Category Archives: Journalism

Let Me Be Frank

I loved House of Cards. It was a powerful show, built from the memory of a BBC serial, it outgrew its predecessor rapidly as it focused on the political machinations of Chief Whip Frank Underwood and his wife Claire. Drawing comparison with Macbeth, Underwood is the classic politician loyal to the King, yet spurned by that King and driven by ambition he aspires to become the King himself. Setting the show in Washington DC, in the heartland of US politics led to all kinds of possibilities, as the series itself began to be mirrored in the real life political ambitions of one Donald J Trump.

And yet, as good as the show was, it’s main drawing power was actor Kevin Spacey. As Underwood, Spacey gave another phenomenal performance, proving that he is an extremely gifted actor with the skill for deception and the art of imitating life.

On Christmas Eve 2018, it was announced by the prosecutor that Spacey would be charged with a felony over his sexual assault allegations, a matter which had first arose in October 2017 when Spacey admitted his homosexuality publicly on Twitter and spoke about allegations made from fellow actor Anthony Rapp. This snowball effect created a public outcry against Spacey who made no further comments and retreated into a self imposed exile while a number of Spacey’s current projects where either delayed or entirely altered altogether. We’re used to seeing celebrities fall from grace, normally such allegations coming long after their prime has passed, those like Jimmy Saville posthumously or Gary Glitter. Rumors or allegations may surface but it is only once the individual is well past their prime. Not so with Spacey.

Although arguably some of his best work behind him, Kevin Spacey was still producing thought provoking and engaging drama, very present in public life and not likely to be retiring anytime soon. I had personally heard allegations from a family friend, who claimed Spacey had been auditioning for a play in Dublin in the late 90s, and had invited one of the younger cast members back to his room to discuss the role in private. It was always something that had stuck with me – even though I’d been told the story many years previously – but something I had assumed was such commonplace in certain Hollywood circles it was thought impossible to police.

When the felony charge was confirmed on Christmas Eve, it seemed like old news, considering there had been no new comment from Spacey for well over a year. In the interim the studio responsible for his House of Cards show had announced it would continue for a sixth season. It was explained that Underwood had been killed off screen, with his wife Claire now resolved to take her place in the Oval Office. The show lacked something for me, and although there were moments of sparkle, I regret to say that they were moments built on the back of Frank’s involvement. The show was legitimately the Kevin Spacey hour and without his presence it felt like Netflix had commissioned the series simply to make a point that didn’t hold much water. Without the show’s lead actor it had nowhere to move. A deeply unsatisfying end to the series came and went and we were promised a resolution but received none.

Suddenly, both Spacey’s fiction and reality were merged together, as he presented a short video from his official YouTube page. Entitled ‘Let Me Be Frank’ it showed a character, performed by Spacey, in the accent of Frank Underwood addressing the audience and asking what actually happened. The video has acquired several million hits in just a few days and that counter is far from slowing down, as many people have spent Christmas literally recording, editing and publishing their own reaction videos, analysis and feature commentary to this piece.

At the beginning of the video Spacey is seen washing his hands preparing a Christmas dinner. Dressed in a novelty apron, it would suggest that the video has either been created recently (owing to the fact it is Christmas Eve) or planned somewhat in advance. I personally believe the former, since Underwood’s character in House of Cards had grey hair and although Spacey may wish to give the impression Underwood is now living a secret life with colored hair, the lack of any grey hair is more significant I feel as a way of merging fiction and reality. Given the emphasis on Christmas, the washing of the hands is also slightly significant, considering that Jesus Christ (born on Christmas Day) was executed on the testimony of what is described as an angry mob. When attempting to deal with Jesus, and adjudicating his trial, Pontius Pilate is known to have washed his hands in gesture of relieving himself of the responsibility of this matter. My belief is that Spacey, who could have begun the video anywhere, chose to begin it at this point as he is washing his hands of previous issues and what is before him.

