Friday, 30 November 2012

Sheffield hills

Much as I find St Pancras Station iconic in the extreme and incredibly tastefully renovated, it can be a confusing place for those of us who aren't lucky enough to be taking the Eurostar to Micky Mouse's Parisian abode. 

The trains to grubby places like Sheffield, Leicester and Kettering are fenced off from the rest of the station and accessible only by specific escalators which can take some time to locate. 

Still, Britain looked gloriously beautiful from the train as it charged north. The frozen sky was powder blue and lined with a lattice-work of shimmering vapour trails. Frost and mist clung to the downs around Luton. The fields looked like they'd been dipped in Golden Syrup and dusted with icing sugar. I wonder when we'll see our first snow?

As I travelled up to Sheffield, I found myself glancing through the hundreds of emails I sent to people, trying to get them to listen to, or buy the requiem. The upbeat tone and optimism of them made me feel incredibly sad. 95% of them were entirely ignored. 

One of the truly horrific aspects of being a writer is the incessant need to self-promote. It's so embarrassing and disheartening, particularly when you're forced to contact people like agents, reviewers, producers, and execs, who know their value and behave like prannies.

Oddly - and this is very curious - Americans, Canadians and Australians almost always respond to my emails. The absolute radio silence is a curiously English phenomenon. Maybe it's because we shy away from conflict? Whatever the case, I genuinely think that the Brits are ruder than any nation in the world.  We've coasted for way too long on accents which sound refined! 

I spent the afternoon holed up in a farm cottage in the hills above Sheffield with Andy, our music man on the 100 Faces project. Today we were editing all the spoken passages so that they fitted perfectly with the orchestral soundtrack. It's astonishing how the spoken word can be made to sound so much like singing, when the right word hits the right beat. I'm really beginning to reap the benefits of my slightly anal score, which dictated the rhythm of every single spoken word. Leave nothing to chance, that's my motto! 

As we drove back to Sheffield, I found myself envying Andy's lifestyle. The air in those hills is so rich and sweet, and he's surrounded by high-calibre folk musicians, making music almost every night of the week, in pubs within a few minutes' drive of his house. 

A glance out of any window in his cottage offers enough inspiration to get any writer through an entire day, and I found myself wondering whether my music would somehow become more expansive if I lived under those tall, brooding Yorkshire skies. 

November 1662 ended in a bitter cold frost. Pepys himself was quite content. His newly refurbished house had been cleaned and decorated, and despite the huge sums of money he'd spent furnishing his grand new rooms, when he did his end of month accounts, he was still worth over 600l. His only worry was whether employing a well-bred female companion for his wife was going to end up costing more than he could realistically afford. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The death of humanity

It struck me today that it's actually quite lonely being an autocue operator. You sit, on your own, in a darkened corner of a studio, with only a series of disembodied voices coming through a pair of headphones with which to interact. Because of this, no one has any idea who I am, and when the breaks come, I take myself on a forage for food or drink, without speaking to anyone but people in shops or behind canteen counters. 

One of my little quirks is that I find it incredibly hard to strike up conversations with strangers, and more bizarrely, when I'm out of the habit of talking, I sort of vanish into a haze of vulnerability, which I need to be jolted out of. 

Still, I love the job. I'm doing autocue for my old, dear friend, Matt, and the show he fronts is getting funnier by the minute. Earlier on, the director's voice popped into my ear...

"Benjamin", he said, mock goadingly, "I've just seen your name on the Internet. You have a secret life, don't you?" I laughed, sheepishly... One of the producers heard the conversation and chipped in... "ooh, do tell..." The director responded, "let's just say that Mr Till isn't just an autocue operator..." I brimmed with pride. But perhaps he'd read that I was a stripper... 

On a more bewildering note, I've just been to the Tesco Extra in Borehamwood, which genuinely has to be the largest shop I've ever visited. 

I found the experience bewildering and terrifying. There aren't just shelves of things like loo paper, there are walls of them. Floor to ceiling, and glowing under garish strip lighting which periodically flickers and strobes. Nothing is real. The fruit is polished like patent leather, the vegetables throb with chemicals. 

A side wing takes you into a vortex of plastic, Made-in-China shite. Things you'd never go into a supermarket to find. Things your kids didn't know they'd be lost without. Shelves of little pink glittery books and pencils with tiny feathers on the end. Toys which fall apart when you remove them from their impenetrable see-through plastic coffin cases. 

...And everyone walking in circles like the living dead. Be-coldsawed, toothless crones on the tills beckon you over, smiling everywhere but their eyes, and teeth, because they have none. The experience is soulless, American, plastic and tragic. What has become of humanity?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

God bless East Coast!

I travelled up to York this morning, and saw, as we passed through the South East Midlands, quite how much of this country has been effected by floods. Every river we passed had burst its banks. Every lake and pond was indistinguishable from the field it was sitting in. People on the train billowed and tutted in awe and horror. The phrase which rang out more than any other was, "I have never seen anything like it." I know for a fact that I haven't. 

Hats off now to East Coast Mainline, in particular a woman called Claire Peacock, who sorted me out with a new ticket, at no extra cost, when a mix up on the platform with another provider made me miss my train. I was in such a state when I reached her, and could have burst into tears when she waved her magic wand and gave me a ticket for the next train. She has renewed my faith in East Coast, and made me begin to think that Monday's hell was something of a blip. 

York itself is flooded as badly as I've ever seen it with water gushing out of the windows of buildings by the riverside. The swollen Ouse was like hot melted chocolate rolling along a spoon. 

