Monday, 28 February 2011

Mind the doors

I just got stuck in a tube train door! I reached the platform at Old Street Station, and seeing it was the right sort of train, made a bit of a dash for it. It trapped me in a painful metal and rubber embrace and refused to let go until several fellow passengers had got hold of my shoulders and dragged me into the carriage. Unfortunately my editor, Louise was left on the platform and now I l don't have anyone to talk to on my way home! When I say "talk to", read "share my embarrassment"!

My cold is now approaching ferocious. I haven't been this wiped out by an illness for some years. Today was our first session editing Metro The Musical and at about three o'clock, I was feeling so lousy that I broke all my own guidelines on treating diseases, and rushed to Superdrug to dose myself to the rafters with Lemsip. Sadly, it doesn't seem to have done any good.

The cold wasn't helped by my not sleeping a wink last night. Or was it that my cold actually prevented me from sleeping? I've entered a vicious circle! A million things were darting through my mind...
I'm very sad to report that within the last two weeks, two of my close friends have had miscarriages. It's terribly upsetting, but I suppose the older we get, and the longer people leave it before trying for children, the more likely these sorts of things are to happen. I suppose it's better to have no child than a child born with terrible problems or birth defects. They say that a woman can become incredibly fertile following a miscarriage, but it's no consolation. I'm so bitterly upset for them both and hope with time, there'll be better news and beautiful babies will be born.

Pepys walked from Redriffe (or Rotherhithe) to Deptford 350 years ago on this date, and rewarded himself with a plate of meat. His vows for lent had lasted precisely 24 hours! What a surprise!

He went to a candle auction. The Navy was selling off a load of its old stock, and this method was deemed most likely to make a decent amount. A pin was driven through a candle and bidding continued until the candle burnt down to the place where the pin had been. The person who'd placed the most recent bid, won... Pepys was amused at how much people were paying for what was essentially old tat!

More rumours were circulating about the King, and whether or not he'd secretly married, or at the least got himself engaged. There was also talk that a navy fleet had been assembled and was about to head south, but no one knew why. It seems bizarre to me that Pepys himself was in the dark on this front, but there were wheels within wheels within 17th Century politics!

Sunday, 27 February 2011

When will we see the sun?

I'm feeling lousy. The cold has now taken hold! I'm snuffling and sneezing and have a terrible sore throat. 

The BBC was forecasting a lovely sunny day today, and Nathan and I decided to go for a walk on the Heath, which became lunch in Muswell Hill as soon as we stepped out of the house and saw the depressing rain sheeting down. 

I went to the gym this afternoon and pushed through the misery of the cold, but as the evening falls I'm beginning to regret having gone, as it's completely wiped me out!

I've come to brother Edward's to watch Dancing on Ice, whilst eating wraps. It's a particularly  relaxing thing to do on a Sunday night and we took advantage of a few hours of dry weather before the show started, by going for a walk around Canary Wharf, which is eerily quiet on a Sunday afternoon. 

February 27th, 1661, and Pepys observed the first day of lent with a lunch of fish. This year, he'd decided to go without meat for all 40 days. It'll be interesting to see how  this card carrying carnivore manages! In fairness, Pepys himself didn't seem to be particularly convinced  he'd be able to manage! Still, the thought was there!

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Thumping R and B

Uselessly, I think I’m coming down with a cold. My throat feels all tickly and hot, my neck is aching, and I have a strong desire to disappear underneath a blanket. We were kept up last night by our downstairs neighbour, who seems to think it's appropriate to play thumping R and B music until the wee smalls. The house was literally shaking, and the bass lines were so repetitive, I just wanted to scream. It’s difficult to be angry with him, because we’ve not yet told him that his music comes straight up through the floor.

We ended up sleeping in the attic; a typically British way of solving a problem. The rain was sheeting it down onto the windows in the roof. It's a sound I love when I'm tucked up in a warm bed, but poor Nathan, whose a very light sleeper, found the whole experience incredibly traumatic. We could still hear the music two floors below, and the sound of traffic on the A1 is also pretty loud up there.

At about 8am, he suggested we went back downstairs, but almost as soon as we'd settled in our own bed, the music started again! Not only does our neighbour have dreadful taste in music, he’s also a robot who doesn’t need to sleep! Gah! As I write this, I can still hear the music thumping away downstairs. Maybe he's doing a dance marathon for Comic Relief!

How sad is it that on a Saturday night, I’m sitting at home all alone? Nathan is working, and is heading out afterwards. But the idea of going to a club fills me with abject horror; I get very claustrophobic, and am like an old lady when it comes to protecting my ears from loud noises. I guess I'm a bit of a recluse outside my work environment. I never used to be, but I've developed a hatred of crowds, and standing up for long periods of time.

Tuesday 26th February 1661 was Shrove Tuesday. Elizabeth was “indisposed” in bed (no doubt suffering with her period), so Pepys went to Mrs Turner’s house, and found her making fritters for a group of friends, which included a tall, attractive women who'd recently appeared in London from the country. It’s quite wonderful to think the tradition of eating pancakes on this date goes back at least 350 years and Pepys described these particular fritters as the best he’d eaten in his life.

He glanced out of the window at one point and noticed a group of people throwing sticks at a tethered cock. That's a cock of the male chicken variety before anyone sniggers like a school boy. It was a weird and rather cruel Shrove Tuesday custom, with origins that I can't begin to understand.

Pepys was then taken to look at the harpsichon that had been made for Mrs Turner’s precocious 9-year-old daughter, Theophilia.

Pepys got home to find his wife and Valentine together. He insisted on referrinng to Martha Batten as his Valentine, which strikes me as bizarre, and probably freaked the poor girl. I hate to reveal the last line of the diary entry; which was censored by the prudish Victorians who first published the work: “I went to bed where (God forgive me) I did please myself by strength of fancy with the young country Segnora that was at dinner with us today.” Let your imaginations fly people...

Friday, 25 February 2011

Happy wedding, Fiona

I went to Hoxton today to pick up some copies of the rushes, which have times codes burnt into them. The time codes enable me to do what’s known as a "paper edit", which involves going through all the footage very slowly to make a list of the shots, or parts of shots that I want to use in the final film. It’s an adrenaline-fueled process; usually because I've forgotten how many takes I did of each shot. Sometimes, I'll decide I've reached the final take, and then go into a panic because there's something weird going on in the background. It's astonishing how your eye can be drawn to someone in a massive crowd scene, not looking at the camera, or looking a bit gormless. Fortunately, there's always been another take so far, so I'm still a happy bunny...

Because I was in Hoxton, I was able to meet up with Philippa and my goddaughter, Deia. We sat in a bar called “Kick” which is lined with table football games. It’s got enormous windows which face St Leonard’s Church (The bells of Shoreditch) and it's a lovely place to sit and while away the hours, whilst the uber-cool Hoxton set wriggle past with their weird hair-dos and unwashed jeans. It also turns out to be a very good place to eat. We had a bowl of soup each, which had a delicious smoky taste, and beautiful Parmesan-infused croutons. Deia was particularly good company, although Philippa tells me she’s being quite naughty at the moment. Those terrible twos...

We went home via an impressive field of crocuses behind the church. Two large dogs were going a bit loopy, running through the flowers, whilst seemingly trying to tear each others' throats out. You could see the heads of scores of delicate croci shooting into the air, as eight enormous paws jumped all over them and ripped them apart. It was a hideous massacre. Philippa had to ask the owners to get the dogs away. That said, I’m never sure I particularly like crocuses. It's something I may have inherited from my Mum, who told me today that she thinks a garden filled with the flowers looks like a baize-covered table that someone has thrown Quality Streets all over. She’s absolutely right, of course.

Quality Street or Crocus?

