby, Angellica Bell and Michael Underwood were heroes for breaking through the dogma that said ‘people of a different ethnicity can’t feature in or present positive media’. Studio breaks with a presenter humanised children’s TV and gave it continuity that’s nonexistent today. Audience interaction was a huge part of the formula (that grew to ridiculous proportions during the peak of Saturday morning television). Birthday messages and audience contributions were regularly unveiled on-air by presenters, and competitions were also a staple.

Furthermore, before the internet, children’s TV was often the first place I became aware of concepts, people and new technologies outside of family and school life. You had occasional show biz interviews and studio presenters struggling to get their heads round email and minidiscs (yeah, remember those!), but programmes like Blue Peter, It’ll Never Work, The Really Wild Show, Short Change and Newsround brought the vivid intricacy, the variety and, sometimes, the harsh reality of life home to its young audience. (I could literally write a whole other post about Blue Peter, the appeals, the presenters, the adventures, the makes, the cookery, the controversy...)

Inevitably, parts of the schedule didn’t appeal to everyone. Back then, Grange Hill and Byker Grove, soap-style dramas aimed at a teen audience, were of zero interest to me. I told myself: I’ve just come from school, so why do I want to see glum-faced teenagers at school too? Nevertheless, the measure of how good children’s TV used to be can be judged by the number of shows my generation have fond memories of. Timeless cartoons, such as Rugrats, Spider-Man: The Animated Series, Tom & Jerry, Beast Wars: Transformers, ThunderCats, Hey Arnold!, The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Timon & Pumbaa, Dexter’s Laboratory, Mona the Vampire, Arthur, The Wild Thornberrys... the list goes on and on. I could spend another week writing about Hanna-Barbera, Looney Tunes, Cartoon Network, Nicktoons and Disney cartoons alone!

Popular sitcoms and dramas from overseas – Goosebumps, Animorphs, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, That’s so Raven, Even Stevens, Smart Guy and, my favourite, Kenan & Kel – and home-grown programmes – Mr Benn, Brum, Danger Mouse, Mr Men, Postman Pat, Paddington Bear, The Wombles, Thunderbirds, Dennis and Gnasher, Rupert, King Arthur’s Disasters, SMart, ZZZap!,The Demon Headmaster, Stitch Up!, The Ghost Hunter, The Basil Brush Show, Jeopardy, Bernard’s Watch, Sooty, Xchange, Kerching! and My Parents are Aliens (see a load more in this list of BBC children’s programmes, CITV programmes and cult TV shows) – meant children’s TV was never sort of catering to its increasingly diverse audience.

Saturday mornings especially used to be without doubt children’s time, with eight hours or more of cartoons, magazine shows and children’s programmes from as early as 6am. The battle for viewers between CBBC’s The Saturday Show and ITV’s SMTV Live grew to fever pitch in the 00s (as did the targeted advertising, which affected CITV’s funds for original programming and syndication rights). Every Saturday was a party chocked with special guests and never short of a screaming live audience.

The decline of children’s television is a tragedy. No more studios, no more cheerful presenters, no more competitions, no more imagined community for this generation of children to be part of.

Nowadays, terrestrial children’s TV is a ratings graveyard. Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and other cable TV channels haven’t preserved what was lost. Disney Channel is unrecognisable from what it was 10 or even five years ago. Their stable of original cartoons and film spin-offs, like Kim Possible and American Dragon, have been set aside in favour of Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Wizards of Waverley Place – live-action sitcoms forged from the same tired template of multi-talented, popularity-obsessed US teens, and suggestion that inside everyone lies a performance artist waiting to blossom. Yeah, right.

Branding and merchandising is the reason Disney has been so quick to fill their channel with this uninspired live-action muck. After all, they’ve got millions of children hooked on High School Musical and Hannah Montana; think how may CDs, toys, books and stationery they must sell? This ideal, this false dream that western media have been selling for the last decade, that anyone can be famous, anyone can be a ‘celebrity’ is sickening. I’m positive it’s having a serious effect on the aspirations of children and young people because of its prevalence – especially girls. How many girls look up to female role models in fields like science or engineering or aviation? This is opening up a wider debate, but back to children’s TV.

What caused children’s TV into such a steep, nigh irreversible dive in the last seven years? Unlike my usual conclusion to the colossal changes to media during this period, the internet can take less responsibility than usual. Much of the blame lies with collective production burnout and, crucially, not reinventing with enough verve or broad appeal. Management at the BBC and ITV slashed budgets, advertising shrunk, studio broadcasts were scrapped, scheduled were shifted, talent wasn’t replaced and producers retreated from original programming. The pull of seemly unending digital channels and audience fragmentation that increased choice resulted in are factors, too.