It's always great to be back in York, however. I love that the good folk of the city just get on with their lives when it floods. My Mum tells me York was on the news yesterday with a silly reporter standing waist deep in water (unnecessarily) and saying how worrying it was that parts of the city had been under water on a worrying number of occasions this year. Apparently the woman she was interviewing said, "yes, it's not much fun, but please tell the world that York is very definitively open for business!" Bravo York... 

That said, if I didn't know the city so well, I'd probably say that it looked somewhat apocalyptic! Bus loads of tourists were standing open-mouthed on the bridges. 

I was in York to watch the premier of a film commissioned by the City council about the Ebor Vox project, which saw some 600 performers marching through the streets of York whilst singing one of my compositions. And what an honour it was! 

It was such a fabulously unique and eccentric project which the film captured rather skilfully. I feel very proud to have written the piece and hope it becomes something of a standard in York. I was also rather chuffed to be described in the film as an acclaimed composer. That's nice, isn't it? 

If you'd like to see the film in full (roughly 18 minutes) you should go to and see me being interviewed in various shades of black! 

I sold a copy of the Requiem this evening, which I'm hoping was bought by one of the performers. I'd like to think at least some of the  600 performers might be interested in other projects I've worked on! 

350 years ago, London was in the grips of a bout of fairly cold weather. There had been snow on the roofs of the houses when Pepys woke up the previous morning and a hard frost the following day. This was fairly shocking, not just because it was relatively early in the year for cold weather, but because there hadn't been any snow - literally - for 3 years, a fact I find astonishing when we consider that Pepys is often associated with the Little Ice Age; ice fairs on the Thames etc. in fact, 1650 is historically considered the gateway to a series of bitterly cold winters, which makes Pepys' accounts of warm, dusty winters all the  more noteworthy.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The road to hell

I became a leader of men last night, and an angry one to boot! 

My journey home from Newcastle on the 7.04pm, very quickly became a nightmare, with the train grinding to a halt outside Darlington where it sat, motionless, for 2 1/2 hours whilst engineers tried to work out how to get us through severe floods.

To make matters worse, we'd been informed, on leaving Newcastle, that the buffet car was closing down due to "lack of staff, " and would only reopen in York... When the announcement was first made, no one batted an eyelid. Newcastle to York is an hour's journey tops. Little did we know that it was destined to take over 4.

As we sat on the train outside Darlington, waiting for information about what was going on, a sense of wartime camaraderie began to develop amongst passengers. I lent someone my phone charger and got taking to the woman opposite who was knitting Christmas stockings. Periodically, someone would crack a lame joke, and the carriage would erupt into hysterics. 

What united us all was the sense that there was a complete lack of visible train staff as we sat, twiddling our thumbs. Periodically, a disembodied voice on the tannoy would inform us that there were floods on the line, but no one came through the train to answer a series of mounting questions. As the hours ticked past, more and more of us missed our last connections. The tannoy voice assured us that, if we got off the train at our planned stops, station staff would be able to help. What seemed odd was the voice's constant reiteration of the demand that we weren't to try to distract station staff until our train "had cleared the station." This was apparently for our own safety, although the suggestion passing through the passengers was that the guard simply wanted to avoid the wrath of angry passengers if his promises of assistance from station staff evaporated. 

The voice also told us that we could fill in forms for potential compensation, but that "unfortunately", all the forms had inexplicably disappeared from the train itself. A little convenient, perhaps?

After two hours, the train started inching forward through the flood zone, and for a short time, everything got a little hairy. The train started listing to the right, there was a weird smell of burning, and the chap on the other side of the aisle said he could see "waves of water..." When I went over to look for myself, the comment was downgraded from "waves" to "ripples," but none of us had any idea what was going on in the darkness outside.

We sped up south of North Allerton, where the passengers from previously cancelled trains joined our's, and turned the carriages into a giant game of sardines. At York, a lot of people got off. The woman next to me had missed the last connection to Sheffield, so had decided to book herself into an hotel, and the lady with the stockings had no idea how to get back to Scarborough. 

There were no announcements to tell us that the buffet had reopened, but word slowly filtered through to my carriage. Absolutely parched, and terribly hungry, I went, twice, to see if I could find something to eat, but there were scores of people in the queue, so I decided to give it 30 minutes.

Imagine my horror, therefore, when the faceless guard made an announcement to say that the buffet car was having to close, yet again due to "staff shortages." 

It should be pointed out that the buffet car man was later found relaxing in First Class. Not exactly entering into the Dunkirk spirit!

We finally reached Peterborough and learnt that the train (initially due in to London at 21.45) was now expected to reach its destination at 00.55, but just south of our final stop at Stevenage, we were told (again via tannoy) that "due to planned engineering works" the train was now being diverted via Hertford, which would add another crippling 20 minutes to the journey. 

I saw red and immediately stormed my way down to the buffet carriage to find the guard. I found the buffet man, in first class, and asked him to confirm if we were going to be delayed another 30 minutes. "I don't know," he said, "I wasn't listening... I'm not on duty. Speak to the guard. He's the other end of the train." 

So I trekked my way through the compartments and found the guard sitting in a little room at the front of the train behind a closed door. 

In my view he should have been a great deal more present throughout the journey. People were worried about getting home, and they were hungry. Surely it would have been a nice gesture to try to keep the buffet open until we reached King's Cross? Everyone on board understood that the floods were unavoidable, but we were also aware that railway staff had chosen to close the buffet car for the very stretch of line  where delays were most likely, which generates questions about whether someone at East Coast was trying to avoid handing out the customary free teas and coffees that these situations require.