I worked very hard at the gym, and was rewarded by an instructor, who saw me running on the treadmill and asked me to join an “invite only” training session, which he described as a form of boot camp. It seemed to involve a great deal of weight-lifting, which is something I’ve not done before, so I told him I’d go to his Monday session, which is much more based around cardio vascular work. I hope it's a different crowd, however. I saw these testosterone-pumped men filing into the studio, and recognised at least three homophobes from banter in the changing rooms.

I ended my session with a swim, and had a terrible argument with a silly woman in the pool, who decided to swim in the same lane as me – backstroke. She got nearer and nearer, completely oblivious, until I was forced to re-route. In an attempt to avoid a collision with her, I brushed past a woman in another lane, and as I returned, the backstroker was standing in the pool, shrieking at me that I shouldn’t have kicked her friend. I explained that I hadn’t meant to kick her friend, but that if she’d have checked behind her before deciding to swim backstroke, and stuck to the rules of the pool, which are to swim in anti-clockwise circles, I wouldn’t have had to swim off course and therefore wouldn't have kicked her friend. “Well you have to apologise for kicking her anyway” she said, in a "I'm-in-this-pool-at-3pm-on-a-week-day-because-hubby-earns-packets-of-dosh" accent. “No, YOU apologise to her" I said "for swimming dangerously and putting her in a position where she got kicked... and whilst you're at it, apologise to me for shouting.” It was clear from her response that she's used to getting her way with men. Silly cow.

So, as I write this, Fiona is tying the knot in Santa Fe. It’s such a strange thought, and I really wish I were there. I'm trying to imagine what Santa Fe looks like, and what the weather's like at this time of year...

350 years ago, Pepys and Sir William Penn went all the way to Westminster to visit Lord Sandwich. Sadly, they found him taking “physic” and he would not see them. Pepys, instead, went with his old acquaintance, Peter Llewellyn, to William Symons’ house, but found him out, but his wife Margaret in, who fed them nettle porridge. My stomach is turning at the thought, but Pepys claimed it was very good. Llewellyn was full of tall stories; how his mate had once pretended to be a doctor, and managed to get an unwitting lady to reveal all sorts of personal information about herself. He even administered medicine to her, which strikes me as about as low as it gets; not that medicine in those days did anything particularly useful.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Another 30-foot freefall

I've spent the day doing very little. I woke up late, had a lovely bath, a lazy breakfast, and a nice cuddle; in fact, all the things I’ve not been able to do over the last few weeks. I went to the gym, and discovered that I'm now five kilos lighter than I was at the start of the year, which I’m obviously chuffed to bits about. I certainly feel a great deal fitter; really alive, in fact...

It's somewhat ironic, therefore, that I had to go home via the doctors, to talk about the fact that my voice is still cutting in and out. The tablets obviously didn't work. I was seen by a some kind of locum, who genuinely didn't seem to care about my problem. She begrudgingly told me she'd refer me to an ENT specialist, and that if I hadn't heard from anyone in 3 weeks, I should give her another call.

"Three weeks?" I looked puzzled. She nodded, "and it will obviously be a great deal more time before you’re actually seen by anyone." I thought for a moment, and then spoke; "but what if there's something badly wrong?" "You mean like cancer?" she said, sarcastically; "you don't look like you've got cancer!” “Well, I’m sure if everyone with cancer looked like they had the disease, far fewer people would actually die from it” I said, as politely as I could. She thought for a moment about my statement. “Well, I'm certainly not prepared to put you on a fast track. Your voice doesn't sound too bad to me. Has anyone else noticed this change?" There was a stunned silence as I played with a paper weight on her table. "I sing," I said, "and I can't generate any sound in my falsetto, which means something is wrong." She shrugged. “Well, let’s see what the specialist has to say...” I nearly called her a silly turd, but instead said thank you, and left with my tail between my legs feeling like I’d somehow wasted her precious time...

I don't know... It’s typical NHS, I suppose. I could have sat with a bus conductor for 5 minutes and found out more about my general health!

On my way back from the doctors, I managed to drop my iPhone off the edge of the stairwell which leads up to our front door. Just as my keys had done the other week, it did a 30 foot freefall onto concrete. Bizarrely, it seems to have survived... Although no doubt, I'll wake up tomorrow to a blank screen, and be forced to eat my words!

Fiona gets married in Santa Fe tomorrow. It feels very bizarre and slightly upsetting not to be there. I shall be drinking her and Paul’s health at 10pm our time, and would encourage anyone reading this blog who also knows her to raise a toast as well.

The 24th February 1661, and Pepys went to church... Twice. The first time, he heard a sermon made by Mr Mills about the evils of getting drunk, which Pepys felt as excellent as any he'd heard in his life. Praise indeed. He was obviously in a good mood, no doubt brought on by his Valentine, Martha Batten, wearing the gloves he'd given her to church.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Train station terror!

It can surely only be a bad thing that the staff at the Travelodge in Newcastle have started to address me by name! This morning, when I asked them to book me a taxi to the station, the man behind the desk said; “of course, Mr Till... And we'll see you next time.” I was horrified. Obviously, it's very kind of him to learn my name, but the fact that he's bothered to do so can only mean I’m now officially part of the furniture; like the two old ladies in Fawlty Towers. When I was making my film about the A1, I came across a toothless couple who'd stayed at a Travelodge in Grantham 22 years ago, and lived there ever since! They seemed utterly content with their lot, but surely there can’t be anything more soul-destroying. What have they done with their belongings? And why didn't they choose a nicer location than a travelodge by the side of the A1? Read about the true horror here

I'm now on my way home. I’m having to travel via Leeds, which adds a couple of hours to my journey time. It's a long, rather dull story, but the vastly condensed version is that I got lumbered with a pair of non-exchangeable tickets; one from Newcastle to Leeds and one from Leeds to London, and there didn’t seem to be anything that anyone could do to exchange them! I wouldn't mind, if the teenaged lad opposite me could stop himself from farting the most disgusting smells into the carriage!

I had a terrible scare at Newcastle Station. I’m carrying about ten heavy bags on this journey, one of which holds the rushes for the entire shoot. I have to deliver them to the edit suit this afternoon. There are no copies, and if the tapes go missing, we’ll have to reshoot everything! There was a great deal of faffage at the station as I tried to pick up my two separate single tickets, with their two separate 8-digit reference numbers; one of which wasn’t recognised by the machine...

In the hell of wondering from ticket machine to ticket machine, and eventually to a lady behind a counter, I managed to leave the rushes somewhere. I can't imagine how I managed to leave them behind, but I only realised after walking through the ticket barriers at the station. I couldn’t get the words out to the man in uniform. “I need to go back through..." I stammered, "I’ve left something... The rushes... I need to get back through...” He started to ask questions. “Where are these rushes?” He spoke slowly and calmly, as though I were having some form of psychotic episode. I assume he was using all the skills he’d learnt on the “preventing religious fanatics from detonating hand grenades” course that East Coast Mainline had sent him on recently.

I didn’t have the time to engage with him. I imagined a security team had already moved in to detonate the suspicious package that I’d left... wherever I’d left it. I kept looking down at the pile of luggage I’d hauled through the barriers, in the hope that the missing bag would miraculously appear. I could feel the blood rushing to my face. A primeval scream formed in the pit of my stomach, surged up into my throat and burst out of my mouth; “Please help me!”

It seemed to do the trick. He jumped out of his skin and immediately opened the barriers. I ran back into the ticket office, depositing pieces of luggage as I blustered through an entrance hall, which was filled with people who'd deliberately positioned themselves in spots which created the mother of all assault courses. I imagined myself in Matrix-style slow motion, leaping metres into the air, and running up the sides of walls.

I found the bag... exactly where I’d left it, on the ticket counter. The woman smiled at me, nonchalantly. I felt like a tit.

