Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A deliberative space for our new politics?

QUB logo

This afternoon saw another one of those virtual world meets real world events. Intrigued by a Facebook event notification, I popped into QUB’s Institute of Irish Studies on University Road for a seminar originally titled

“Can the Internet provide a deliberative space for our new politics?”

and perhaps retitled

“Engaging an Articulate Commons”

Mick Fealty, the brains behind the creation of Slugger O’Toole, was over from foggy Dorset to talk alongside Ciarán O’Kelly about how online communication can contribute to political debate, and whether it helps it take a different shape from old(er) fashioned engagement between politicians and the politically interested.

Mick Fealty and Ciarán O’Kelly at a seminar at QUB's Institute of Irish Studies

Given that the setting was a university tutorial room, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we had lots of buzz words and academic speak. But in amongst the

deliberative spaces, interventions, articulate commons, potentialities, individual intelligence and recontextualising knowledge

there was some good stuff. Accessible too!

I’d never come across the story of the birth of Slugger O’Toole before. Started very deliberately back on 5 June 2002 as part of a research project to create a space to allow political conversations to develop within safe boundaries, against a backdrop of the Good Friday Agreement and the fairly shaky political aftermath. The paper was produced, but the site lived on and continues to flourish with a daily readership that at peak times tops that of some Irish newspapers. (Spot the intervention.)

Traditional media - whether print, radio or television - can’t (financially) afford the time to encourage long-lived conversations. Television debates change subject every 8-10 minutes. (Think about the last time you watched Question Time or Lets Talk.) Even the radio, the home of the voice, can’t last more than 30 minutes before straining to turn the page and introduce a new topic. (Think Nolan, Talk Back, or even Sunday Sequence.)

But the internet doesn’t charge by the electron. It’s not in a hurry. In a blog or a forum, there’s plenty of space to come back to this morning’s post and add another response, never mind returning to yesterday’s thread or last month’s debate.

Mick Fealty and Ciarán O’Kelly at a seminar at QUB's Institute of Irish Studies

Mick made a few observations that I’ll pick up on:

  1. Northern Ireland’s early online political debate started out in places like Vincent Hanna’s Compuserve forums. But bulletin boards were (and still are) a cacophony of voices, randomly starting topics, interjecting and swerving off-topic mid-thread.

  1. Blog posts tend to be dominated by a single voice, a consistent set of values and personal background that command what’s written “above the line” in the main post. Blogs differentiate themselves by their voice. And while there is still a melee of commenters “below the line” (in popular blogs anyway), it’s centred around a sophisticated starting point in the original post. And with discipline - and an eye for libel - the commenting can be proactively gardened ing, pruning the straggly branches, and removing the poisonous weeds.

  1. There was an important point made about dissent - particularly important for political discussion, though I suspect I could apply it within a work context too. Sometimes there is a desire for conformity and consensus, a desire to pull everyone back to the party line. Yet dissent, and the articulation of dissent, is what debate is all about. Stamping out dissenting comments from threads - whether through berating snipes or removal - weakens the overall discussion and weakens the original post’s assertions. The whole point of Slugger is to allow dissenting positions to be discussed and to test the value of what’s proposed. (Probably an argument for keeping political debate out in neutral territory and off party-specific websites.)

  1. Sometimes bloggers are criticised as being mere link pasters. But the simple act of blogging about a newspaper article means that the blogger produces something that does not equal the original article; instead the bloggers (should) tend to bring a whole new context to the original author’s article, bringing in additional information and extra flavour from other sources, building justification for a modified argument or at least augmenting the original premise. The blogger’s consistent voice can be all the stronger by drawing together these different stories and themes. (This is recontextualising knowledge!)

  1. There was also a useful reminder that blog archives will keep us all honest. Particularly the politicians. Once in the public eye, politicians become very aware of what they’re saying. But in their life up until that point of candidacy or election, their blogs will leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind them pointing to previous positions and statements on all kinds of issues. (Guess I’m in hot water if I ever apply for a job with bmi, easyJet, or at either of the local airports!)

A final thought before I retire to the third episode of Spooks ... as politicians, political parties, governments and other big institutions and corporations start to use the web to garner opinion and test out lines and policies, they need to remember not to be overwhelmed by the choir of discordant voices. Those politicians, governments and organisations are the ones with the executive responsibility (and sometimes mandates and /or salaries) to make decisions, to listen and to pick out a course. They don’t have to guarantee every contributor a slice of the end vision (or a sentence in the consultation response).