Spacey turns to the camera having wiped his hands, and affixes a stare, though his words are spoken with the distinctive Southern accent of Frank Underwood. He starts by berating his audience, telling them they trusted him when they shouldn’t, and how he shocked us by revealing his deepest, darkest secrets. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between life and art, immediately Spacey is creating a sense of confusion between Frank Underwood and his own personal abilities as an actor and what rumors might have been heard in his private life.

He takes a cup to drink, and does this twice in the video, which I believe in itself is significant. The cup definitely appears to be a regal – a royal design – and has a message in Italics on it. Of course, when Spacey continues and says “you and I are not done, despite what they say” it’s a chilling statement.

His defense counsel will likely argue this is Spacey in character, though prosecutors may see this as an attempt for Spacey to influence any trial, stating that he knows what the audience wants, that they were quick to judge him without evidence and that they haven’t heard the real story yet. Even the video’s title, “let me be frank” is both a play on Frank Underwood and a potential way for Spacey to address his accusers. It’s also a way for Spacey to influence any potential jurors or judge before the trial is even set. If such a thing was released during jury selection there would no doubt be uproar. Spacey has chosen an ideal time, when the Holiday’s prevent anyone from doing much of anything until the New Year.

Spacey is to be arraigned on January 7th, according to the Boston Globe, but he himself asks in the video “no, not you, you’re smarter than this…all this presumption led for such an unsatisfying ending” and this is easily believed to be a reference to the online disapproval of House of Cards Season 6. But it’s Spaceys next comment which I find the most significant in the video;

“If you and I have learned anything these past years, it’s that in life and art, nothing should be off the table”

This in itself is seen as a direct statement to anyone watching. Spacey goes on to say that if he (Frank, who knows at this point?) got away with the stuff he did do he sure as hell won’t be punished or what he didn’t. There’s a moment of pause after this statement, and you can’t deny the powerful nature of any monologue, which immediately makes you think about what is being said. Is Spacey blackmailing his accused, are we looking at the threat of further repercussions if they dare to challenge him. What does he know? Or is this just Frank talking. We are, after all, a world so heavily influenced by dialogue of fictional characters, people we’ve never met and reality television.

At the end of the segment Spacey points out that you never actually saw him die, and then puts on a ring, a ring which looks suspiciously like (but which I doubt is) the ring from House of Cards Season 6 that Frank Underwood was meant to have been buried wearing. Frank wore the ring for the entire show but it was most prominently featured in the final season in his absence. The ring itself was about as close as we got to having Underwood as a character in Season 6 and showed just how much presence an actor can have in legacy when they’re not even present on the camera.

Think about what Spacey is doing. He’s cooking a meal. He’s got his hunger back. He begins by washing his hands of the past, and he ends the video by assuming character, placing the ring off his finger and walking off screen. Those familiar with the very first season of House of Cards remember the pilot episode; Underwood eating ribs at Freddy’s the morning after Walker’s inauguration, and marking a page in the print with sauce to indicate the hunt had begun.

I believe Spacey, a clever man with a tactile mind, has just given us a very clear motive of what he intends to do. Many reporters comment that the video has backfired. I don’t believe it has at all. Just like I don’t believe he’s made a bad move here. As of last count there were 42,939 thumbs down on YouTube from 6.375 Million Views; and 138,461 thumbs up. Regardless of guilt or innocence, I believe the true winner here is entertainment and fiction.

A message seeking comment was left with Mr Spacey’s spokeswoman Laura Johnson.

As Spacey walks off screen, we remember that he is an incredibly gifted actor, and what we’ve seen is a performance we’re likely to see again. Though on whose stage?

Die Hard (1988)

“When they touch down, we’ll blow up the roof, they’ll spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they work out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent.”

Every year since 2014 I’ve visited The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle to watch Die Hard at Christmas. It’s become something of an annual pilgrimage, one which I took great pride in repeating last night, despite some real changes having taken place in the previous four years. I actually ended up working at the Tyneside for a considerable period between 2014 and 2017; with me experiencing the night at other selected screenings as a member of staff.