People like me should never be trusted with such important jobs. I am, after all, a great believer in the self-fulfilling prophecy. A week ago, as I tried to open the door to our flat, I thought; “wouldn’t it be awful if I dropped my keys, and they fell 30 feet off the edge of this stairwell?” A second later, I dropped my keys, and watched as they plummeted 30 feet into a muddy puddle in my neighbour’s courtyard. Retrieving them was, as predicted, awful.

This morning, as I struggled to the airport, I wondered how awful it would be if I left the rushes somewhere.

The expectation that I’ll do something as stupid as this, often leads to what Nathan and I refer to as “I had a bag” moments. These are those adrenaline-soaked, second-long episodes, when you decide you’re one bag lighter than you were when you set out at the start of a day. They’re often caused by some long-forgotten creative decanting and consolidating, necessitated by the demise of a plastic bag.
February 23rd 1661 was Pepys’ 28th Birthday. This fact seems to have had little impact on his day, which he spent working, visiting steelyards, talking about investing money in light houses, and doing business over several glasses of wine.

He went to Whitehall Chapel and heard the rehearsal for an anthem which composer Henry Cooke had written for a choir of children. Pepys described the music as brave. His favourite word. It was a cultural day for Pepys, who went home via the Salisbury Court Theatre where he saw The Changeling; revived after 20 years, and still, in Pepys' mind, as good as it was. He added an interesting comment, however, which reflects the ever-changing face of 17th Century society. “I see the gallants do begin to be tyred with the vanity and pride of the theatre actors who are indeed grown very proud and rich.” Speaking of pride and vanity, Pepys also wrote that he was now considered an important enough figure to stand for Parliament. He decided that it wasn't for him just yet; unsurprisingly due to the cost of such an enterprise. He didn't seem to be at all worried by the concept of failing, however, for he added, “I am sure I could well obtain it.” He was beginning to feel invincible. His final line is worth quoting in full:

“This is now 28 years that I am born. And blessed be God, in a state of full content, and great hopes to be a happy man in all respects, both to myself and friends.” Aww, bless.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


We're done! Filming for Metro: The Musical officially wrapped at 8pm today, and I'm buzzing! It was an incredibly long day, but we shot some absolutely cracking  sequences. It felt like we were filming all over the North East, from the northern suburbs of Newcastle, right down to South Shields. We found ourselves on iconic bridges, beautiful beaches, on river ferries, escalators, train platforms and on one occasion, an extraordinary depot, where scores of colourful Metro trains seemed to shoot like giant fireworks out of the darkness.
Sabrina on High Level Bridge
The good will coming from the cast and crew felt exhilarating. We shot inventively and with great professionalism, and were rewarded by the weather; the sun shining for quite a large percentage of the day. I felt blessed.
The Wonderful Crew at South Shields Beach
I got back to the BBC, spooled through some of the rushes, and immediately became incredibly excited. When we first sat down to talk about this project, I told Keith the camera that I wanted everything to have a hint of magical realism. Things should be familiar, yet somehow bizarre... And that is exactly what he has given me. I think his camera work is consistently close to the best work any cameraman has done for me. Watching shots of our Northumbrian piper on the Shields ferry almost floating above the Tyne actually made me gasp.
James at the Metro Depot
February 22nd 1661, and Pepys went with his wife and sister, Pall to their father's house, where a big dinner had been planned. No doubt Pall was very relieved not to be forced to be a servant for the day!

On the way home, Pepys stopped off at Bishopsgate Street, hoping to see a new Harpsicon that was being made for some of the more socially acceptable members of his family. Sadly it wasn't ready.

Pepys arrived home to find Sir William Batten's Valentine's gift for Elizabeth; a dozen pairs of gloves, a pair of silk stockings and a garter! Saucy! Strikes me this Valentine's business was getting just slightly out of control!

Monday, 21 February 2011

The quiet coach

I've found myself on the "quiet coach" in a train heading from Leeds to Newcastle. I've never sat in a quiet coach before, and it's a revelation! It's so quiet that I felt embarrassed just to open a packet of crisps, and I've now had to turn off the tapping noise my iphone makes when I send a text! People were staring and tutting. They're proper vigilantes! 

A woman opposite me is knitting, and I can hear the clickety-click of her needles above the sound of the train! Oh no, I just turned around and stared at a man whispering into a mobile phone! I've become one of those people I was previously writing about! 

I've bought myself a salad from M and S, which I'm going to have to eat with my fingers... And in such refined company. I might as well vomit all over the knitting lady's patent leather wedge-heeled shoes with a delicate ankle strap. 

I'm not feeling very well. Yesterday's filming pretty much wiped me out, probably as much a result of the dreadful food I've been chowing down on during the shoots. People see me getting irritable and literally shove food in my mouth! 

Keith, the camera man was pre-warned about my tendency to get shirty when hungry, and filled my monitor bag with all sorts of lovely little treats, which is incredibly kind of him. On several occasions I've found myself having a guilty secret rummage and pulling out a chocolate bar. Not good for me, but it's perfect for the shoot!

I was in Leeds today discussing the symphony project. It was great to see Penny and Alison, but I'm not sure any of us were able to add anything particularly useful to the sorry situation. We can't officially move forward with the BBC Nations for nearly a month. Plenty of time, in my experience, for the idea to go completely cold and for those who loved it when it first got discussed, to decide they love another idea just that little bit more! In the meantime, I'm looking at my bank balance and panicking! Happy days! 

Does anyone reading this ever get the desire to stay on a train, just to see where it goes? I know this train will eventually take me to Edinburgh, and part of me just wants to go! With everything so up in somewhere, I'm feeling somewhat restless and reckless. If I didn't start shooting at 7.30am tomorrow morning, I'd probably take myself on a little adventure! I could call in on Tanya in Glasgow...

350 years ago, Pepys went to Westminster with Sir William Penn, and on their way through the City, they saw that scaffolding towers were already being erected for people to watch the Coronation procession, scheduled to happen 2 months from that date.

In the evening, and after another day of drinking, Pepys returned home and found his old mate Mr Moore waiting for him. The two men stayed up late, reading books and talking to one another. Sounds like a perfect evening! 

Sunday, 20 February 2011

A proud father

Our second day of filming got off to a less than desirable start. We were at Newcastle Airport in the freezing rain, and by the time we'd bundled ourselves onto a Metro train to begin a morning of filming, we were already running horribly late. Shooting on trains is never easy, but when you decide to film a group of men dancing with swords, it becomes impossible! What eventually stumped us, however, was the camera lens entirely misting over, to the extent that it looked like we’d been filming a dream sequence!

For the rest of the day we were running behind schedule; so much, in fact that I was forced to ditch one of our locations. In the rush, I felt we weren't really finessing shots; merely firing them off one by one, whilst trying to prevent ourselves from slipping further behind.

That situation changed at Tyne Mouth, where the choir filled the Market with wonderful, optimistic singing, and I felt like a proud father, especially when I saw them all busily swapping numbers and swearing never to lose touch with one another afterwards. That's exactly what this kind of project should be about; new friendships and new opportunities. From that moment on, the day simply flew by in a happy whirl.

There were disco-dancing ferrets, samba-dancing drag queens, jugglers, drummers and long, spooky tunnels filled with smoke and stalactites. Wallsend Station turned into a salsa club. You haven't lived until you've watched a bloke dressed like Carman Miranda being escorted across a metro track by Nexus staff!

I haven't drunk enough water today and my feet hurt, but we're definitely on the way towards something very special.

I’m slightly ashamed to say, however, that I seem to have spurned (I mean spawned - many thanks to Mr Non Hodgkin!) something of a monster in the shape of a song that seems to be relentlessly catchy. I even heard a grip whistling the chorus to himself as he sailed up an escalator. I'm not sure he realised what he was doing!