Mick Fealty and Ciarán O’Kelly at a seminar at QUB's Institute of Irish Studies

Look back in anger?

Question Mark from Emdashes.com's flickr account

As my head settled on the pillow, it was one of the last questions I expected to be asked.

When historians and commentators look back on life in Northern Ireland in twenty or fifty years time, what will they remark on? What will they draw attention to and criticise?

Today, people would look back and comment on the sectarianism and violence of the past thirty or more years that has so cruelly hurt our current society, and shaped the political playing field that now occupies our MLAs up at Stormont.

But what is there in today’s society that will stand out like a sore and irritating thumb in twenty, thirty or fifty years time? It’s a bit more serious than the usual AIB post, but why not?

Leave your ideas as comments, and I’ll come back to this topic in a week or so.

My starter for ten would centre around our lack of respect, fear and reaction to newcomers (even second or third generation ones) and outsiders. Western society stands against slavery and sweat shops, but are we consistent in our welcome to and treatment of immigrants and foreign workers within our own shores?

Without wanting to labour the point, here’s a few examples to back up my observation.

  • Have we not created a class of jobs in Northern Ireland that “locals would never do”. While newspapers like the Belfast Telegraph have been sold from pull-along stands on Belfast street corners since well before I was born, eastern European men seem to be the only ones willing to work as roadside distributors, standing at traffic lights in all weather to sell papers to queueing motorists for minimal reward.

  • The Chinese community have a long and successful association with Belfast. Aside from running many fine Chinese takeaways and restaurants, generations have settled into local life, schools and culture, using their skills and talent to successfully move beyond catering and hospitality into other areas of the community too. Even politics! (Topical this week!) But as NI’s religious tensions wane ever so slightly, the Chinese community’s success seems to have marked them out as a target for racism and intimidation. Take the struggle over the last three or more years to get plans approved and local support in place to build a Chinese community centre in the Donegal Pass area ... despite having jumped through the big hurdle of securing Lottery funding. Instead, leaflets were distributed claiming that the Chinese community “undermines the [Donegal Pass] community’s Britishness”. It might be a tiny minority standing in their way, but it’s still wrong.

  • Sunday morning’s Radio Ulster news carried a story about Frank Kakopa, who arrived at Belfast City Airport along with his wife and family on a flight from Liverpool (where he was working) “on a trip to visit the Giant's Causeway and the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge”. Immigration Service officials (who were at a heightened state of alertness due to an ongoing exercise) didn’t accept his valid papers, questioned him, detained him, strip searched him, and locked him up in Maghaberry Prision for two days. Isolated from his family who were left behind at the airport. And a solicitor specialising in NI immigration commented on the radio on the way home from work on Monday night that this case wasn’t unusual. Arriving with valid papers and finding that the Immigration Service cancels your visa is all too common. (The solicitor recalled one visitor from Cameron being detained on the false assumption that he was from Nigeria. Wrong continent!)

While all of these situations are more complicated that the one (two?) dimensional explanation that I’m summarising in this post, there’s an injustice and a lack of grace about them. A lack of empathy with our neighbour.

They feel like examples of our society’s fear of change, and fear of foreign ideas and people. Is it an insecurity? Is it a bizarre attempt to avoid being politically incorrect? Is is an unconscious distrust? Is it racism?

Question Mark from DubSnipe's flickr account

The local blogosphere deserves a mention too. Without wanting to stir up more controversy that I can chew, some of David Vance’s posts (and the subsequent comments) over at A Tangled Web disturb me. It’s as if it’s ok to always assume the worst. To assume guilt rather than innocence. To believe the stereotype rather than seeking to get to know the individual underneath.

Where’s the grace in the post Jailed for being black (discussing the Frank Kakopa case and the Equality Commission’s intervention).

“... these race-hustlers want to create the idea that we are all institutionally racist and hence justify there [sic] own wretched positions. Personally, I would scrap the Equality Commission overnight, it is a parasitic infection.”

and suggesting ...

“... that Mr Kakopa is lucky it was not Zimbabwean security that he was dealing with or the outcome may have been [r]ather less munificent.”