This year also marked a change because of the newly “remastered” version of the film, leading to an increased drive in Blu Ray sales for Christmas, also meaning a fresh print of the movie in which we’re expected to be able to see a notable difference in picture and sound quality. But more on that later.

For those who don’t yet know the story, and every year seems to bring in an additional group of people who are watching this movie for the first time, Die Hard is set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York City cop, is visiting his estranged wife Holly at her new job. He’s hoping to take some time to reconnect with his family, and the sub current of the film – which doesn’t get explored much – is that effectively Willis is somewhat of a misogynist with a drinking problem who assumed Holly would come crawling back after a few weeks.

When Willis arrives at the party, and repeated viewings of this film will make you realise just how absurd some of the supporting dialogue in these opening scenes are, he surprises his wife just prior to the arrival of German “terrorists” led by Hans Gruber (played fantastically by the late Alan Rickman) who are ultimately working for the benefit of a third party never identified. Willis then has to fight as a “lone gunmen” against unsurmountable odds, involving the LAPD, the FBI and, ultimately, the media in his quest to continue a conversation with his wife.

The film was written adapted from the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” and depending upon whose stories you believed, the rights are purported to have been originally owned by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was 77 when Die Hard was filmed and was contractually obligated to have been approached for the lead role, as he’d previously stared in the novel’s original film. Another theory is that Clint Eastwood was to play his own version a few years prior, but both he, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger turned the film down.

One of the areas in which this film succeeds so well, although doesn’t receive much praise for doing so, is its supporting cast. Notable 80s actors like Paul Gleeson, William Atherton, Robert Davi and even a cameo from comedian Rick Ducommun make this film a directory for talent; yet Willis and Rickman, who themselves remain separate to each other for almost all of the film, remain in completely different locations than those outside. Part of this is rumoured to have been done owing to exhaustion, with Willis also filming Moonlighting during the same period, meaning more scenes involving the supporting cast had to be added.

The film, originally written to have a reveal towards the end between hero and villain, only avoided achieving that goal because of antics on set. The rumour goes that Alan Rickman was practicing an American accent prior to filming. Considered so good, director John McTiernan felt it was a perfect opportunity to have the pair meet without realising who the other one was. This scene was also unrehearsed, which upon re watching is phenomenal, showing just what depth of talent they had. This was also Rickman’s first day of shooting, and the actor effectively sprained his knee making the jump at the beginning of the scene.

Rewatching this film simply reminds you of how pivotal a role can be for an actor, and certainly it changed both Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s careers going forward. Reginald Johnson, the actor playing Al Powell however, never truly managed to find the same footing and his cameo appearance in the films sequel has been long since forgotten.

Picture wise I saw little difference in newly remastered print, with more continuity errors spotted, such as the shadow of the stage hand who knocks over the Christmas tree towards the films climax and the issues surrounding the filming of the final scene – which I’m unsure whether was now filmed earlier in the day than the preceding scenes during which Al shoots Karl and meets McClane. At the start of the film I was incredibly impressed with the colour of the sunsets, though note one scene in which the villain’s truck can be seen driving down the freeway. This truck seems to be filmed at a completely different time of day and weather condition to the rest of the film and such remasters make the print all the more obvious.

Crucially, though, the expanded light range is never taken so far that it looks unnatural or forced. Provided you’ve got a good HDR TV, you’ll see no clipping of detail in the newly invigorated light peaks, or crushing out of detail in the newly enriched dark scenes and image areas.

The 4K Blu-ray image is also a worthwhile upgrade over the HD Blu-ray when it comes to sharpness and detail. There’s a beautiful density and granular quality to the image that just isn’t present on the HD Blu-ray. Plus, you get far more texture and minutiae in everything from clothing to facial close-ups and the Nakatomi Tower’s stark combination of stylish and sterile environments.