"Is it true we've been diverted via Hertford?" I asked the guard. "I'm afraid so," he said. "But 20 minutes ago you said we'd be in at 00.55?" "They changed their minds and redirected the train at the last minute. It happens. I can't control what they do." "But it's added another 20 minutes to our journey. There are a lot of people on this train who don't know how they'll get home from King's Cross, what you CAN do is a tour of the train to answer people's questions and put their minds at rest." "I've made announcements," he said, "if they want help, they'll have to speak to station staff." "But will we be given taxis?" I asked. "It depends how you'd normally get home," said the guard. "By tube", I said "and tubes won't be running at this time." "Then they'll need to provide you with a taxi." "Does that apply to everyone on the train?" I asked. "Not if they live around the corner from King's Cross" came the reply. "Very few people do. Could you make an announcement to let the passengers know that taxis will be provided?" I asked. "No." His response was brutal. "Will you pass through the carriage to put people's minds at rest and explain to them that the train has had another delay? "I'm not going to pass through the train. I've made an announcement." 

...So I did his job for him, and went into every carriage making the announcement I felt sure he should have made himself:

"Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may not have heard the announcement, but I'm afraid we have a further  20 minute delay, so aren't due into King's Cross until 1.20am." (Big groans) "What you MIGHT not know is that East Coast Mainline are obliged to help us to get home, so when the train comes into the station, follow me, and we'll go and speak to station staff about getting free taxis home." I got three rounds of applause, countless "thank Gods" and a number of people made "people power gestures." I was also subjected to a barrage of questions, which would have been much better answered by the train staff.

I went back to the guard and explained that I'd spoken to all the passengers and suggested that he might need to radio ahead to tell the station staff that a large number of taxis would be required!

I asked one more question, the answer to which was deeply disturbing;

"Why did they stop the buffet car at Peterborough?"

"I've no idea," said the guard, "I assume they needed to attend to first class passengers."

I'm not sure there's anything else that I can add to that! 

As I got off the train, 200 passengers followed me down the platform, and, in fairness, the staff at King's Cross seemed both organised and polite, if slightly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people who needed help.

Now, I don't know how long it took to get everyone home. I was being picked up by my partner at the station, so I left a cluster of people with station staff. 

But here are my questions:

1) Why did the train guard spend the majority of an incredibly difficult journey sitting in his room? Why did he make little effort, even when asked, to put people's minds at rest? Was he frightened perhaps by the response he'd get?

2) Why was the buffet car closed for a single section of the line which rail staff must have known would be subject to delays? Surely a compassionate company would do everything possible to make sure their customers were fed and watered during a distressing time?

3) Why had complaint forms mysteriously vanished from the train itself?

4) Why did the buffet car open at York, and then close within an hour whilst there were still long queues of thirsty people stretching down the aisles?

5) Why on earth would East Coast Mainline seem to favour the comfort of First Class passengers?

6) Why was the buffet car staff member sitting in first class instead of rolling up his sleeves and helping passengers through a difficult experience? Why would someone be employed simply to run the buffet car from York to Peterborough?

Thing is, I love train travel, and I particularly love the iconic route from London to Edinburgh. We all make mistakes, and many of East Coast staff are absolutely brilliant at their jobs. I have had countless stress-free journeys on the route. But last night something went wrong beyond the issues created by the floods and I would love someone to get to the bottom of it. 

I am grateful for the communications I've had with East Coast, a spokesman from whom has said: "Our staff have been dealing with exceptional weather conditions over the last two days, and have been working hard to get customers to their destinations.
"We thank Mr Till for bringing this to our attention and will investigate what happened."

Monday, 26 November 2012

Approaching Armageddon

There's a whiff of Armageddon in the air tonight. It's been raining in Newcastle all day, and they say the worst is still to come. There are flood alerts across the city. My taxi driver just showed me a list of jobs he'd had to cancel because it wasn't worth his while trying to reach Sunderland. I can hear the sounds of sirens in all directions. 

Muggins here is trying to get back to London via the bits of the country which are presently being hammered by rain. I hear The Ouse has burst its banks at York and the hospital at Northallerton has been evacuated. Both of these places sit rather squarely on the railway line which separates me from my home. 

Many of the trains out of Newcastle have been cancelled, including the train to Birmingham. This could be a very long night. 

Bizarrely, the train which pulled into the platform we were expecting the London train to arrive on (more curiously at the time we expected it), is apparently the wrong one! A lot of train guards are rushing about telling us not to get on board... It's mayhem. 

It was mayhem in my dream as well last night, which saw me, and my friend Nicky Drake attempting to single-handedly defeat a police state! I shan't go into details... 

Today we've been doing a rough edit of the 100 Voices film. A rough edit is a bit of a luxury by most people's standards, but in order for Andy to do a final mix of the music, we have to know exactly which takes we're going to be using. It's a complicated business. The score is thick with words and every time one of the contributors goes even slightly off my carefully worked out spoken rhythms, the time needs to be made up elsewhere! 

Fitting all 100 people's words and faces into a 6-minute film has been incredibly complicated, and if I had my time again, I'd probably add another minute to the piece so that we could have enjoyed looking at some of the contributors for slightly longer. The average screen time for each face is currently just 2 seconds. 

I am finally on the train, which means I can eat my subway sandwich. Wish me luck, and if you're out and about on this dark and horrid night, please drive carefully. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The final face

At 4.30pm today we filmed the last of our 100 Faces. It felt like the most extraordinary milestone and we drank half a cup of sparkling wine to celebrate.