Our Disco-Dancing Ferret
350 years ago, Pepys was given a very fine pair of slippers by his brother, Tom. We don’t know what they looked like, or even if he said thank you, but we do know that he then met up with old friends afterwards and sank a entire bottle of wine before returning to work. Pepys really did seem to have hollow legs, or perhaps the alcohol wasn’t as strong in those days! The evening was spent at Sir William Penn's house, where a large group gathered to play cards and chat ‘til midnight.

And so to bed...

Saturday, 19 February 2011

An extra octave

I'm sitting in the Bob Trollop, my favourite pub in the North East, looking out across a rain-swept Newcastle. The weather is truly horrible up here tiday. Apparently it's snowing on higher ground, but down here in the city, there’s nothing but murky, miserable mizzle. It’s Saturday, so the stags and hens are back at the Travelodge preparing for a night of heavy drinking and wearing very little. They've been running up and down the corridors all day.

It's 2pm and I've only just woken up. We had our night shoot last night, and I had to force myself to get out of bed after about 6 hours’ sleep, because missing daylight can be the most disorientating thing in the world. I shouted so much that I've lost the top end of my voice, but on the bright side, I’ve gained a lower octave, and I officially sound like Paul Robeson.

All things considered, yesterday’s shoot went astonishingly well. I’m not sure I’m the most popular man in the world with the cast and crew, as I was fairly relentlessly stroppy from about midnight onwards, but I guess when there are 200 people in front of you, none of whom have any experience of performing in front of a camera, and very little time to achieve the remarkable, you’re entitled to huff and blow just a little bit.

There were one or two technical problems with the playback facilities, we missed one opportunity for an incredible shot, a few of the younger kids got tired and emotional, and one or two of the older ones didn’t seem to have a clue what was happening to them! It's one thing to be part of a community project, and not have any experience of performing, but quite something else to turn round and say you don't know what you're meant to be singing, despite having recorded it just over a week ago in the studio! Bless them...

The staff at BBC Newcastle, however, are absolutely second to none. There's a running joke within the rest of the BBC, that you can't go to Newcastle without someone talking about their time on Byker Grove. We may laugh, but the experience of shooting a long running drama has made these guys capable of anything. They took everything in their stride. Cameraman Keith is a true craftsman with a very fine eye indeed, and the crew of jib ops, dolly grips, technical and floor managers did their job so well, I barely noticed they were there. I didn't need to cable bash. If I looked like I was about to trip over, the trip hazard miraculously vanished. On one occasion, I couldn't work out how they were doing a shot that I'd set up! That has to be a good sign!

Our Scrap Yard Location
Anyway, tonight is all about sitting in front of the telly at my Formica desk at the Travelodge. I have a lovely little upright chair to sit on, which has a nice wipe-clan cushion on the seat. If I lean back on it, is buckles rather perilously, which is great fun because I can pretend it’s a rocking chair!

Tuesday 19th February, 1661, and Pepys went to Whitehall, but was very offended not to be called into a meeting with various top dogs including the Duke of York and Sandwich. He consoled himself with the idea that the meeting was about something really “very private,” so very few people could have expected to be invited. Later on, he met one Mr Slingsby, the deputy master at the Royal mint, and was shown the proofs for a new set of coins, which showed the King’s face on them. Unfortunately, according to Pepys, the coins themselves were very disappointing, but he was assured by Slingsby that they’d soon be considered to be the finest in the world.

Pepys went to a pub, and there was more gossip about the King. Talk on the town was that he’d secretly married a (fictitious) Frenchwoman, but these rumours were well and truly scotched by a drinking companion. The weather was bitterly cold; “the first winter day we have yet had this winter.” So Pepys went home and read a play in Latin... As you do...

Friday, 18 February 2011

A giant metal Christmas tree

I'm writing my blog nice and early today, because I know there won't be much of an opportunity once the circus begins tonight. 

We start filming in a scrap yard in Sunderland, which will hopefully be lit up like a giant metal Christmas tree. We're filming a brass band there; a subtle little joke on my part. I've already told them I'm going to load their instruments on a lorry after the shoot to, see how much I can get for them!

We move on to Sunderland at about 8pm, where we're filming a group of street dancers, before heading to Pelaw; a place I'd previously thought was called Pelau, which has caused much mirth in various meetings. 

The night shoot officially begins at Gateshead Station at 11pm. I'm part nervous and part very excited. I really have no idea what to expect. I know what I THINK it will look like, but it's fairly rare for my imagination and reality to end up in the same place!

I'm at BBC Newcastle right now, and people are rushing about all over the place making last minute plans. It's a bit strange to know that there's nothing else  for me to do until the shoot begins, when I'll go into manic overdrive! Snow is forecast for tonight! Joy! 

February 18th, 1661, and Pepys took Elizabeth and his recently acquired Valentine, Martha Batten to the Exchange, which was a sort of 17th century department store near the Temple. Pepys, taking his Valentine's responsibilities rather too seriously, shelled out 40 shillings on 7 pairs of white gloves for Ms Batten. We don't know if he also treated his wife to anything. Flushed with gloves, Martha Batten then decided to take everyone to Lombard Street, where she bought a suit of "lutestring", which I'm informed is a glossy silken fabric better known as lustring. 

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A sonic polish

I’m exhausted and my feet smell. I stayed up incredibly late last night writing a new pitch for A Symphony for Britain. I suspect being successful in my industry is as much about tenacity; the ability to dust yourself down and work even harder to achieve your goals when things go wrong. I’ve always considered myself to be a grafter rather than a lucky person or someone with a great deal of natural talent, so my ability to work myself into the ground has proved to be very useful over the years! Anyway, the alarm clock went off this morning and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I was obviously in a very deep sleep...

I walked into BBC Newcastle to deliver the Metro song to the powers that be. It was “mastered” last night, which means it was given a sort of sonic polish by a bloke on the Isle of Sky. It’s amazing what you can send and receive digitally these days. I still can’t quite get my head around this idea. There again, I can’t get my head around a great many scientific things. I vaguely understand the principal of telephone calls, for example, yet I can’t begin to imagine how anyone could have come up with the concept in the first place. How can something tangible become virtual and then tangible again? I think it’s quite clear why I was only allowed to take single integrated science for my GCSEs!

Anyway, everyone at BBC Newcastle seemed genuinely excited by the track we’d created, particularly the fabulous Alfie and Charlie who present the radio morning show and were dancing their way around the studio as the music played. Some, who said they could only hear a few bars, listened to the entire piece, and Jeff Millburn instantly went away to create a television trail for it.

The song then went out to all the performers, and many of them have already emailed Alistair to tell him how much they’d enjoyed listening to it and felt proud to have played a part in its creation. It’s always nice to hear these comments and I’m thrilled to be bringing something a little bit different into people’s lives.

Filming starts tomorrow and there have been all sorts of meetings today to discuss various aspects of the shoot. I’ve met my team of runners, for example; all of whom are students at local universities. I think all in all, we’re a crew of about 20. There’s a gaffer, a grip and a choreographer. There’s even a floor manager, who I’m hoping will wear some sort of head set! I’ve never had so much support on a shoot before and could get quite used to it, I feel. That said, we are attempting the almost impossible; namely a night shoot in a Metro station, with two moving trains and an all-singing, all-dancing cast of close to 200! I may well have to direct through a megaphone. From now on I shall be adopting the name Benjamin DeMille!

I’m back at the Travelodge and it’s too late for me to find food anywhere else. My favourite vegetarian place stops serving at 7pm, and I can’t bring myself to chow down on chips and a bean burger. I therefore find myself forced to eat a tomato and pepper soup, whilst Usher’s OMG drones on in the background. I’ve always hated that song. It represents everything I loathe about Christian America. OMG stands for “Oh My Gosh.” In my opinion, people who say “Oh My Gosh” should also wear gingham. They should make jam and listen to Gilbert and Sullivan. They should all be virgins. And yet in this case, our “god-fearing” Usher is dressed like a gangsta and dancing provocatively surrounded by gyrating women who are wearing next to nothing. All this ungodly behaviour, and yet the words “Oh My God” will not pass his lips! A quick google-shuffle informs me that Usher is actually called Raymond. Perhaps he should be in gingham dungarees after all.