Die Hard remains as riveting and engaging 30 years (and many viewings) on as it did when it first exploded into cinemas in 1988. The only difference now is that it looks unprecedentedly glorious in its new 4K and HDR clothes.

Steelwork Steps for Former Brewery

The first steelwork has been laid in place as part of an exciting new Sunderland development. A plot of land, on the site of the former Faux Brewery, has begun construction on what will be a 60,000sq ft office complex – the land purchased by Sunderland City Council in 2011.

Irene Lucas CBE, chief executive of Sunderland City Council, said: Sunderland has taken huge leaps forward in attracting innovative, high-growth businesses to the city, as well as supporting start-ups to succeed – particularly in the knowledge economy, an area in which Sunderland has achieved the second fastest rate of growth outside London. 

“Office spaces like the new facility in Vaux will provide high quality accommodation to scores of businesses that want to be part of what will be an innovative and creative community at the heart of the city centre.  It’s hugely exciting to see the site taking shape.”

Work is being carried out by Carillion, part of the Siglion joint venture between Igloo Reconstruction and the Council to develop and transform five key sites across the city. Siglion itself is a development and regeneration company which found in April 2015. It manages over 700 tenancies and plans to develop Sunderland City at the Vaux site, Seaburn and Chapelgarth then Farringdon Row and Numbers Garth.

John Seager, chief executive of Siglion, said: “The Vaux site is such a focal point for Sunderland and its position as one of the main entrance points of the city centre is hugely important for those visiting.

“It’s fantastic to see the building begin to take shape and see this important location transformed into a development that reflects the modern and dynamic city that Sunderland is. The Vaux development, when it is completed, will be a space that will create new jobs, workplaces and original communities.  It’s a huge step forward and we hope that the second phase will follow soon after the first building.”

Designed by Architects Field Clegg Bradley Studios it is expected to stand five stories high, giving much needed office space to clients, as well as an open plan area accommodating a bar, café and restaurant with views overlooking River Wear and Wearmouth Bridge. It is expected that this site will be a flagship space in Sunderland’s current rejuvenation. The building is due to be completed in June 2018.

Eddie Tribe, Carillion’s project director said: “It’s great to start work on this iconic site. Our work will create jobs and opportunities for local businesses. We have agreed a target to achieve 60 per cent of spend with local suppliers and aim to employ 16 apprentices throughout the construction programme, with further opportunities within our supply chain for employment for local people.

Carpe Diem

I live to write. I love to write as well. I’m writing a story right now. Descriptive narrative has always been something I’ve excelled at, and if they had done a full module in creative English when I was at school there might have been a chance I’d have gotten at least one A in my final exams. But with great power, comes great responsibility, and I always felt that I needed to play to my strengths. I’ve spoken before about the first story I ever wrote – it was a news piece about the Stena Sealink, which had crashed into a wall docking in a Dublin port – and I had to edit the piece as reported by RTE online to a nice little script for my newsreader.

When I worked with Wave 102 in Dundee back in 2009, I got plenty of experience with writing news stories and creating articles for broadcast, and then I’d be the person reading them out during the broadcast. I always remember how weird it was to go for a walk around Dundee Town Centre and hear my voice reading the news on a loudspeaker in the local shopping centre. We pre-recorded the last four bulletins of the day on a weekend, so I’d recorded the first 8/10 live and then do the final 4 before I left for the evening.

December 2018 commemorates my tenth anniversary of getting a job at Talk107. As a Producer for a major Edinburgh radio station it remains one of my firm career highlights and allowed me to look after things like the Drive Time show and create content and features like I’d dreamed of since I was 15. Of course, I was closer to 15 at the time than I am now, and I’m still dreaming. Still writing articles and creating words and being as descriptive as I can with this narrative – perhaps to pull on your heartstrings this festive season?

