Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Newsnight BBC2

A simple narrative of a very minor happening. Yesterday I was teaching pretty much all day, through to 5pm. Mid afternoon I got an email from Clare, one of the production staff at BBC Newsnight, asking if I'd like to come on a roundtable discussion on that night's show to talk about a trifling 'Scriptwriter Confesses He Smuggled Coded Anti-Thatcher Story into 1980s Dr Who' item that had, oddly I think, stirred up news-interest. I phoned her at 5pm, said I was happy to come in; and she asked me some stuff about SF and politics, jotting down my answers. Then I cycled home from work, and spoke to her on the phone a second time. They now didn't want me for the 11pm live roundtable, she said; but would still like me to come into Television Centre and prerecord a brief interview to be cut into the news-report preceding the discussion. I said I was perfectly happy to do this, although I also said I wasn't the world's most expert Who-head, and gave her the names of a couple of more Who-knowledgeable people in the London area. 'No we want you, because you're a SF novelist', she told me. At about 6:45 a car arrived at my door, and a nice driver called Dave drove me to TV centre. I loitered in the Newsnight office for a while, chatting to the staff: apparently they come in at some point in the morning ('between nine and twelve, depending'), and then work solidly on that night's show right up to transmission. Must be a fairly wearing stretch, that. 'Yes; though the hardest part is actually getting guests to agree to come and delivering them to the studio in timely fashion.' One man, also called Adam, came over and told me he'd enjoyed reading Yellow Blue Tibia, which was either very flattering, or else very diplomatic, but either way was nice of him. Then Clare, with whom I'd spoken earlier, came down and took me off to a tiny little room for filming. I was miked; the cameraman Richard set up the shot; Clare directed a fierce spotlight into my eyes and turned off the other lights except for a faint red illumination of the toy robot they'd positioned on a table at my left hand. She asked the cameraman if the spot was too bright on me -- which I took to be code for 'golly he's one freakishly pale human being' (nothing but the truth, that). 'It's fine,' said the cameraman, reframing the shot. I could see nothing but the light in my eyes; everything else was perfectly dark. They turned off a humming fridge in the corner of the room, and readied things, whilst I made a few nervily comical smalltalky comments about this-and-that. Then we were off. She asked me a 'is SF political?' sort of question. Conscious that TV has no use for rambly lectures, I tried to keep myself on point and reasonably pithy, though not very successfully, I'm afraid. SF is inevitably political, I said, because it is always either creating a new world or modifying this one, making it better or worse, more utopian or dystopian. This a largely matter of how people relate to one another, or, in a word, politics. 'I'm interested in what you said on the phone earlier,' she said, 'when you talked about how UK SF was more left wing than US.' Well, I said (unable to avoid the subordinate-clause caveat) and despite the fact that some very notable US writers have 'liberal' political sympathies, it's probably true to say that US SF has had a more right-wing, militaristic, gung-ho flavour; where British SF has tended to be more on the left, a little more downbeat and also more pessimistic. 'That's great,' she said, out of the darkness and the one bright light. 'Maybe we could do that question again? It's good to have a couple of angles on the topic when we're cutting the piece.' I took this to mean: though I'm too polite to say so to your face, that answer was way too waffly. So I went over the same ground, talking briefly about US hard-sf in the militarist tradition, mentioning Star Wars and Galactica and saying something about how even more 'liberal' US TV SF tends to filter its politics through a militaristic idiom, think of Star Trek, or even Avatar, which, though it is a treehugger fable at heart, can't escape its fascination with the big military machines and the gung-ho heart of the warrior-protagonist. 'Great,' she said. Then she asked me the same question in a slightly different way, such that I realised it hadn't been great. So I said it again, more briefly. Then she asked: 'why do you think UK SF is more left wing than US?'. I talked a bit about possible reasons: larger social/cultural reasons, reasons of budget -- the shoestring 1980s Who compared to the big-budget corporate cinema events a la Star Wars. Then she asked me some more specific questions about the anti-Thatcher Who episodes, which I answered, I suppose, as well as anybody would who had read the Telegraph report for the first time that afternoon. I talked some more about the spirit of Who as being anti-militaristic, in the sense of its deliberate non-conformist, anti-regimented, no-guns ethos. We chatted about a couple of thing. 'Great!' she said, finally, turning the lights on again. The whole thing took, I'd say, between 15 and 20 minutes.