I was thrilled to hear that the last of the 100 Faces to walk through the door was Becky Cox, who, bizarrely, was a friend of mine from the music school in Northamptonshire. She's recently moved her entire family to Cumbria and they're starting a new life in a farmhouse on the edge of The Lakes. It was so lovely to see her, and have such an old friend sharing such an important moment. 

Today brought an even more inspiring set of people in front of our cameras. We had prisoners of war, a 96-year old who'd walked the length of Hadrian's Wall for charity, a wonderfully coquettish 94-year old with six earrings and a Facebook page, and, crowning things off, our 100 year-old, who didn't look a day over 80. I so much enjoyed talking to her. She had childhood memories of zeppelins passing over her house, and being told by her mother that the Great War was over. It's remarkable that we still have a link to those days. 

When the day started, we were still missing a contributor in the shape of someone born in 1917. The person we'd originally chosen had gone into hospital, so we ended up making a last-minute frantic appeal on the radio for someone who could come in and take part instead. Fortunately someone called in. A perfect conclusion, and a demonstration of the tenacity and commitment of Nell Gordon from BBC Radio Cumbria, who has led this project with skill and compassion. 

I go to sleep a happy and hugely relieved man!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Filming numbers

It’s been a rather lovely day spent with cameraman Keith filming on the streets of Newcastle. Essentially, we need the option of having a number in vision which corresponds to the age of every person in the film and we’re trying to gather a shot of every number between 1 and 100. When you start to notice numbers, it’s astonishing how many are scattered about in shop windows, on street signs, buses, number plates, scrawled graffiti and the doors of houses.

Our day started in the centre of Newcastle. We then went down to the river and along to Tyne Mouth, Cullercoats and Witney Bay. A storm is obviously brewing because the weather slowly turned from beautiful blue skies to a sort of autumnal misty white light. It was as though the sun were simply evaporating.

I’m sitting under the duvet in my hotel room. Sadly, because I’ve had to have the air conditioning de-activated, I’ve also lost the heating. I don’t have a bath to warm myself up in and to make matters worse, the internet signal is really bad in my room, so I’m feeling a little sorry for myself. A hotel room is meant to be a relaxing experience at the end of a really busy day, not something to endure... particularly when it comes to a hotel which is meant to be so good. Still, I have no beef with the staff, who are brilliant at all times.

I’ve just popped down to reception and house-keeping have been generous enough to provide me with a portable heater. I now feel like a little old lady hiding inside her sheltered housing. All I need now is a box of Murray mints, a hot water bottle and a crocheted blanket! Still, at least I’m warm.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The return of Maddy Prior

It was dark when I woke up this morning. It was still dark when I went down to breakfast. I was willing it to get light, just so that I could feel like an ordinary person. 

One thing I'm desperate for is a day off, but what with the Matt Lucas Awards and various commitments next week in York and Sheffield, it looks like the next chance I'll get for a lie-in is a week on Saturday, which is horrifying.

We drove across the flooded Pennines as the sun rose. First the clouds turned pink, and then everything took on a eerie, sallow quality as a yellow disc of light appeared above a hilltop. 

There's a town in the hills called Once Brewed. How romantic is that? It must be somewhere near Hadrian's Wall, which in my view makes it all the more exciting. I've longed to see Hadrian's Wall snaking its way across the Pennines ever since I was a child. We tried to find it once on our way home from a family holiday in Scotland, but couldn't find it. One day. One day I'll see the pyramids as well...

The filming for the 100 Faces project entered its fourth day today. We were at the BBC in Carlisle, but the day started in an old people's home somewhere near Sainsburys where we met three of our contributors. 

Two were absolutely wonderful; completely compos mentis and very much enjoying the process of being fussed over by our makeup man. The third, who was 98, had advanced dementia and kept asking where she was. It was, however, her final cry to heaven, which destroyed us all;

"All I want to know is where my Mammie's gone" 

My sadness turned to joy after the arrival of Maddy Prior, who greeted me like an old friend and told me how much she'd loved the Requiem. 

It felt so special to have her singing my music again. She is such a remarkable interpreter of song. She feels emotion. She thinks about the words. She's a perfectionist. I felt so proud; particularly when she then got in front of the cameras. She's a living legend! 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Insane lack of decent food!

I'm absolutely shattered and need to be up at 6am to take the next leg of the 100 Faces circus from Newcastle to Carlisle. I'm aware that I don't smell very nice. My feet have been in the same shoes for 12 solid hours, and my arms have sweated into the same jacket for the same period of time.

Everything is running really smoothly, but what I'm not doing particularly  well at, is eating properly. It's almost impossible to find decent vegetarian food in Newcastle, particularly up around the BBC. We finish work too late to find anything in town and I'm slowly going mad because I can't find simple food like soup, or salads with dressings that aren't bottles of malt vinegar! I can't remember if I blogged my story of being given a bottle of Sarson's after asking for dressing in a cafe.

Believe it or not, the only thing which even approaches a vinaigrette at the BBC canteen up here, is a little sachet of... You guessed it... Malt vinegar! It is, of course, a horribly middle class preoccupation, particular after spending a day with people who have lost family members and had their lives literally fall apart! 

I'm making the 100 Faces project sound really dark, and it's not at all. There are a great number of hugely inspirational stories, and large dollops of happiness coming out of the good people of the North East and Cumbria. "My 55 year-old daughter got married... Finally..." said one woman today. Another had a baby after 4 years of trying. Some won awards, others literally danced their way through the year. A 91-year old we met today goes ballroom dancing four times a week! 