Or take the post Well done Dulles Airport which first congratulates the Department of Homeland Security operatives’ decision to search and detain Shahid Malik MP, Britain’s first Muslim minister (incidentally, he’s International Development Minster in case you thought he was Minister for Muslims) for 40 minutes at the airport (not just the cursory “can I check your backpack?” I regularly get caught with at Belfast City) as he travelled home from a counter-terrorism meeting in Washington DC with the very same Department of Homeland Security. The post then goes on to appeal for an end to random searching, and to focus solely on Muslims and to ignore “elderly women, young mothers, even Nuns” (presumably unless they’re Muslim grannies, mothers and nuns).

On that basis, I conjecture the commentators (and perhaps even bloggers if such time-wasting continues long into the future) will look back on us with dismay and disappointment.

Comments welcomed, along with other suggestions for areas that will be tut tutted about in twenty or so years time.

(Thanks to Emdashes.com and Dubsnipe for the question marks.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Who ya callin’ a Muppet?

Update - April 2007 - it's made it onto our screens.

Back in 31 July I posted ...

Cookie! Northern Ireland’s very own Sesame Street

After years of waiting - well Slugger O'Toole mentioned it in January 2006 - twenty 15-minute episodes of the new Northern Ireland version of Sesame Street will be produced and broadcast on BBC NI starting in February 2008.

Sesame Tree Northern Ireland publicity shot - cropped from BBC News website version

Following local auditions, five people have been chosen to take on the role as puppeteers and give Norn Iron voices to the puppets who’ll be gathering around the Sesame Tree - Northern Ireland’s very own version of Sesame Street. Executive producer Colin Williams commented to the Belfast Telegraph:

“We saw a lot of really good people over the past few weeks, but the chosen cast of six really stood out for their enthusiasm and ability to move, act and sing all at once ...

Most of the cast are local performers, with performing arts background, however one of the cast, Helen Sloan has no previous acting experience but the producers were impressed with her enthusiasm and improvisation skills.”

Having seen Avenue Q (a puppet musical that’s still running in London - go and see it if you’re over), puppeteers really make or break a show.

Marty Robinson - Sesame Street puppeteer - Sesame Tree - The Jim Henson Company

The home five will work alongside Marty Robinson who according to the Muppet Wiki joined The Jim Henson Company back in 1980 as the man behind Aloysius Snuffleupagus, Telly Monster, Slimey the Worm, and has helped to hire and train puppeteers in Sesame offshoots in Mexico, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Russia and Bangladesh. So he’s no stranger to conflict!

It’s proving great fodder for local newspapers who are responding to the drip, drip of news from production company Sixteen South by printing fortnightly stories. It’s sure to become cult viewing - certainly amongst the student population who forty years ago tuned into The Magic Roundabout at 5.40pm each evening before the early evening news. Word has even spread to the Indian TV portal Televisionpoint.com.

So who will we see?

Potto is the big purple character, “gentle, bookish and a brilliant inventor”. Assisted by Hilda (a younger and more energetic hare with pink guddies gutties), the pair will answer the questions posed by Northern Ireland children to the Sesame Tree each week.

The supporting cast includes the Bookworms (two helpful and friendly worm-Muppets who live among Potto's books), Claribelle (“a bright, loveable and eccentric auntie character who occasionally visits the tree”) and the three Weatherberries (Muppet fruit - that hang together in a bunch inside the Sesame Tree).

And if that’s not enough, every now and again Potto will get in touch with his family back in the US, introducing some of the well known global characters like Bert and Ernie, Elmo and Cookie Monster.

If you’re wanting to get into the mood, check out the weekly US Sesame Street podcast (RSS or iTunes).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

IKEA Belfast - 45 days to opening

The kitsch countdown continues … with only 45 days to go (at time of posting) to the opening of the Belfast IKEA on 13 December.

The store (disappointedly not itself flat-packed) has been constructed fairly quickly over the last six months or so, and progress has been quite visible while coming into last at Belfast City Airport (or driving into Secret Sainsburys).

The IKEA site has started a Manager’s blog with some details about progress and pictures of show kitchens being constructed.
Image from IKEA Belfast fit out (c) IKEA 2007
While part of me wants to disassociate myself from the inevitable hype and traffic jams that will form part of the store’s opening - I’ve lived without IKEA for thirty something years, so what’s going to change? - there is part of me looking forward to exciting adventures exploring the vast showroom with a scampering three year old!

And following the vein of the last posting, a previous IKEA post about recruitment still gets a lot of hits from people Googling for “ikea belfast jobs” ...

Update: it has now opened ...