I could give a thousand-and-one reasons why children’s TV has begun to fade, but, much to my disappointment, that won’t save it. Children’s TV was a huge part of childhood for my entire generation, and I know I’m not the only one who looks back nostalgically at its memory. Of course, children’s TV has to change with the times, but when I look at it now, with its minuscule timeslots, its reluctance to buy-in cartoon classics both old and new, and its lack of true presenter-audience relationships, I can’t help but feel today’s children have missed out. TV is still a massive part of many children’s lives, and entertaining and enriching programming is what they deserve.

Children’s TV notes:
CBBC idents (1997-2002) low quality

Memorable presenters:
Angellica Bell (CBBC, 1997-2003)
Kirsten O’Brien (CBBC, 1996-1999; SMart, 1999-2009)
Michael Underwood (CBBC, 1999-2002)
Konnie Huq (Blue Peter, 1997-2008)
Simon Thomas (Blue Peter, 1999-2005)
Barney Harwood (CBBC, 2002-2007)
Nick Baker (The Really Wild Show, 1996-2006)
Michaela Strachan (The Really Wild Show, 1993-2006)
Lizo Mzimba (Newsround, 1998-2008)
Ellie Crisell (Newsround, 2003-2008)
Andi Peters (CBBC, 1989-1993; Live & Kicking, 1993-1996)
Josie D’Arby (CBBC, 1994-1997)
Reggie Yates (Smile, 2002-2004)
Kate Heavenor (CBBC, 2002-200?)
Diane-Louise Jordan (Blue Peter, 1990-1996)
Jamie Theakston (Live & Kicking, 1996-1999)
Zoƫ Ball (Live & Kicking, 1996-1999)
Ant and Dec (SMTV Live, 1998-2001)
Paul ‘Des’ Ballard (Diggit, 1998-2002)
Ana Boulter (CBBC, 1998-2001)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Journo Biz: Ricardo Torres

Games writers from ethnic minorities are a rarity, but it’s rarer still to find an editor-in-chief of a games media website.

A 12-year veteran of GameSpot, who was made editor-in-chief in January 2008, Ricardo Torres is one games journalist I have strong admiration for. He recently left GameSpot, so it’s time I paid tribute to him with this Journo Biz post.

Discovering GameSpot’s live webcasts in 2005 was a turning point in my media consumption. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that seeing GameSpot’s coverage of the US PSP launch, the reveal of PS3 at Sony’s E3 press conference and the hours of E3 2005 show coverage shifted my perspective of games reporting.

Between 2005 and 2008, GameSpot was my primary internet source for gaming news and culture. It’s tirelessly produced podcasts, videos and live streams brought me closer to the industry I loved without me leaving my home. And, alongside Official PlayStation 2 Magazine, it inspired me to pursue games and technology reporting at university.

Appearances by Ricardo on GameSpot’s podcasts and live events were scarce, because, as I’ve come to learn, his role as an editor frequently kept him busy overseeing schedules, fixing appointments, liaising with PRs and publishers and all manner of other tasks. But you only have to see the breadth of content – and the exclusives – that GameSpot racked up during his tenure to know that Ricardo was a terrific editor.

Although I’ve never met him, Ricardo’s passion and professionalism is something I look up to. I applaud him for showing other aspiring games writers from ethnic minorities that they too can become editors and for being instrumental in providing games coverage that inspired me to want to join the games industry.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Spectral Sounds at Thames Festival

Last Sunday I saw Ghostpoet performing at the Thames Festival outside the Tate Modern gallery.

The wander down the South Bank towards the stage was strange even by its usual standards: throngs of people snaking their way downstream, entertainers lining the streets in colourful costumes, foods of the world and beer in plastic cups, a Just Dance 2 booth with children dancing on a floor the size of a milk float roof, a girl in a top hat running towards the riverbank, a riverside sign proclaiming ‘we wanted to be the sky’ and a couple kissing under and canopy of leaves.

The songs and witty lyricism of this experimental electronic hip hop artist have been like a personal counsel for all my issues and worries. I first heard about Ghostpoet on Guardian.co.uk’s Music Weekly podcast in March, and ‘Survive It’ was one of my most uplifting spring tracks that got me through the hardships of my final uni year.

You can read more about Ghostpoet and his Thames Festival live performance over at Erant Splendens.

Setlist: (Intro) Onetwos, I Just Dont Know, Garden Park, Run Run Run, Survive It, Liiines, Us Against Whatever Ever, Finished I Ain’t, Cash and Carry Me Home, (Encore) Morning (feat. Micachu).