Sunday 17th February1661, and Pepys was sent into a blind rage by an Irish Doctor who delivered a sermon at St Olave’s Church, which was “most tedious, unreasonable, and impertinent... Sir Wm Batten and I very much angry with the parson.” OMG!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Tell me that Santa still exists!

I'm on my way to King's Cross to catch the 8 o'clock train to Newcastle. Nathan is meeting me at the station to wave me off. I'm sort of relieved to be heading back up north as it will place me in something of a bubble for the next week, and I need a distraction from this miserable business with the symphony. 

We finished mixing Metro The Musical at 2pm today. It's by no means perfect, but I reckon it's as good as it could be under the circumstances; specifically that we've created  a piece of music which is performed entirely by a single community. There are obviously one or two moments when things sound a little bit off but only one or two. Many of the singers and musicians involved in this piece are as good as any professional, and the enthusiasm everyone involved has shown for the project will make the film utterly compelling. 

After finishing in the studio, I walked from Limehouse to Shoreditch, feeling a bit like I was heading to a funeral. Word had finally come through that A Symphony for England had been blocked, somewhere in the darkened corridors of the BBC. It  goes without saying that we're all completely gutted. 

There is still a chance that A Symphony for Britain could take its place, but we're back to the drawing board and it feels awful. I feel like the child who'd finally been given a toy he'd longed for, only to be forced to take it back to the shop because someone said it was too dangerous to play with. They might as well have told me at the same time that Santa Claus didn't exist! 

The meeting went as well as could be expected. We tried to look on the bright side, dusted ourselves down, and set our minds to finding alternatives. But there's a tangible sense of time ticking by. Who's to say someone even higher up at the BBC won't take against the idea of A Symphony for Britain? Sometimes it takes the voices of doom rather too long to make themselves known! 

350 years ago, and Pepys was a happy man. Not only did Lord Sandwich approve and sign off all his recent accounts, but he also gave him a bill for 60l. Pepys was made up and immediately went to the theatre to celebrate. He saw "The Virgin Martyr" 'a good play, but too sober for the company.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

But am I an Eng or a Brit?

I'm a little bit stressed as I head home from the studio tonight. We've been working extremely hard, and our ears are tired. You get to a stage with mixing when nothing makes sense any more. You hear little details over and over again and become so obsessed with getting them right that the big picture starts to go out of the window. 

The stress is compounded by my not knowing what's happening on the Symphony for England front. I keep being told that there are developments, but no one seems to know whether these are positive or negative. It's doing my nut! Trying to focus on something as important as mixing a track, with this uncertainty nestling in the background, is proving almost impossible.

I rather suspect that everything is boiling down to the fact that our work focusses on England rather than Britain. The Olympics are all about team GB and not team England. But let's not forget that London is the capital of England, and that there are many people in this country who are proud to call themselves English. If the olympics were in Glasgow, would people worry about anything as specific as A Symphony for Scotland, I wonder? Would a Welshman ever describe himself as British? It's an interesting debate...

On the bright side at least my rat loves me... Rather too much as it happens... He's started to hump my arm! O miserere! 

Nathan thinks it's because I'm hairy like a lady rat, but can there be anything as excruciatingly embarrassing as being raped by a gay rat? Is it my fault? Is it something I did to him when he was a child? Did I love him too much? Did I lead him on? Did I not see the warning signs?

To make matters worse, I'm told that a gentlemen rat tends to lock onto his lady, pre-coitally, by sinking his enormous teeth into her neck. It's a brutal occurrence, which the females unsurprisingly hate. It leads to terrible fights. It's therefore not surprising that just before my mortifying dry-hump gets under way, little Pol digs his teeth into my arm. It's painful and it comes with no warning. What am I to do?

Friday 15th February 1661, and Pepys spent the entire day doing his accounts. He was thrilled after he'd totted everything up to discover he was worth an incredible 350l. What I find most bizarre about Pepys is that it was only within the last few years that he'd learnt how to do maths at all. In the 17th Century, maths was generally not taught in schools. Bliss!!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Auto tune

It's Valentine's day and I've been ensconced in a dark recording studio all day. I'm absolutely shattered. I was up in the night, once again worrying about things. I'm sure the phase will pass, but the tendency is currently for me to fall asleep and then wake up again at about 2am, needing the loo, with half a tonne of questions darting about in my head like martians in a an elaborate game of Space Invaders. After a period of tossing and turning, I'm forced to get up, play with the rats, and make lists. Classic anxiety-driven insomnia.

Today's been very pleasant in terms of the weather, which is often the case on Valentine's Day. I remember people swimming in the sea one year. 

The studio session went well, although auto-tune has had to become our best friend! There are one or two dodgy vocals going on, which we've had to tweak a little bit. Fortunately, the vocoder sound was very in vogue in the early 1980s, so if people sound a little bit robot-like in places, more often than not it's a choice on out part. Very occasionally it's because we didn't have an alternative, but you'd have to ply me with a lot of whiskey before I admit which performers needed the most tidying up! 

Everywhere I look, I see men holding roses. What a relief romance isn't dead... But what about the other 364 days of the year? Nathan and I, great veterans of Valentine's Day, are opting for a pizza in front of the telly. 

Valentine's Day 1661 was a mirth-filled occasion. The women in Pepys' world had chosen their Valentines the previous evening, so now it was the turn of the men. 

Tradition stated that the first person a man saw of the opposite sex would immediately become the favoured one, so a great deal of planning went into manufacturing a suitable "chance" encounter. Pepys, whose wife you'll remember, had very loyally chosen him as her Valentine, was up with the lark banging on the door of Sir William Batten's house in a bid to select Sir William's daughter as his. Batten headed over to Pepys Towers and kindly chose Elizabeth. A great deal of fun, we're assured, was had by all. I'm sure Sir William's daughter didn't escape without receiving at least one harmless kiss. 

Everyone laughed particularly hard when Sir William's negro servant, Mingo, pretended to be a woman. Hilarious! Black AND camp! It probably made a welcome change from being beaten with a stick!

Lunch took place on a ship moored at Woolwich; the first which Elizabeth had ever visited. Conversation revolved around the King and rumours that he'd chosen the (un)lucky lady who was going to become his Queen. Take a 12-year old, I say... And make sure she doesn't speak a word of English! 

Sunday, 13 February 2011

A return to the Curtains Up

We're at the Curtains Up pub in West Kensington. It's quiz time again, and we're waiting for the results. I've just eaten the most revolting bowl of tomato soup, which tasted like it had died and gone to hell!

Nathan is drunk and talking very loudly. He spent the afternoon at a birthday party in Camden Town, and seems to have polished off about 6 pints. I am staying sober; not just because I'm the allocated driver (and don't really drink alcohol at the best of times,) but because we start the process of mixing Metro The Musical in the morning, and I'll need to have my wits about me. 

My head has been filled all day with the idea of writing another musical with Arnold. My absolute passion is obviously working with "real" people on documentary films, but the idea of writing for actors on a stage for the first time in ten years, is an idea that I suddenly find very appealing.

We've just been informed that we won the quiz by one point. Hurrah!

350 years ago, Pepys had his lunch with someone he simply referred to as "poor Mr Wood" who asked to borrow some money. Pepys, the miser, refused. Quite right. Never a borrower, nor a lender be... 