Time now, for some pasta, which I've ordered from the hotel at great expense. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

26 Faces

We've just completed another almost mind-numbing day of studio work. Nell and I are sitting in a Chinese restaurant in something of a coma. I've eaten too many jelly babies, too many bourbon biscuits and drunk too many cups of tea and now I'm crashing! 

We recorded and filmed another 25- or so people today, this time at the BBC in Newcastle. It was fairly insane. They came in, one after another, did their bit, and then went again like a giant merry-go-round. 

I was in tears within ten minutes, utterly moved by a man who is finding it difficult to cope without his wife, who died this year, shortly after celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. A similar thing had happened to a lovely lady called Daphne, whose husband had died just months after celebrating their diamond wedding. 60 years spent together, snuggling up every night, chatting over the breakfast table every morning, and then nothing. Life would genuinely not be worth living. I don't know how they can bring themselves to get out of bed.  
...And yet the lust for life these people continue to demonstrate is humbling in the extreme, and heart-warming to the extent that I find myself worrying a great deal less about getting old.

The black and white images are working really well. People just look better in monochrome. It smooths out the blotches and turns wrinkles into beautiful lines of wisdom. We finished the day with Lauren, who actually also performed in the Metro film I made up here. She came with her hair in a wonderful 1950s-style chignon, which, in black and white, made her look like a Hollywood icon on the front of Vogue Magazine.

This genuinely could be a fabulous project. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

First day of filming

We've just spent the last 12 hours holed up in a darkened studio within the BBC building at Middlesborough. 

I've not been to Middlesborough before. It's a fairly depressing-looking place which reminds me of a more industrial version of some of the less desirable towns in East Northamptonshire. 

We approached the place via a sort of gyratory, which offered 360-degree views of disused factory chimneys, rusty train carriages, strange blue bridges and grimy concrete housing blocks, shivering under a seemingly endless dark grey sky. 

We've been filming the 100 Faces project all day. It's been lovely to work again with cameraman, Keith Blackburn, who shot the Metro film. 

The film we're making will probably be screened in black and white, so I'm watching everything through a colourless monitor, which makes everyone look so much more alluring. 

The premise of 100 Faces is that everyone involved says just one sentence about what made 2012 stand out for them, and today we met a set of people with the most awe-inspiring tales from Olympic gold medalists to a young lad who learnt to walk again this year after a having his leg amputated at the knee. 

There was a woman whose house had burnt down, a man who'd spent a year doing new things in honour of his still-born child and a girl who'd overcome childhood leukaemia to gain first class honours for her degree. 

There were also some wonderful characters, my favourite of whom was an 86-year old called Audrey with an utterly infectious lust for life; "still loving life!" she shouted at the camera, and I believed every word. 

350 years ago, Pepys spent a day out and about garnering favours and plotting various pieces of legal business. He returned home to find his wife had made a fine job of moving furniture around their newly extended house. And that's all really. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Smelly dog

There’s a very beautiful, but very smelly dog sitting next to me on the train to Newcastle today. He belongs to a rather arty-looking woman from Durham who also has two slightly unruly children. It’s what happens when you bring your kids up on a diet of pumpkin seeds and rainbows.

The kids are climbing the walls – they’re far too used to long walks in the countryside to be cramped into a train carriage. Middle-class, ruddy-faced Mummy has just taken her iPad out in an attempt to occupy the children. For some reason they’re watching Monkey Magic on a loop. I would have thought a pair of headphones might have been a nice touch to prevent the rest of the train from having to listen to the dreadful grunts, yells, thwacks, thuds and clangs of the incessant fight sequences on that particular show. I hated everything but the theme tune as a child. As an adult I’m almost climbing the walls.

The Mummy keeps talking to strangers on the train saying, “could you ask for a better dog? He’s so well behaved...” No, love, he smells like shit. A better dog would smell more pleasant. “I thought he might be smelly”, she’s just said to the bloke opposite, “but actually I think the children are smellier...” Heaven preserve me!

The man opposite has the names of all his children tattood in giant letters on his forearms. It’s basically a list of pop singers; Adele, Kylie and Robbie. I only know they’re his children rather than his favourite pop artists because he’s using the word Adele to get his daughter’s attention. His head looks an over-inflated balloon.

Nell emailed today to say that we’d found the last two participants for the 100 Faces project, our 98 and 99 year-olds. Trying to find someone who was born every year since 1912 has provided us with the most complicated jigsaw puzzle, which must have nearly killed Nell, who has literally worked around the clock to sort everything out. I am hugely grateful to her. It’s funny how this project is suddenly upon me. It’s very different to other pieces because the sound and visuals are being recorded at the same time. Even the music side of things was over in a flash. I would usually spend days in a studio layering instruments up, but when you use an orchestra, everything gets recorded simultaneously in a 3 hour session.

That said, and largely as a result of everything I’ve just written, this week is probably going to be murder. One hundred people, all with different needs and skills will need to be filmed in the space of six days. By Sunday we’re all going to be quivering wrecks.

Nathan is in Vienna. He’s just sent a text to tell me he’s been visiting the room where a six-year old Mozart once played. He found the experience emotionally overwhelming, saying that the space made it so easy to imagine an 18th Century scene, that he almost didn’t want to bring himself back into the real world.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Flying dustbins

I’m at my parents’ house watching Strictly Come Dancing. My Dad keeps referring to Lisa Reilly as a “flying dustbin”, which I think is rather unfair. I like her enormously. He’s also just described Richard Arnold as a “professional pratt”, which seems about right. I suspect Arnold himself would describe himself no differently.