My first Journalism lecturer was named Tom Clarke. He gave me some interesting advice, on my very first day as a Professional Journalist, when he told me that if I didn’t consider myself a Journalist from this moment on I would never be one. And he was right, because this was before the age of YouTube and Video Journalism, where every person with a camera can claim to be a reporter. Oddly enough, that used to annoy me, but then I realised that just because you give somebody a football doesn’t mean they know how to play soccer. And even when they learn to kick a ball and score a goal, does it mean they can make the first team?

What I mean by this is that Journalism, from my perspective, is a skill. There’s an ability to be able to create something and a talent or a flair that is inhalable. I don’t necessarily agree that you have to pay to go to University to obtain something like this, but I do agree that you’ll soon discover whether you have it or not, and your voice and your presence will carry you. I think another talent for Journalism is investigation – the ability to hunt and find what you need – to ask questions others would naturally shy away from or just to be the person who has the self-belief, self-determination, courage, respect or whatever to put their hand up and challenge.

The same lecturer also told me that you shouldn’t accept gifts from bands, that you need to avoid writing in the first person and that you should diversify as much as possible. And I don’t think I’ve been able to keep a single one of those rules. The difference between my skills in Journalism and those of, say, a solicitor; the lawyer doesn’t give legal advice for free. Rarely have I met a comedian who doesn’t inform me that when somebody learns what they do, there’s an expectation they’ll tell them a joke. Imagine meeting someone at a dinner party who informs you they’re a cleaner – would you immediately ask them to empty your bins?

At one point in my career I stopped being creative. I stopped presenting my radio show, stopped writing articles like these, stopped taking photographs and posting them online. I even hesitated to make Facebook posts longer than four syllables. I did this because a friend, who is also a Journalist, told me he wouldn’t take a commission for work unless it was paid. He’s still waiting. I became incensed at the idea that everybody wants this work for free, that I couldn’t earn a living doing what I loved because I was selling myself short. From what I know, most of the people I studied Journalism with in University went on to study other subjects – a majority of them retrained and entered medicine. They look back at their Journalism time as the naïve folly of youth, as if I’m approaching being that guy you notice in your record store. The dude with the ponytail whose greatest moment was aged 23.

But that’s not where my story ends.

Because I realised that if I enjoy doing something, monetary value (although important), should not be the deciding factor. I know filmmakers who are hesitant to create new projects because they simply can’t afford it. Ideas and scripts sitting in a drawer which would make millions – perhaps – but the world is saturated with Netflix originals and re-original content.

A friend once complemented me. We were standing next to a plane that had flown in World War 2 and I said “Imagine, at aged 19, getting in this plane and flying across the skies. Dropping bombs on other countries, shooting down enemies…” and he just looked at me, told me never to lose that, because all he saw “was a fucking plane”. But that gentlemen once told me that filmmaking, true filmmaking, is an art. Directors like James Cameron and writers like John Hughes used to create visual and aural poetry – whereas nowadays, there are less obvious concerns for craft.

So I’ll continue writing. But not because I believe I’m better than anyone else. But because I believe that if you’re good at something, you should never stop doing it – and you should be able to choose the direction it takes. Last night I spent two hours sitting by a computer and listening to music. I heard an album from start to finish without interruption. I can’t remember the last time I did that. We live in a world of such fleeting glances, GIF’s and disposable media, that taking time out to do something which meant that other things couldn’t get done seemed alien.

Carpe Diem.

Grave Formats

The other day I found myself in HMV while my parents visited in the run up to Christmas. As it was a festive occasion, my parents had suggested we purchase a gift, something they could enjoy wrapping and leaving under the tree for me before their return to France. Not being one to ever miss out on a present I gladly accepted and proceeded to rummage through a number of my mental ‘wish lists’ attempting to come up with something I’d like to physically obtain.