The Page Turner revisited (and some reflections on Google’s PageRank)

Poster inn London Underground for the film The Page Turner

I picked up a DVD of The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de Pages) a couple of weeks ago, and now that The West Wing is out of the way (having started last Christmas, we’ve finally made our way through all seven series) we settled down on Saturday night to an evening of piano music and tension.

Eleven months after first seeing it in the cinema, the film’s so much more menacing the second time through.

On repeat viewing, so many of Mélanie’s (Déborah François) actions and words point to her planning revenge, even leaving us wondering if she’d been involved in Ariane’s (Catherine Frot) car crash?

Anyway, an excellent film, well worth viewing (or hiring).

Interestingly, my original review post continues to receive a lot of hits from Google - mostly from people searching for the French title “la tourneuse de pages” rather than the English “the page turner”. I was also shocked to discover that last week’s post mentioning the fun children’s book “Aliens Love Underpants” has a ridiculously high page ranking (below Amazon, but above Waterstones), and that the post written following the night of the death of David Ervine strangely still sits below his Wikipedia entry, and above the BBC News article announcing his death.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Belfast's Rickety Wheel - putting the "eye" into Belfast

Remember back in 1995, every Friday night served up another helping of PK Tonight, with Patrick Kielty's close-to-the-knuckle jokes, guests and bands. Spinning the Big Rickety Wheel was a constant segment throughout the series.

And now Belfast has built a replica - between a quarter and half the size of the London Eye, and strictly a temporary structure that last a few months at the side of Belfast City Hall.

It'll take fifteen minutes to complete a revolution. One of the capsules is black and marked VIP ... not sure what advantage it offers. But it'll surely become a lunchtime treat - depending on the cost (the wheel is supposed to be self-financing over the few months it remains in Belfast).

A bit like the St Anne's Cathedral spire, the wheel pops up in all kinds of views across Belfast: appearing between city centre buildings, peeping above the rooftops as you drive across the Albert Bridge and up past Central Station.

Update: on-board on a rainy Saturday afternoon ...

Coming to Belfast may get you into trouble with a judge!

While Belfast City Council are keen to attract tourists to Belfast (see the earlier posting about yourviewsonbelfast.com), they may not have expected to hold up trials in the process!

The Register publishes a story (via the Herald Express) about a case in Exeter Crown Court that has been delayed when a key witness got fed up waiting around for the trial to begin and hopped on a plane over to Belfast.

It’s a conspiracy to defraud case centred around a man who is alleged to have put relatively low value goods - computer games, DVDs and perfumes - up for auction on eBay, and then cashed the buyers’ cheques without sending the goods. Two other accused men (one from Belfast) pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in December.

However, the case is now in limbo while an eBay employee due to take the witness stand returns from his brief trip to Northern Ireland. The witness was airborne by the time he was needed, The Register reports:

Judge Philip Wassall told the jury he considered ordering a plane carrying [the witness] from Exeter to Belfast to turn around while in mid air so the man, described only as an "eBay employee," could offer his testimony. The judge decided against that option after considering the inconvenience to other passengers.

A witness summons has now been issued, and the witness could be ordered to pay costs for the court’s wasted time.

Maybe Belfast tourist ads should carry disclaimers ...

Coming to Belfast may get you into trouble with a judge!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Carphone Warehouse - not trading today!

Not the best day for the Belfast branch of The Carphone Warehouse.

A little short of electrons perhaps!

Better get it sorted out before the expected rush of people on November 9 wanting to shell out hundreds and hundreds of pounds a year for an Apple iPhone. (Though I've a sneaking suspicion that Northern Irelander's will be a bit more canny and not fall for the hype.)

Update 2/11: And a big hello to all the folk at CPW who are reading this post this morning!

Richard & Judy ... Aliens Love Underpants ... Alphaoops!

Richard & Judy - Childrens' Book Club logo

In book news, Richard and Judy are spreading their commercial literary expertise to start up a children’s book club. Channel 4, tonight at 8pm (competing for your attention with Waterloo Road over on BBC1 and some football match on Five).

Aliens Love Underpants

And I’m pleased to report that the splendidly fun Aliens Love Underpants! by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort is on their initial list. Although placed in their Early (5+) category, I can confirm that it’s one of the current favourites of our just under three year old daughter.