Pepys and Elizabeth spent the evening socialising with the two Sir Williams and their wives. It was the Eve of Valentine's day and the time came for the ladies to choose their Valentines, which was an odd tradition, where people got the opportunity to chose someone, usually not their own spouse who, for fun, would be given little tokens. The wives of the Sir Williams each took the other's husband, but Pepys was thrilled when Elizabeth selected him.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Sir Arnold and Lady Wesker

I'm salsa dancing in a little club somewhere near the Oval. I'm rubbish, I'm sweating like a pig and my legs look like little pieces of rubber, but I don't care. It's Julie's birthday and I'm having fun!

I've been in Brighton all day, well Hove, actually, being entertained by Sir Arnold and Lady Wesker. Lady Dusty is a very fine chef indeed, and knocked up a wonderful mushroom risotto, which I ate rather too keenly. She gave us trifle for pudding, which is apparently her trade mark dish. I haven't had a trifle in years and it tasted like forbidden nectar! 

Arnold has been my mentor since I left drama school and has taught me a great deal; most importantly never to suffer fools or put up with rudeness. His mentor was George Bernard Shaw. George Bernard Shaw! How extraordinary is that?

Anyway, there's talk of the two of us (Arnold and me, not GBS!) coming together to write another  musical to celebrate his 80th birthday. The man has been writing for five decades and I would be deeply proud to work with him again. I am trying to encourage him to write about the second world war...

Victoria station was absolute mayhem earlier. It immediately made me panic. Clueless tourists everywhere, massive queues in the ticket hall and crowds of people trying to filter through the barriers. Very much the stuff of nightmares!

February 12th 1661, and Pepys, after a day of drinking, went to the theatre to see The Scornful Lady... Again... Except this time, and for the first time, the eponymous lead was played by an actual woman, which, unsurprisingly, Pepys much preferred! 

Friday, 11 February 2011

A marzipan elephant

Today's been a very bitty day. It started with a visit to a production company in Central London, who, bizarrely, wanted to talk to me about the idea of presenting a documentary series. I'm writing about it because it's  such a peculiar thought! That said, the subject matter is something that I'm utterly passionate (and very knowledgeable) about, so I guess if I were a producer looking for a front man, I might approach me! I'd certainly make a change from Joanna Lumley!

I worked all afternoon, drawing increasingly awful pictures for my storyboard! I started to do some on the tube, but noticed someone looking over my shoulder, and felt so ashamed that I pretended to be doodling surrealist images. Ceci n'est pas un ferret!

I'm now at Philippa's. We've been having a few teething problems with the symphony, so I just needed to get out the house. It was all go when I arrived. Philippa had her army general's hat on, and I was immediately put to work. We've been catering for a children's party; two enormous carrot cakes, which we've been covering with edible flowers, and an elephant that I've crafted entirely from marzipan. I'm very good.

Philippa and the elephant

We've had to be a bit inventive on the food colouring front. Apparently it's impossible to find a food colouring these days which doesn't have warnings plastered all over it along the lines of "highly addictive and may cause psychotic episodes." We're therefore using beetroot and blueberries! Bring back tartrazine, I say. It never did me any harm. Apart from that time I threw a saucepan through a plate glass window cus I was buzzing so much!

February 11th, 1661, and Pepys went to visit Richard Reeve's, where he was shown various telescopes, spy glasses and microscopes, which he referred to as "perspectives." A rather lovely phrase.

My god-daughter's glasses

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A ferret or a cow?

We've just been to see The King's Speech. It's a very good film, jam-packed with excellent performances and fabulous cinematography, although it was so hyped that I guess I was always likely to find it just slightly disappointing. Also, if you've seen A Month In the Country, you'll have seen Colin Firth doing something quite similar before...

I've spent the day working on a story board for the Metro Musical, which means for every potential shot, I draw a little picture to show the position of the camera, and where the cast need to stand. My drawings, however, are absolutely dreadful! I showed  them to Nathan and he mistook a train track for an escalator and ferret for a cow! Perhaps some of you will wonder why there's a ferret in our film. Obviously, you'll have to watch it to find out! That's, of course, if the cameraman doesn't film a cow by mistake!
February 10th, 1661, and Pepys took physic all day. He rather guiltily confessed to spending his time reading low grade French romances. They must have stirred something in him, however, because he occupied his evening with Elizabeth, fantasising about the idea of visiting France. 

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Floating above the moors with Kate Bush

I'm back in London. I slept on the train listening to a woman who was talking to her father. Her words seemed to be dropping out of her mouth like bullets from a machine gun! 

London, as usual, is frantic and full of shirty locals in open war fare with tourists who have no idea where they are. It's horribly depressing but always the same when you return from somewhere with a different pace of life. 

I've spent the rest of the day in a bit of a daze, imagining which bits of England we might film for the symphony and the sorts of musicians who might get involved.

It struck me that it might be the perfect opportunity for me to visit Stonehenge for the first time, and maybe to film someone playing their sequence in a hot air balloon, whilst drifting over the Bristol suspension bridge. How incredible would that be?

The joy about my work is that I can have these romantic visions - some of them even inspired by dreams - and then work with highly capable people to try and bring them to life. 

I must keep reminding myself that our budget on the project is very tight, however. I'm sure at some point very soon, someone will have a quiet word with me and ask that I come up with some more practical suggestions! In any case, the most important thing is that the BBC Regions themselves are able to suggest the locations that best sum their areas up. I very much hope that viewers and listeners will engage in this process, as well as making suggestions about local folk songs that I might weave into the symphony and the types of musicians I should be featuring. Do feel free to leave any suggestions on this blog.

Until we have some more concrete ideas, you'll find me floating above mist-covered moorlands with Kate Bush and the BBC Symphony orchestra!

I'm off now to watch Matt recording his new radio show. I'm taking the lovely Marinella, who I haven't seen for a few months. Very much looking forward to catching up with her.

Not a greatly interesting day for Pepys 350 years ago. A bit of work, a bit of food and a trip to the theatre to see "the mad lover", which he liked "pretty well."

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Good news

I dreamt last night that a childhood friend had gone missing and was presumed dead. It wasn’t a very nice dream, and I didn’t particularly enjoy waking up, as I've no way of knowing whether she’s okay or not. I lost touch with her years ago.

The studio sessions at The Sage today nearly fried our minds. They seemed last forever and every time we let our guard down, another challenge presented itself. Some singers were under-prepared whilst others simply lost their nerves. One poor lady’s voice entirely gave up on her, but with the aid of one of The Sage’s wonderful in-house vocal coaches, and an hour spent cooling off in a dressing room, her confidence returned. It was so amazing to witness a timid, frightened rabbit becoming a glorious Shirley Bassey!

We recorded all sorts of characters, including one chap, who told us rather too often that he’d once nearly been a someone. “I played all over the world” he said, “Spain... the Isle of Wight...”

Geordies, it seems, have a love-hate relationship with the people who live across the River Wear in Sunderland; Mackems as they’re known locally. This fact was summed up rather (in)eloquently by someone who passed through the studio, and said; “Mackems are not even real people.” I beg to differ. About half my cast are from Sunderland, and they’re all wonderful.

I had a meeting this morning in a cafe in Newcastle and was told some incredibly exciting news. The project I’ve been whittling on about for the last 2 months has been signed off, green lit and, rather terrifyingly, is now going full speed ahead.

We’re making A Symphony for England. This project will feature musicians from pretty much every corner of our beautiful country, playing in iconic, quirky and epic locations. The lyrics for the last movement will be written by poet, Ian MacMillan and I will be working as the composer and director of the project. It’s kind of mind-numbing, and words cannot describe how I’m feeling. Penny arrived in the cafe and immediately said; “I’ve got some good news for you” and my heart ricocheted into my mouth. I’ve been on a high ever since and I am currently celebrating with a late night banana!