As I proceeded to leaf through the copious amount of Vinyl on offer I realised just how far HMV have evolved. December 2012 seems like a distant memory, but more tenured employees of HMV will remember the time well, as it spelt a certain end to the company. At the time, economists took great pride in appearing on news programs, telling us just how obsolete a store like HMV was in today’s marketplace. And yet, it remains. The store I was standing in, in Gateshead’s Metro Centre, had recently located to a more premier retail location and a new store, in Boston Lancashire, opens its doors in the very unit its predecessor was forced to close in March 2013.

In many respects, it’s hardly surprising that HMV has managed to remain, but commendable and worthy of praise all the same. It’s current business model meant that more high priced items like phones, electronics and games took a back seat; while shelves were recently filled with comics, collectables and even Vinyl. Having worked for the company briefly in 2009 and again in 2013, I defiantly experienced some of this change first hand. Vinyl itself presented something quite unique; as if we’d suddenly travelled back in time and embraced a format which should – by all rights – be extinct. Just as many analysts argue HMV should be.

Compact Disc has been a regular fixture in the marketplace since the late 80s, swiftly seeing off competition from Mini Disc, VHS and even Laserdisc; they even buried Vinyl considerably in an episode of Tomorrow’s World recorded around 1992. Whereas a lot of music fans have embraced the digital revolution a decade ago, retailers are limited in their selections, admitting that embracing MP3’s and Spotify subscriptions would leave them out of a job. So CD has found a bizarre and unchallenged equilibrium; until the return of Vinyl. Asides from their popularity with collectors, their physical appeal, their openness to customisation (who doesn’t love a good picture disc?) there’s also an exceptionally unique quality to Vinyl which makes it a more attractive proposition for retailers; it’s practically impossible to steal.

Consider for a moment walking into a store on a cold Christmas day and shoving a cassette tape into your pocket. Even a CD would fit snuggly into an inside pocket without much effort. Vinyl, on the other hand, presents twelve inches of self-resistance to petty theft; for both customers and staff alike, making it the perfect product. In 2017 HMV predicted its most successful year of Vinyl sales in almost 20, thanks in part to the efforts of mainstream artists like Ed Sheeran and Noel Gallagher embracing the format, with UK sales for that year topping four million.

In 2018 this trend continues, with the average purchase of Vinyl made by a consumer younger than those purchasing CDs, according to information from the website Kantar. According to their estimates, the overall value of the vinyl market in the UK for the latest quarter (in the 12 weeks to 1 July) was £25 million. 420,000 people bought a vinyl record in this period, up by 6.6% vs. Q1 (that is, the 12 weeks to 1 April). And this is despite the evident proof that not all collectors of Vinyl have the means to play them.

What might be even more remarkable is that this trend has led to a number of other ‘Grave Formats’ returning to the fold. Swedish band Ghost released their latest album ‘Prequelle’ as well as their live compilation ‘Ceremony and Devotion’ on Vinyl, but perhaps more surprising is their choice to release it on 8 Track Cassette. Although a limited release, initially available through the bands website and the result of Spotify giveaways, their operations are not unique to just cult bands – with Metallica remastering their classic ‘And Justice for All’ album and releasing a special cassette version; which is available to purchase through Amazon and was also stocked in HMV alongside a Nirvana cassette release earlier this year.

The introduction of the cassette tape by Philips in 1963 would lead to it becoming one of the most influential ways people consume music for over 30 years, and yet, it was somewhat ironically never intended never to rival the audio quality of the existing larger tape formats. Once Sony released a portable cassette player called the Walkman in 1979, such anti-taping arguments were more or less dismissed by the general public. Complete with portable headphones, the Walkman encouraged a generation of music fans to take their sounds with them wherever they went, and the advent of the boom box, which featured dual cassette decks, provided portability and seemingly encouraged music duplication through its design. By 1983 it was cassettes which outsold Vinyl.

And yet, as I made my selection that evening in HMV, my father looked on slightly baffled as to why – at 63 – it was his 33-year-old son who was purchasing albums on Vinyl, Cassette and 8 Track in 2018. Everything it would seem, has its place.