Alphaoops! The Day Z Went First

One deserving book that hasn’t made it to their list but is a joy to read (over and over and over again) is Alphaoops! The Day Z Went First by Alethea Kontis and Bob Kolar which I picked up in San Francisco airport about eleven months ago. The story of what happens when the Z decides not to go last, and the other letters mess around too. Explains why we have a ("J is for") Jack-o'-Lantern in the house, rather than a pumpkin!

Update: The overnight viewing figures weren't so enthusiastic about Richard & Judy's Best Kid's Books - with only 684k viewers (2.9%) tuning in.

So far this year, this slot on Channel 4 normally averages 2.3m (10.9%). But as part of C4's Lost for Words literacy season, it may have been a worthwhile public service broadcasting gesture to schedule the programme in such a lucrative slot.

For comparison, Five captured 1.6m (7.4%) viewers on their sofas for Everton's Uefa Cup tie, while BBC 2 had 2.4m (11%) for The Truth About Property, BBC1 kept 4.6m (20.7%) behind after class for Waterloo Road, and ITV "beat" the competition with 4.9m (22%) tuning into The Bill. [source: Broadcast Magazine]

your views on Belfast dot com

So Lonely Planet* think that Northern Ireland is one of the must-see countries to visit in 2007, and Belfast is one of the top ten “Cities on the Rise”.

But the city council believe that if Belfast doesn’t market itself properly and positively, then there’s no reason to expect that the tourist pounds (and euros) will fill our city’s cash registers and bank accounts.

Of course, before you market, you need to know what you’ve got to flog. And that’s why Lloyd Northover brand consultants have conducted hundreds of interviews across the business, hospitality, development and media communities, and have now opened up a website - yourviewsonbelfast.com - to get Northern Ireland residents’ views on their capital city.

youryiewsonbelfast.com logo

The survey closes on November 8 and Councillor Michael Brown encourages everyone to make their voice heard:

“It will just take 10 minutes of your time to help shape the image of Belfast for years to come.”

In his role as chairman of Belfast City Council’s development committee he adds:

“This is a really exciting time for Belfast as it is rapidly changing for the better and it needs a new image, a new brand to reflect this new era ... We want to hear what Belfast means to people who live and work here, to people who have visited the city for pleasure or business and even to those who have not yet been to Belfast but are interested in the city.”

The survey includes a chance to assess the kind of attributes you associated with Belfast, choosing three from the list that includes:

self confident, resilient, gritty, unsafe, rich heritage, sectarianism, quirky, hard but soft in the middle, cohesive, political, optimistic, vibrant, buzzing, compact, witty, ...

Along with the vote for the Arthur Street replacement for the old Cornmarket bandstand, you can have so much fun online now!

* You might want to check out the Lonely Planet sections titled Don’t trouble yourself with Dublin, head to Belfast instead and Best pubs in Belfast to meet an ex terrorist.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

4oD, iPlayer and a temporary resurrection of Dennis Potter

Chanel 4's 4oD logo

I noticed recently that 4oD has opened up some of the Channel 4 archive as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations. So oft remembered but never repeated dramas along with old series of Grand Designs are available to download and enjoy for free.

For the discerning AiB reader who is less glued to the interweb, 4oD is Channel 4’s on-demand service that allows you to download C4, E4, Film4, AnythingElseEndingIn4 TV shows to your PC (got to be Windows XP or Vista) and watch at your leisure.

In general, you’ve 30 days to watch what you’ve downloaded, and 48 hours to complete watching programmes once you start watching them for the first time.

Technically, 4oD uses the same Kontiki peer-to-peer (P2P) software as BBC's iPlayer, meaning that while you have a show downloaded your PC may be used to send parts of it to other users downloading the same programme. Spreads out the bandwidth across the 4oD users and reduces the load on Channel 4’s servers ... but does have some implications if your ISP limits the uploads you make in a month.

4oD is also available as a catch-up service on Virgin Media, BT Vision and Tiscali IPTV platforms.

image (c) BBC

Knowing that he was dying from pancreatic cancer, Dennis Potter wrote two four-part dramas, asking that they be co-produced by BBC and Channel 4. In 1996, nearly two years after his death, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus were aired.

Feeld's cryogenically preserved head - from Muli Koppel's Flickr account

Karaoke told the tale of a dying writer, Daniel Feeld, and was as odd as anything Potter had previously written despite its touching parallels with Potter’s final weeks. In contrast, Cold Lazarus was quite breathtaking in its vision of the future, where Feeld’s cryogenically preserved head is leaking out its four hundred year old memories. Few who watched it will forget the RONs (Reality or Nothing) - a luddite resistance movement who want to destroy the virtual reality in which society now exists and go back to physical idealism.