I walked out of The Sage into a crisp, Christmas-like air, and took a moment to look across the Tyne towards the twinkling lights of Newcastle. Everything was incredibly silent, as this part of the City always seems to be. Just as I started to walk away, the Cathedral bells on the other side of the river started to peel. Ever since working on Oranges and Lemons, church bells have had a very great significance for me, and for a few blissful seconds, I was able to imagine them ringing out to wish us luck for the coming year.

350 years ago, Pepys spent much of the day in the Fleece Tavern on Cornhill, drinking with Navy men. They talked about Algiers “and the manner of the life of slaves there.” It was apparently fairly common in those days for Navy men to be taken hostage by pirates, and two of Pepys companions claimed to have suffered this fate. Many sources suggest that white slaves were actually treated fairly well by their captors, certainly better than their black counterparts, but Pepys was told all sorts of stories about men being fed on nothing but bread and water whilst having the soles of their feet whipped...

Monday, 7 February 2011

Across the Tyne seven times

I'm sitting in The Bob Trollop, my favourite vegetarian pub, which is on the Quayside here in Newcastle. I’ve ordered a Ploughman’s Lunch and am very pleased to be inside, as the weather’s suddenly taken a rather massive turn for the worse.

I went on an incredibly long run this morning which involved jogging over the Tyne a total of seven times via various bridges. I have a pathological fear of crossing bridges, but the views are so astonishing that it became something of an obsession to see if I could overcome my fear. The wind was incredibly high, however, and it kept catching my jogging trousers and blowing me off course. At one point I wondered if it was going to push me off the side of the bridge into the burbling Tyne below. If I’d survived the fall, the river was moving so quickly, I guess I’d have been out to sea before anyone saw me!

High Level Bridge: My favourite of the 7 bridges

Last night, whilst I was standing backstage at The Sage, I noticed a little sign with which, I’m sure, seasoned actors and touring musicians will very much identify. It was attached to a pillar in the wings and it read; “This town is called Gateshead. The venue you are in is called the Sage in Gateshead.” I suddenly realised that there are people out there who perform in a different venue every night, and would be more than grateful to read a statement of the obvious like that just before they go on stage! “Good evening, Gateshead!!” It reminded me of a story Nathan tells, of touring Germany with the Rocky Horror Show, and leaving a town early one morning having performed there the night before, and not being able to remember its name. When he asked his fellow performers, he discovered that everyone else in the company had also forgotten where they’d just spent 24 hours!

It’s The Biggest Loser on telly tonight, and I’m hoping I’m back in my hotel room in time to see it. I’m basically addicted. It’s car crash telly at its very best. It’s about a load of morbidly obese people in a fat farm trying to lose weight. They seem to be doing a phenomenal amount of exercise, but last week most of them didn’t lose any weight whatsoever, which, when you’re 25 stone, is a fairly tragic occurrence! The personal trainers are blaming their intake of food, but surely, if this is a fat camp, food is an aspect that should be monitored even more carefully than exercise! I was actually quite surprised to see that the contestants were cooking for themselves. There’s also a rather bizarre event each week, when they stick everyone in a room full of cakes and tell them that the group who eats more will have 4 lbs knocked off their team’s overall weight. I think it’s some kind of reverse psychology, and an attempt by the producers to add a bit of jeopardy to the proceedings, but it actually gives us an opportunity to watch fat froozlers stuffing food into their enormous faces as though they were part of some kind of Bacchanalian orgy. You can't take your eyes off them...

The contestants spend much of their time bursting into tears, throwing up, saying they don’t have “any more to give” and trying to get public sympathy for their inability to stop chuzzling. As a man who balloons up and down in weight, I have limited tolerance for people who can’t keep their weight in control. We all have points at which we feel things have got out of control. I hit mine on about January 10th. But I’ve never felt the need to garner sympathy for my inability to use my own will power. I have a similar view about smokers and drug addicts. There’s only one person who ultimately cares about what you do to your body – and that’s yourself. Anyway, The Biggest Loser is compelling viewing, particularly if you imagine how quickly the contestants are going to pile the weight back on the moment they return to their sedentary lives, where they do nothing but eat take-away meals in front of the telly, and tell anyone who’ll listen that they’re overweight for genetic reasons.

...I didn’t really enjoy my Ploughman’s lunch.

350 years ago, Pepys had his lunch with Lady Sandwich, and the two of them were astonished to be interrupted midway by Lord Sandwich, who'd returned from sea, much to their great surprise. He was full of tales from his voyage, and it seemed he'd got himself into an argument with Lord St Albans, which very nearly escalated into a dual. Pepys dined with some of the men who'd been with Sandwich on the trip to the continent, and all of them said they thought France a very noble and fine country.

We had rainbows all day today as well...

Sunday, 6 February 2011

High adrenaline

It’s been raining pretty solidly all day; a horrid misty rain which isn’t showing any sign of going away, and is freaking me out, because I’m wondering what we’d do if the weather was like this on one of our filming days. What a miserable time of year!

We spent the day in a studio at The Sage in Gateshead. The engineer there is called Richard, and he seems to be a very friendly and highly capable young man.

The recording sessions were slightly more complicated and stressful than I’d anticipated. Poor Alistair, who hasn't been involved in one of these ridiculous, high-adrenaline experiences before, spent a good 30 minutes at one point pacing nervously up and down! The sopranos sang a bit flat, the altos rushed, one of the midi files broke down... In short, everything, as usual, took a great deal longer than we'd expected, which meant we missed out on lunch. It was, however, an absolute joy to see all of the choirs singing without their music. They'd learnt everything off by heart, which is something I’ve never experienced in one of these sessions. It bodes well for the filming, which is often marred by people not knowing their words. More brownie points for the Geordies and Mackems!

The brass band did a grand job, which meant we grappled back a little bit of time, and the Northumbrian Piper, Chris Ormston, played beautifully, reminding me how much I love that particular instrument. It’s got such a delicate, moving sound, and knocks the absolute socks off its Scottish counterpart!

The highlight of the day, once again, was the session with the Newcastle Kingsmen. I think I'm becoming their biggest fan! I envy their lifestyle up here, which is filled to the brim with folk music, dancing and long sessions in Northeastern pubs! It reminds me of a very brief period of my teenage years when we used to explore haunted woods, search for crop circles and play Steeleye Span obsessively. We were recording their two fiddle players, who breathed the most astonishing amount of life into my music by playing an improvised rhythmic drone underneath what I’d written. Three of the dancers came along to record a “tap track”, which means the percussive quality of their dancing can now double up as a form of drumming on the song.
350 years ago, and Pepys was visited by his cousin, John Snow, who sat with him whilst he was being shaved and asked for a favour, which Pepys was more than happy to grant. Pepys ate fish and hare for dinner. The hare had been sent by his plasterer, Mr Goodenough, which has got to be one of the greatest names in the history of names!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Claire's Accessories Pink

I’m sitting in Porter’s Cafe, which is a charming little place in the middle of Tyne Mouth Station. It very much reminds me of something from Brief Encounter. There’s an open fire, high ceilings and little vases of tulips on the tables.

Tyne Mouth is one of those Victorian Stations that looks a bit like an ornate glasshouse. It’s absolutely beautiful. Verdigris columns stretch up to the roof and the whole place has an air of faded English seaside decadence. Today is market day and the place is buzzing. All the platforms are covered with stalls selling bric-a-brac. It’s like a scene from the 1950s. There are little plastic dolls, broken mirrors, World War Two helmets, knitting patterns, piles of paste jewellery, boxes filled with Bakelite records, watch straps in suitcases and badly-framed and faded water colours as far as the eye can see. It’s utterly charming and in the middle of everything, a lady stands proudly selling homemade rock cakes, jam sponges and cups of tea. She’s rather hopefully set up a little plastic table and a few chairs, but at this time of year, it’s too cold for most people to sit in the draughty station, so we've gone to Porter's Cafe instead.