Then she walked me back to the Newsnight office, and checked that another driver had been arranged for me, after which she took me down to reception. She was unflaggingly nice, but looked tired. I chatted with the doorman, who was reading a Wilbur Smith novel the size of a shoebox. My driver came and drove me back home. On the way back, he asked me what I did, and when I said I was a writer, he said: 'so what's going to happen with these e-books, then?' I gave him the benefit of my august opinion on this important topic, and chatted with him about his line of work. He told me he was a freelance; drove for the BBC in the winter and in the summer did personalised tours through the south east for American tourists. I didn't catch his name.

I was struck, I suppose, by a couple of things. I realised, for instance, the extent to which any TV show with guests entails a motorised ballet of delivering and whisking away human beings, which must be horribly dependent on the vagaries of London traffic; and how much of the production is actually an invisible people-logistics. I was also struck, not for the first time, by just how precise and haiku-like a discipline good soundbites are. I've done them well in the past, on occasion; I didn't do them well that night.

I watched the show later, of course; I appeared for maybe ten seconds, saying one thing: that UK SF was all left-wing, but US SF all militaristic and right-wing, 'think of Star Wars and Galactica or even Star Trek.' There was a quick shaky close up of my eyes, of the sort that encourages viewers to append the adjective 'mad' to the organs of sight in question. I certainly wasn't quoted out of context, except in the sense that the context was 'fifteen rambly minutes of chat about SF and politics' and the quote was a few seconds; although I came over as a bit of a knob, for all that. Slightly too fuzzy-brained after all day teaching to be able to give crisply formed soundbites. Gavin Esslar then chatted with in-studio guests, one Doctor Who Screenwriter and one 'Conservative Central Office Science Fiction Expert' (which made it sound, nicely, like a Tory staff post). At one point Esslar said 'Adam Roberts says all American SF is right-wing, but that's surely not right: what about Avatar?' And the two guests agreed.


redrichie said...

Admittedly I was only 9 when the epsiode they used clips of was broadcast and my level of political engagement was about as sophiscated as "Tories bad," so I didn't really pick up on the Helen A/Thatcher similarities until later. However, they were pretty obvious to anybody a little more knowledgeable and the idea that Helen A was modelled on Thatcher isn't exactly a new one. Why has this suddenly become a story now? It was 20 years ago and I don't even see the new-Who connection, that's had 4 full series now, FFS.

Although, I did feel a little sorry for Andrew Cartmel, he was right; in spite of the laughably small budgets given to Dr Who by that time the last series (and bits of the previous one) did pick up the quality a fair bit. The hiatus really didn't need to be quite so long.

Heh - pity about the way that your material was used in the final cut, though. I would really love to see SF get talked about properly on something, er, middlebrow, like Newsnight.

Adam Roberts said...

As a metaphysical statement, 'Tories bad' still holds true, I'd say.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood said...

Your mistake was not spotting the bait and switch between come in and talk to us, and come in and we'll clip ten seconds out of a ten minute pre-record... And yes, I speak as someone who's been both sides of the mic!

redrichie said...

Heh, indeed.

I have a better repertoire of swears than I had at 9 (I didn't say that I was much more sophisticated.) Although my 9 message long texts lambasting the Tories for their idiotic polices, vacuous leader and all round general kitten-drowning evilness are fairly legendary. Amongst my friends, anyway.

Christ, now I'm depressed. If that lot get in, assuming a full term, I'll be at least 36 before they piss off. *cries*

Adam Roberts said...

Jon, well, yes: I've done this sort of thing before, and should have been more on the ball. But it was a thoroughly interesting experience all round.

FieldsOfCarp said...

I really dislike when journalists want to make a [narrow] point across - they "interview" the expert and edit everything else out but their point - attaching some weight to an empty statemet at the expert's expense. It's almost the same as commenting on the expert's blog making a point about it...

Mondy said...

I'm still amazed at how this has become an issue. Fans have known since it was screened that Happiness Patrol was a veiled attack against Thatcher but also against conservatism and homophobia and racism in general. Shit, I was 13 when it ran and I picked it then.

So why has this suddenly become a shock and stunned issue?

Anywho, shame about the ten second cut. Not that I saw it. I live in Australia. Which means you can still hold your head up high in this country.

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