Cover of Dennis Potter TV drama transcripts - Karaoke and Cold Lazarus

A consequence of the unique co-production (both dramas aired on both channels, shown first on a Sunday night on one, and repeated the following evening on the other) is that unclear rights issues have prevented the series being released on DVD or repeated on TV. While not the faint-hearted, it’s a rare opportunity to watch them for free on 4oD. (The screenplay is still available on Amazon too.)

Being last broadcast in 1996, it probably shouldn’t surprise me that there are practically no still images from either drama available on line. Otherwise, this article might be better illustrated!
BBC iPlayer Beta logo

While we’re on the subject of on-demand TV, it’s also been announced that iPlayer (BBC’s on-demand catch-up service) will be introducing a streamed version (using Adobe Flash) as part of the official consumer launch of iPlayer at Christmas, allowing Mac and Linux users access to iPlayer’s catalogue of shows for the first time.

Nothing to stop PC users streaming either ... though I wonder if the streamed content will be poorer quality than the download service due to bandwidth and time constraints. Whereas the download service allows for convenient viewing offline on a train or plane, streaming has the downside of having to be online to watch the content (unless there’s some clever caching system).

It’s not yet clear whether streaming is an interim step before ultimately introducing the full-download service across multiple operating systems when the cross-platform DRM issues are sorted out, or whether this will be as good as it gets for the non-Windows community. The Guardian reports:

Ashley Highfield, the BBC director of future media and technology, said that there was a “cost per person reach” factor that meant that it was “too early to make the call” on when to develop a download service.

And iPlayer’s streaming service will also be available for free at The Cloud’s wifi hotspots. Ashley Highfield described the partnership with The Cloud as

“... furthering the BBC's commitment to make its content as widely available as possible to our audiences wherever they are.”

(Acknowledgement: Photo of Feeld's preserved head from Muli Koppel's Flickr account.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rapunzel ... letting her hair down on a screen near you soon

Rapunzel is a German fairy tale, one that until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t much awareness of. Sure, something about a fair young maiden in a tower letting her hair down to allow a prince to climb up to rescue her. But that was about it.

Thank goodness then for Wikipedia, and the comprehensive synopsis it provided. The original tale turns out to be not quite so straightforward as my sketchy memory, with a few more twists and turns, and a sting in the tale. Not every fairy tale resolves completely and neatly.

Tonight in a Belfast cinema I saw the BBC premiere of a new version of Rapunzel. It’s one of four hour-long stories - that I mentioned in a post last November - that are being given a contemporary retelling in the Fairy Tales series that hits BBC1 UK-wide over the next couple of months. All four tales were shot entirely in Northern Ireland over the summer.

Montage from Rapunzel invite

Rapunzel is set in the ruthless world of tennis. Lee Ingleby (who you probably last saw in Life on Mars) takes on the role of Jimmy Stojkovic, a failing tennis player with a liability of a father (played by Eastender’s Shaun Williamson). Needing more success that he was likely to get on the men’s tour, Jimmy swaps over to play tennis as a woman, complete with a fetching wig.

Charity Wakefield who plays Billy Jane (Rapunzel)

But falling in love with the beautiful long-haired Billy Jane (marketed by her mother under the brand of Rapunzel, and played by actress Charity Wakefield) complicates the deceit.

Superbly written by Ed Roe, there was lots of laughter tonight as the tale of Rapunzel played out on the big screen. And given that taster, I'm definitely looking forward to the other tales - Billy Goat, Cinderella and The Emperor's New Clothes - hitting the small screen later this year. A great advert for Northern Ireland - both in terms of scenery and our ability to support the production of high-quality network drama.

Hopefully it'll be a Belfast launch with a happy ending that brings more drama productions across to these shores. Game, set and match.

(c) 2007 BBC - still from Rapunzel - Fairy Stories

Update: The BBC press pack is now out, with a bit more explanation about Rapunzel's plot and production, along with more details about the other three fairy stories in the series.

Further update: The four-part anthology due to be aired in November/December will now be screened in the New Year.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Public Art to replace the Cornmarket bandstand ... you decide!

Cyberscribe and Slugger beat me to it, but it’s a public art story that’s worth repeating.