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Luther still at large

‘Ludicrous’ is how the startlingly good crime drama, Luther, has been described by Radio Time’s TV editor, Alison Graham. Last year I gushed over the first series and promptly ordered the DVD the night it ended. Some might label it as such, but I my view it’s still frighteningly real.

I was delighted to see it return this year with a second series. Although, and I suspect this is partially due to the deep BBC budget cuts announced in October 2010, its shorter length and tangential storylines couldn’t surpass the perfect of the first series.

The randomness of the killers’ motivations in this series reflected a slight stagnation in its narrative arc. DS Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who doubts Luther throughout the series, really should have been more decisive in her condemning of him I think, as it would have built up to a personal crescendo, which this series missed. Dermot Crowley was also back as DSI Martin Schenk. Yes, the grumpy copper who tries to dismiss Luther throughout series one, who I hoped never to see again.

Nevertheless, Luther remains as atmospheric and bold as ever. Idris displays the burdens of his past, the pressure of cases and his conflicted emotions with unwavering conviction (this interview in The Independent says it all). His brief encounters with Ruth Wilson, as the elegant, beautifully intelligent Alice, still proves the duo have excellent chemistry. Mark and new character, Jenny, who complicates things for Luther, bring out his compassionate side, which is juxtaposes its natural darkness; but London remains the star, with every one of the grimy, unwelcoming environments reinforcing the sense of crime in a timeless circa 1980-20xx district.

Creator and writer Neil Cross hasn’t lost his edge. I look forward to exploring the world of Luther in book form, starting with Luther: The Calling. However, I hope, with the right funding and support, he can make Luther’s third series as arresting as its original.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lend me your eyes on Erant Splendens

Ladies, gentlemen, tired-eyed nocturnal web surfers who’ve stumbled across this page on another midnight binge gone wrong, may I have your attention please.

Form today I shall be writing blog posts for Erant Splendens – the forgotten castaways that survived the slow decline of the fabled Triforce community. Erant is a collaborative blog where its users post about 10-year-old games, yesterday’s trip to the cinema, Eurovision, laughable E3 predictions, 80s music... quite frankly whatever takes they fancy.

So I was hardily gonna say “no, thanks,” when Derek Williams invited me to be a part of it.

Expect political incorrectness, partiality and arguments with anonymous commenters as I take to another corner of the net to discuss all that is cultural and cool. Just don’t expect it all to make sense.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Filling in the gaps: Why mythology encourages more engagement

Short of a modest FMV sequence to tease your appetite, a game’s manual intro page was once all the backstory you were given. In a time where any major franchise worth its salt is accompanied by a herd of canonical novels, comics and web shorts, game mythologies are being undervalued. The thrill of discovering mythology in-game, of that knowledge impacting gameplay and playing purely for wonder is being undersold.

The creation of game mythologies, history and subtext woven into the fabric of gameworlds, is an important practice. Valve’s Half-Life 2 is a particularly good example, since its design team created histories for every environment, meaning you see echoes of the past during your travels through City 17. Not every game mythology has to be as expertly crafted as Half-Life 2’s, however.

In lieu of concrete information players invent their own reasons and scenarios. They take the base foundations of an open world platform game, like Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, and fill out its mythology personally and collectively.

Ancestry and knowing your roots was a theme that steadily grew in my mind while playing the original Jak and Daxter. The titular characters’ odyssey to return Daxter to his ‘human’ form is about as complicated as it gets. Woven into this is the mystery of the Precursors, an ancient civilisation that vanished long ago with only mystical relics as clues that they even existed. It’s this ever-present mystery that spurred me to continue exploring the gameworld long after I’d beaten the game, discovering half-buried ruins and deciphering the Precursor messages scattered across the land.

Probably the biggest out-of-game stimulant is players sharing their game experiences with other players. Fan fiction/art, wikis chronicling the a-to-z of gameworlds, forums debates; the process of crafting a game’s mythology only begins with the development team. The web has amplified player-generated contributions, as well as a feeling of entitlement. And the more players invest, the greater the backlash if/when developers do something they don’t approve of.

In essence, game mythologies catalyse engagement by stimulating the imagination. Of course, maps, books, comics, online wikis and so on can supplement this. But, crucially, a fertile game mythology will trigger a desire to explore that mythology further (which could be through gameplay), share the mythology with others, or add to the mythology itself. Game mythologies are the result of collective craftsmanship, forever shifting and difficult to separate from subjectivity. And it’s because of them that your incentive to play, and to dream, will always be rewarded.