This morning, Fiona, Meriel and I went for a lovely breakfast in Muswell Hill before heading to Hampstead Heath for a walk in the late autumn sunshine. I’m surprised that there are still leaves on the trees this late in the year. The place was an absolute riot of rainbow colours from the blue of the sky and the green of the grass to the reds, oranges, yellows and maroons of the leaves hanging like sparkly jewels from the branches of all the trees.

350 years ago, Pepys went to bed with his mind in something of a pickle. He’d fallen for Winifred Gosnell as a hugely appropriate live-in companion for his wife, but Gosnell’s mother was umming and ahing as to whether to let her go. Pepys was also in a pickle about his wife’s spending - 12l in one day on linen, copper, and various household fittings.

V and A

We’ve been at the V and A museum all day celebrating Raily’s birthday a few weeks early. Tanya was down from Scotland, Meriel, Hilary and Jago came up from Lewes and Sam appeared, as if by magic, from behind a piece of Ming pottery.

I’m not entirely sure that I’m a museum man, but it’s difficult to be uninspired for long with that particular set of friends. Watching Sam talking to little Wills and Jeanie about a giant statue of the Hindu God, Shiva was somewhat awe-inspiring, and taught me that I know very little about Eastern culture. That said, the joy about going around a museum with a group of people with such extraordinary minds is that any exhibit is likely to trigger an extra nugget of information, as displayed when we entered a little room which Ian suddenly announced had been the focus of his MA dissertation. He’d apparently spent so long in the room over a four-week period that the museum staff had provided him with his own special chair. He showed us some really quirky artefacts including a piece of leaded window with a set of romantic poems and inscriptions scratched into the panes of glass with a diamond ring, rumoured to be the handiwork of Charles I when he was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle.
So, I (Meriel) have taken over because Ben is tired! After wondering around the costume gallery and deciding what we would wear (I just said I would take everything), we played on a light sculpture that gave the effect, in light, of making snow angels. We ate lovely cake in Pat Vals and then spicy noodles in a chap and cheerful cafe. It was time to say goodbye to the hordes and Ben asked if I wanted to go to for a walk.  I decided we needed to try and find the river. Amazingly, I found it! Not bad for someone with no sense of direction who couldn’t find her way around the V and A. We walked along the river to Leicester Square, and I was reminded of Wilde’s poem about the Thames:

An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there, a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.

Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And, like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.

The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the Temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade.

There were amazing globe like lights and we talked and talked and put the world to rights as much as we could.

We got back to Ben’s flat and were so thirsty we drank 3 glasses of Vimto! – pleasingly retro. I admired Isadora, Benjamin’s pot plant, who used to be a mere sprout and is now a veritable tree.

On this day in 1662, Pepys had a busy day, which culminated in him making ‘Mrs. Gosnell sing’. Mrs Gosnell was being ‘auditioned’ as a live-in companion for his wife. He was mightily pleased with her humour and singing which is unsurprising as she went on to become an actress. They went by water to Whitehall, (which I wish I could have done today), where they saw ‘The Scornfull Lady’ being performed.  ‘It being fine moonshine, we took coach and home, and went to supper and to bed, my mind being troubled at what my wife tells me, that her woman will not come till she hears from her mother, for I am so fond of her that I am loth now not to have her, though I know it will be a great charge to me which I ought to avoid, and so will make it up in other things. So to bed.’

And so are we!

Twat rat

If my pet rat Castor hadn't just chewed through our Internet cable for the fifth time, there would be a very lovely blog here, curtesy of my friend, Meriel. You may have to wait until tomorrow to read it...

Friday, 16 November 2012

The Crucible returns

Society worries me. There’s so much wrong in the world at the moment; the escalation of violence in the Middle East, people losing jobs in every employment sector, no answer to the energy crisis, 3.6 million children in the UK living in poverty, and yet we're running around in little circles wondering how many people Dave Lee Travis might have groped in an era where many people were routinely groped. Yes, yes, it doesn't make it right, I'm not defending child molestation, I just think we need to start getting things in perspective and sorting out the facts before we send out the vigilantes.

We've all seen The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and if we haven't we should have. The play tells the tale of the Salem witch trials in 17th Century Massachusetts, which saw a number of innocent people sentenced to death for practicing the dark arts. When Miller wrote his masterpiece, some 260 years later, America was in the grip of another witch trial. Senator Joseph McCarthy had opened up a whole slew of allegations accusing fellow countrymen of disloyalty or subversion. Communists were initially targeted, before homosexuals and artists were pulled into the mayhem. People lost their livelihoods and had their reputations damaged. And just like the events in Massachusetts in the 17th Century, it suddenly became a way to get back at one's annoying neighbours. Fingers were pointed hysterically in all directions,  and people were lynched before a court of law gave them the opportunity to be proven either guilty or innocent.

It's happened throughout history; the popish plot in 17th Century England eked out those who were suspected Catholics. Pepys himself was imprisoned in the Tower of London because he liked Italian music.
Fashions change. What's wrong becomes right and then wrong again, but be clear, we are in the grip of something insidious which we must get in check before someone is seriously hurt. It is not our job to stand as judge, jury and executioner and we all need to butt out, and start focussing on healing the world.

History never repeats itself. Man always does.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Holby City blood

It was an incredibly misty and murky morning. I took a wrong turn on my way to Elstree, and ended up driving past the most exquisite-looking reservoir, which seemed to be evaporating into the clouds above. There's probably nothing more beautiful in this world than white mists enveloping an autumnal tree. 

Autumn gave me an unexpected facial as I walked out of the BBC canteen earlier on. As I opened the door, there was a heavy gust of wind and about 50 crispy leaves smacked me in the face. I looked around to see a bloke with one of those blowy petrol-driven machines, the reverse hoovers they use to clear fallen leaves off the pavements. It was a horrifying moment. 