Remember the Cornmarket bandstand? The landmark that took the bad look of the humorously coloured Frazer (Fraser?) Frazer’s clothes shop. The bandstand that hosted school children singing tuneful and not-so-tuneful carols in the run up to Christmas each year. And the one that the council boarded up to make it look like a big pot when they hosted cookery demonstrations inside.

Well, it was pulled down a while back, and the Department of Social Development is running a public vote as part of its Streets Ahead project to let us all decide which shortlisted piece of public art should be erected in the space. Interestingly, it’s now referred to as Arthur Square, the space formerly known as Cornmarket.

You’ve a choice of ...

The Dancing Tree - five wobbly pillars, like upside-down wind chimes, representing a hollow oak tree, acting as a meeting place as well as a backdrop for occasional drama. The top of the pillars will rotate and swing in the wind, and a spotlight in the pavement will “attract the flâneurs from different directions”.

The Dancing Tree

Phoenix Rising - a big spoon sticking out of the ground, representing Belfast’s renaissance, “a Phoenix Rising that sweeps the ground and spirals up to reach into the sky”. As a landmark and beacon, it too will support street performance, as its “oval seat becomes a perfect mini-amphitheatre”.

Phoenix Rising

Spirit of Belfast - four curved stainless steel squiggles, complete with “a ribbon of light provided by very energy-efficient light emitting diodes” whose “intensity, color [sic] and movement will be programmed as called for by events, the time of day ... or special celebrations within the city”. It intends to become “the hearth of our city centre”, drawing people to its interactivity as it weaves together steel and reminds of us of the fabric (linen) of our history.

Spirit of Belfast

(No sign of an option for a new improved bandstand, so looks like the primary school kids will be getting wet next Christmas. I’d love to meet the Public Art Selection Jury that assessed the twenty applicants, and whittled down the eight long-listed concept sketch designs to the final three. According to the Victoria Square newsletter, the jury is made up of “representatives from DSD, Belfast City Council, The Planning Service, Multi Development, EDAW, Chamber of Trade and Commerce, Belfast City Centre Management, Arts Council NI and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure” and they selected the final three “using criteria of artistic quality, deliverability and cost.”)

There’s £200k at stake - the budget allocated for this public art - so we better take this seriously. The online poll opened today, and runs until November 4. You can also vote in person at the Lagan Lookout (beside the Big Fish) and see the exhibition between 11am–4pm (Monday to Friday) and 11am–2pm (Saturday).

Update: The squiggle won!

The postman bringeth ... free tickets and an invitation to canapés

Something unexpected and unexplained happened today.

I got a hand addressed envelope in this morning’s mail. When I opened it, out fell a compliment slip and three free ticket passes from the Curzon Cinema chain in London that I tend to frequent when I’m over there working.

No explanation, just three free tickets!

So thank you Curzon Cinemas. And one good turn deserves another. If you’re ever in London and looking for a decent cinema to go and see something intelligent, can I recommend you check out the Curzon. The Renoir’s handy if you’re up near Bloomsbury, and the excellent Curzon Soho is just around the corner from Leicester Square and Yung’s in Chinatown.

The post - different envelope - also brought an invitation to Drinks and Canapés on a Tuesday night in November. Think that’s the first time anyone’s ever invited me to a do by that name. Roll on the puff pastry vol-au-vents and the dips.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Getting home on time: it just wasn’t meant to be.

bmi delay - flight departure screen

Getting home on time: it just wasn’t meant to be.

Arriving at Heathrow in just enough time to have a chance of getting a set on the earlier 18:55 flight, but not guaranteed. Got down to Gate 2 to be told there were no seats left. In an inspired move, I intoned the name of an upgrade voucher, so were there any seats in business?

Oh yes. There’s just one seat in business.

And then my heart sank as I rifled through my wallet to discover that I’d used the last voucher in September, and I didn’t have one after all.

So here I am in the bmi lounge, awaiting the 19:40 flight that’s due to take off as 21:55.

But I’ve got to put a good word in for bmi customer service. Realising that the departure time is not going to significantly improve, they didn’t wait the full two hours before making refreshment vouchers available. Neither did they leave it to passengers to realise that they were due something.

Instead, they put their thoughtful hats on, realised that the Costa Coffee outlet that serves hot panini* etc would close before our flight took off, and started giving out vouchers (a whole £7.50) shortly after 19:30.

Thank you bmi for making a bad situation better.