I've had stomach ache ever since lunch, which was a horrible sausage thing in the BBC canteen here at Elstree. The Quorn sausages were white. They looked like little pieces of dog poo from the 1970s and probably tasted similar. I didn't know you could serve a veggie sausage raw! I do now! 

Having weighed myself at the gym yesterday and realised that my weight loss has stalled, I've decided to only snack on fruit and veg, which might also explain the tummy ache... I tell you something, there's not a lot of energy to be found in a carrot. I'd much rather snack on chocolate bars! 

The BBC buildings at Elstree continue to depress the hell out of me. There's an all-pervading smell of damp in the corridors. It feels like this place is rotting and no one seems to care. Still, the positive side  is that I get to walk past the Holby City props department regularly and see all the jugs of fake blood and body parts. They have the most gruesome photos all over their walls. It's like the cellar of a serial killer! 

Right I'm off to limber up my twisting fingers... The show's about to be recorded. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Too late to be working

Today, fortunately, was one of those days of admin when everything sort of slots into place. There was much to do; a couple of pitches to write, an errand to Crouch End to collect photos, a bit of groceries shopping, a visit to the gym, a massage... And, perhaps unexpectedly, everything ran rather smoothly.

The only thing I’ve forgotten to do today is eat, which meant I had to give up on my work out because I suddenly found myself feeling deeply nauseous. I limped away from the gym feeling weak and tragic, which, fortunately, is an appropriate way to feel when you’re heading for a massage...

How lovely it is to go for a massage in the middle of an afternoon? If only I could afford a massage once a week. For the first time in an age, my shoulders feel loose, and when I raise my hands in the air, I don’t feel tension and stiffness.
I finally got an opportunity to cook some food at about 8pm – a sort of ad hoc roast dinner - and now I’m trying to psych myself up for the last part of the day, which involves recording demo vocals for the 100 Faces project. It’s a bit late to be doing something so complicated, but I have a hideously early start tomorrow morning, so there’s no other option

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Hard cheese

The days I spend operating autocue for the BBC are long and hugely tiring. They start with a long journey. Getting to Elstree is never easy. It's just up the A1, and I assume I'll whizz home tonight, but on the way here, I got caught in rush hour traffic on those irritating sections of the A1, places like Mill Hill, which plague all motorists who are simply longing for North London to end. 

When you live in London, the joy you feel when joining a 3-carriage motorway can be intense. You can finally take your foot off the clutch and speed like a dart towards your destination. 

Elstree Studios is as depressing as ever. Even the pictures on the long corridors of Eastenders and Holby City characters are low-res cheap colour photocopies, which have stuck to their nasty clip frames and faded to weird colours. It feels like a tacky holiday resort which has lost its way... And its tourists!

I had a baked potato for lunch and was handed a little pot of cheese gratings to sprinkle over the top. The gratings were like little heat-proof bullets which refused to melt into the potato.Terrifying. 

Operating the autocue on a entertainment show is an adrenaline-fuelled business! It's one of those jobs where everything is very calm for long periods but then suddenly someone's shouting in your ear that the script needs changing - and you're typing in the amendments at the most ridiculous speeds whilst six other people are shouting about something else. 

You sit for hours in a darkened corner of a studio, the colour slowly draining from your cheeks like veal. Food and cups of tea are your only friends... Both of them are very hard to come by in this godforsaken place, which doesn't even have an on-site cash machine. 

With the tea and the cold comes the frantic desire to pee every five seconds. 

Still, it's all worth it. I love the show. I love working with Matt and today's show was a belter. I shall sleep well tonight. 

Hard cheese

The days I spend operating autocue for the BBC are long and hugely tiring. They start with a long journey. Getting to Elstree is never easy. It's just up the A1, and I assume I'll whizz home tonight, but on the way here, I got caught in rush hour traffic on those irritating sections of the A1, places like Mill Hill, which plague all motorists who are simply longing for North London to end. 

When you live in London, the joy you feel when joining a 3-carriage motorway can be intense. You can finally take your foot off the clutch and speed like a dart towards your destination. 

Elstree Studios is as depressing as ever. Even the pictures on the long corridors of Eastenders and Holby City characters are low-res cheap colour photocopies, which have stuck to their nasty clip frames and faded to weird colours. It feels like a tacky holiday resort which has lost its way... And its tourists!

I had a baked potato for lunch and was handed a little pot of cheese gratings to sprinkle over the top. The gratings were like little heat-proof bullets which refused to melt into the potato.Terrifying. 

Operating the autocue on a entertainment show is an adrenaline-fuelled business! It's one of those jobs where everything is very calm for long periods but then suddenly someone's shouting in your ear that the script needs changing - and you're typing in the amendments at the most ridiculous speeds whilst six other people are shouting about something else. 

You sit for hours in a darkened corner of a studio, the colour slowly draining from your cheeks like veal. Food and cups of tea are your only friends... Both of them are very hard to come by in this godforsaken place, which doesn't even have an on-site cash machine. 

With the tea and the cold comes the frantic desire to pee every five seconds. 

Still, it's all worth it. I love the show. I love working with Matt and today's show was a belter. I shall sleep well tonight. 

Monday, 12 November 2012

LA Shitness

Autumn leaves were falling like snow as I stood waiting for my morning tea at Highgate Station. I think, during most years, the leaves have already fallen by late November. That's what you get for a total lack of summer sunshine! 