* Panini, plural of Panino

Update: expected departure moved back to 21:15!

Anne Enright's The Gathering scoops The 2007 Man Booker Prize

Anne Enright's The Gathering

In a result that had bookies reaching their hands deep into their pockets, Irish author Anne Enright picked up The 2007 Man Booker Prize last night with her novel The Gathering, published by Jonathon Cape.

William Crawley was hoping for Animal's People (by Indra Sinha). Many others reckoned that Ian McEwan’s year had finally come. I guess he’ll have to churn out another book for his publisher to enter in a future competition.

The Man Booker PRize 2007 logo

As a 12/1 outsider - not to mention, as a mightly fine author to have got through to the final short list - Anne commented after winning that she was now glad she’d managed on Monday to buy a dress for Tuesday night’s ceremony.

A pity that like last year the event wasn’t fully televised, other than the announcement being made during the 10 o’clock news, and an interview with the winner on Newsnight (that I caught being repeated later on News 24). Gone are the days with a husky Kirsty Wark whispering snippets of information about the short listed authors in an echoing venue.

And remember that you can still read the reviews of the Booker long list (which includes the short list) over at The Asylum.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Autumn Festival at Crawfordsburn II

We ended up calling in at the Autumn Festival over lunchtime today. It’s on again tomorrow in Crawfordsburn Park if you fancy what you see.

There was food ...

Pancakes with apple

... and pressed apple to drink.

Pressing apples at the Autumn Fair

There were crafts for young children (and us older kids too) including planting acorns in a decorated pot ...

Planting little acorns
Tin full of acorns

... and making creepy spider bookmarks.

DIY Spider bookmarks

There were pigs ...

A pig at the Autumn Festival

apples to look at, discuss and buy

Table full of apples

and apple trees to purchase and plant.

Apple trees on sale

Organic fruit and vegetables on sale from Helen’s Bay Organic stall.

Organic fruit and vegetables on sale

Not to mention the live music

Live music at the Autumn Festival

and the statutory man on stilts providing witty banter to all around and who had a distinct advantage when it came to the welly throwing competition!

Stilt walker throwing a welly boot

Thank you Environment & Heritage Service (EHS NI)!

Sign for the Environment Heritage Services EHS NI

Friday, October 12, 2007

Starlight Express, GOH, and a prototype blog entry

Driving into work I noticed a poster site in East Belfast advertising the musical Starlight Express that’s running in the Grand Opera House until 20 October.

I caught the show just before it closed it’s run in the London West End’s Apollo Theatre back in January 2002. Yikes! Five and a bit years ago.

Starlight Express, UK tour, Donna Zerlina

Back in those days, Fi Glover presented (starred in, even) BBC Radio FiveLive’s Sunday Service around 10am each Sunday morning. Perfect listening - once recorded for alter playback - to iron shirts to on a Sunday afternoon or evening.

January 2002 was also the time when the Transport Minister Stephen Byers was constantly in the news, the RMT union was on strike on South West Trains, and UK rail fares had just increased by up to 17%.

Going through some old emails that haven’t quite been caught by the data retention policy I found one that I’d emailed into Sunday Service, suggesting that “given the prominence of rail transport in this week’s news” the show should run a piece “linking in the current travel misery with the closure of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express [in the West End] on Saturday January 12 after a run of over 7000 performances.”

Starlight Express, UK tour, Donna Zerlina

In what now looks like a prototype blog posting (except I made it via a national radio programme) I continued ...

“After all, it’s a classic tale of Steam vs Diesel vs Electric rolling stock ... and it’s now safe to spoil the ending by revealing that the steam train wins out in the end.

Maybe the Railtrack bosses should have been sent to a quiet matinée performance along with the train operating company’s management and Stephen Byers to learn about the fine art of making trains run efficiently.

And maybe the actors (more like athletes with the speed they roller skate around the set) could transfer into the rail industry as train drivers and guards ... with the RMT union overseeing their TUPE rights!”

While they didn’t run a package about it, Charlie Whelan did read it out!

Starlight Express, UK tour, Donna Zerlina

There are still some seats available in Ye Grande Ole Opera House for performances next week. And if the touring show is anything like the London production five years ago, expect to be out of breath watching, and slightly dizzy as the actors trains roll around the stage. And although they may not be able to whizz up past the front of the circle like the original permanent theatre version, it should still be worth a watch.

(Thanks to Donna Zerlina for her flickr shots.)