I have been in Hackney all day editing a little promo for The Requiem, which Rich Mix are going to play in their cinemas. It all took rather longer than expected, and, yet again, there's been no time for me to go to the gym. 

The LA Fitness in Highgate is very rarely open these days anyway, particularly at weekends. At the start of the year, it stayed open until 8pm on Saturdays. It was always quite pleasant to go there for a work out and a steam before heading out for the night. These days it shuts at 4pm. Down from 6pm over the summer...

Their reason? Apparently not enough members were using it to make opening it for longer hours financially viable. Next thing, they'll close all day Sunday!

I spoke to a manager to register my anger and asked if he'd mind if I handed out a few flyers to set up a Facebook campaign to extend the hours again. "If you did that", he said politely, "I'd be forced to escort you off the premises." 

Who said democracy is dead?!


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Darling Claudia

I've been at Craft and Cake all day today. I stuck photos into an album, whilst around me people made leg warmers, a cardigan, socks, some beautiful fingerless gloves and a knitted penguin! 

We sat in Julie's sitting room, drinking tea, watching telly and eating an astonishing amount of cake, which has entirely destroyed the good work I did in the gym yesterday when I skipped, jumped and twinkled about like a proper twit. 

We've just finished watching Strictly Come Dancing. I'm very sad that Fern had to leave and also increasingly aware that every dress that presenter Tess choses to wear has something just slightly wrong with it; it's either a funny length, or there's an odd waist band, or a weird little frilly, or ruched attachment... This is a woman who does a fashion column in a national newspaper and really ought to know better. I think part of her problem is posture. She's a beautiful, tall creature, but she doesn't seem to know how to stand like a lady. 

Claudia Winkleman stood in for Bruce Forsythe and in the process made me aware quite how few opportunities we get to see a female duo presenting on prime time telly. It really works. I'm getting so tired of the combination of an old man standing there with a glamour puss half his age. 

Harry and Paul on BBC2 tonight featured a 30-second song that I'd written for them. It was composed as a sort of 1950s Cambridge Footlights-style Review. Blink and you'd have missed it, but it was great fun to watch... and they did it well. 

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Blame Canada

I wrote to the agent who deals with Anthony Minghella’s estate today to see if the rights were available to turn the film Truly, Madly, Deeply into a musical. They’re not. Boo!

There’s a very peculiar light in the sky tonight. The clouds are glowing a sort of peach colour but everything else has a murky yellow vibe. Like the nicotine-stained walls of a pensioner’s bedroom.

At some point soon, the Kyrie from The London Requiem will be blasted across Canada on CBC’s In Tune show. It’s a very exciting thought. The Northamptonshire Youth Orchestra visited Canada on an exchange trip in 1992, and it was amongst the most exciting experiences of my life. We stayed in a city called Burlington with a chap called Tahir, who could drive and had a car and took us on all sorts of adventures. We saw wild racoons, did an emergency stop for something like an armadillo, and partied until the wee smalls on most nights. I fell in love with Canadian culture. I loved the art galleries, the alternative shops, the people and the way that everything felt so clean and grand.

On the way home, our aeroplane engine exploded on takeoff from Toronto airport, and we had to do an emergency landing on foam. I can still remember the deathly silence on the plane when the pilot said; “ladies and gentlemen, some of you may have heard the explosion, but we no longer have the use of one of our engines and we’re going to have to make an emergency landing.” A little old lady next to me must have seen the look of terror on my face, because she very calmly took my hand and said, “we’ll be fine, my darling, we’ll be fine.” And we were.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Werther's Originals

There's an advert on the telly for Werther's Originals, where the voice-over talks about going to visit her "favourite caramel shop" as a child. A caramel shop? A shop which sells caramel? Nothing but caramel? And this was her FAVOURITE caramel shop. Like there's a caramel shop on every freakin corner! 

I have googled "caramel shop". They don't exist. Of course they don't exist. Caramel is horrid. 

I can just imagine the brainstorming session they had when they came up with that advert....

- The brief says high end. 
- Ya. High end. Ya, like loads of like golden wrappers glinting like gold. Ya? Like magical...
- Let's brainstorm magical...
- okay. Okay. Tragical. Vagical.  
- Harry Pottical
- That's it! 
-  Can we get the Harry Potter music? 
- Totes impossible. We try for it on every campaign
- Better get a second rate producer to try and rip it off, then?
- Natch...
- So Harry Pottical enters a golden sweet shop...
- Too machismo
- Harriet Pottical enters a sweet shop 
- I like it
-  Ya, but a sweet shop is not specific or magical enough...
- What's this an advert for?
- Worthingtons
- Werther's, div...
- What do they make?
- Um...
- Does anyone know what they make?
- Caramel sweeties for paedophiles... Remember, we had to ditch the old man from the ads.
- Totes creepsome
- Utterly buttery
- A caramel shop!
- That's it! Harriet Pottical goes into a golden caramel shop...
- Make it personal...
- Her FAVOURITE childhood caramel shop
- I love it!
- Do caramel shops exist?
- Small detail, peeps. We deal with the big ideas...
- Bingo!
- Coolio. Stop the clock. How long was that? 
- 5 minutes.
- Call it £100k? 
- Mega... I'll call Worthington's with the good news...
- What's next?
- Um. London 2012 need a logo...
- Shit... 
- Better get the school kids in on this one...

I've just passed a 60-year old woman with a 2 inch, shiny black tattoo of a dog's paw on her cheek! It was a horrifying sight which posed more questions than there are answers for. What was she thinking of? What was she attempting to cover up? Did her grandchildren do it to her with a sharpie pen whilst she was asleep? Answers on a post card.