As I travelled here this morning, I listened to a few groups of young kids talking about their lives, television and the various stations we were passing through. I thought how nicely brought up they all seemed. They weren’t trying to intimidate the other passengers, like you find all the time in London. They weren’t swearing, or shouting, they were just chatting to each other. I thought how lovely that was. Mind you, Newcastle City Centre on a Friday night is renowned for its anti-social behaviour, so maybe these kids are going to grow up into little chavvie monsters!

My Travelodge was packed with hen and stag parties last night. People were running up and down the corridors and staircases yelling at one another pretty much all evening. I’ve seen nuns, army cadets, nurses, clowns and most recently, smurfs. I stopped a smurf in the corridor and told him he had something blue on his face, but he didn’t seem to realise I was joking. None of them are wearing coats, and most seem to be carrying or wearing something which is that lurid pink colour you only find in branches of Claire’s Accessories. This morning the breakfast room was full of rather pallid-looking individuals, who smelt like breweries blended with pots of sick. They were obviously about to start the process all over again. I could never do it.

The 5th February 1661 was washing day and the ever-improving Pepys and his wife were able to leave the servants (which probably included his sister Pall) to do all the work. Pepys and Elizabeth headed to Westminster. Elizabeth visited her mother, and Pepys, who, to my knowledge rarely, if ever called in on his mother-in-law, went to Westminster Hall, where he met a chap called Belgrave. Belgrave seemed to want to remind Pepys, rather too often, that he’d known his mother when she was a humble wash-maid. He proceeded to curse and swear his way through the rest of the conversation, which made Pepys very weary.

He left Belgrave and went to see the heads of Cromwell and his cronies which had been placed on the ends of spikes at one end of the hall. He met up with Elizabeth and they went to the theatre, but their coach broke down on King Street. The play they saw was Argalus and Parthenia, which Pepys had already seen. He enjoyed the dancing and singing, but liked little else. But Pepys, as we all know, was very hard to please.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Hi-viz and hard hats

Every time I've looked at the sky today, I've seen a rainbow staring back at me. How romantic is that? I've never been pursued by a rainbow before, but it felt rather magical!

It's been a productive day. We spent this morning with a team of BBC technical people looking at some of our more complicated locations; the Metro depot, where we're doing a pre-dawn shoot, Gateshead Station, where we'll be filming all night and a scrap heap, just south of Sunderland, where our brass band will be performing. It was hi-viz jackets and hard hats all the way. I'm surrounded by incredibly capable people and am particularly impressed by the cameraman on this project, who, just like his counterpart in Yorkshire, is called Keith. Well, I guess it saves learning a new name!

We've finally made the decision not to shoot in HD and I fully understand why. It's such a daring project and it involves so many people jumping into the unknown. The BBC Regions are not yet HD ready, and when things are complicated enough, sometimes you just have to stick with what you know. We're shooting in digi-beta, which is what Little Britain was shot in, so I'm not that disappointed! Digibeta looks lovely on television.

This evening was magical. We battled our way to The Sage through terrible gales to listen to the final rehearsal of the choir we formed specially for the project. I gave them an enormous challenge; to sing the names of 30 Metro stations in glorious 4-part harmony. Many had never sung in choirs before, and the majority didn’t read music, so everything was taught by ear. They only had four weeks to learn it, but they did it! I was so immensely proud to hear them singing in proper harmony, and started crying very quietly to myself like a proper wuss! Sure, there are still a few corners that need to be ironed out, but what an amazing achievement.

Pepys’ diary entry for February 4th, 1661, includes some of the longest sentences I think I’ve ever read! The first one includes no fewer than 80 words, and I’d quote it in full if I didn’t think it was one of the most boring things I’ve ever read! Pepys spent the evening in the pub with Sir William Penn, Colonel Slingsby and “several others... men and women.” They played parlour games; the forfeits for the young ladies being, of course, to kiss Pepys, who was, I'd say, a complete letch!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

A vegetarian pub

Last night we visited the Cumberland Arms in Byker, which was an extraordinary experience. It’s a magical old pub, surrounded by post-industrial scrub-land, situated on a hillside overlooking the Tyne. There are open fires in both of its tiny, cluttered rooms and it’s filled to the rafters with young folk musicians; harpists, fiddlers, banjo players, Northumbrian pipers, jamming and sharing music. Upstairs, the Newcastle Kingsmen, those virtuoso sword dancers, were practising their terrifying routines. It’s a thriving scene and it inspired me very deeply. It is so heartening to know that folk music and folk culture is thriving in this city; safe in the hands of a vibrant, young generation.

I wish I could say the same for our country. I watched the news this morning and was astonished to see that scores of Citizens Advice Bureaus are closing down, because the funding isn’t there to keep them going. This makes me furious. It seems like an almost entirely transparent attempt to keep the less fortunate where the Tories obviously think they belong; unrepresented and unable to stand up for their rights. I wonder what’s coming next? Perhaps the fat-faced, pompous little turd will decide that parents have to start paying to send their kids to secondary schools. How about we bring in measures to restrict the travel of anyone with an IQ lower than 90?

I am so tired. It was beautiful and sunny when I woke up this morning but by 4pm there was a proper gale blowing, and now it’s raining buckets. My mood has been altering accordingly! The low point of today was undoubtedly standing in the freezing cold at Tyne Dock station waiting for a broken Metro train to limp its way along the track to South Shields. The highlight was sitting in a pub I’ve recently discovered which is just around the corner from my Travelodge. It sells nothing but vegetarian food. Not only is it in a lovely location, nestling in the foothills of two enormous Newcastle bridges, but it’s in a really quirky medieval building, which is like something straight from Pepysian London. I have no idea how an entirely vegetarian pub manages to exist in Newcastle, but I’m not complaining. I could have had a nut roast, or a veggie lasagne, or cauliflower cheese, or a ploughmans but I opted for bangers and mash in a big old Yorkshire pudding, and they were delicious! And all for under a fiver! Why on earth did no one tell me about this place?!

The rest of the day was spent looking at our locations and planning potential shots. We’ve been all over the place; walking on beaches at Whitley Bay and South Shields and planning Latin dance numbers at Wallsend. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe I’m actually doing work!

The longer I spend up here, the more I fall in love with the people. There’s an astonishing openness and honesty which pours out of almost everyone I've met. The Geordies seem to have a wonderful ability not to take life too seriously. Humour works almost like a currency up here. If you’re not up for a bit of banter, you’re considered very odd indeed. I really like it, but it took me a while to get used to. I’ve obviously spent way too long in London, where, probably just to keep sane, everyone surrounds themselves with a sort of barrier, which says, “don’t approach me... don’t talk to me... I am closing myself off from the world as an act of self-preservation.” The good folk of Northamptonshire where I grew up could be a fairly closed bunch as well. Outsiders were regarded with great suspicion and I wouldn’t say they were exactly renowned for their sense of humour! Could it really be that the further you away from London you travel, the more welcoming people become?

February 3rd 1660 was the date Pepys “first begun to go forth in [his] coat and sword, as the manner now among gentlemen is.” He went to Whitehall and stayed to hear the “trumpets and kettle-drums, and then the other drums, which are much cried up, though I think it dull, vulgar musique.” Later in the day, he took himself off to see Sir Stephen Fox, a politician. Pepys enjoyed listening to high class gossip and scandal. He spent the evening with Lady Sandwich, gossiping even more.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

A Tory Mackem

I’m feeling a little bit stressed this evening. The big project continues to gurgle away in the background. Alison came up to Newcastle from Leeds today and we sat down and thrashed out some ideas for it. The project has still not been officially signed off, and it’s beginning to affect my nerves. I’m getting stroppy and irritable with people who are only trying to help. Still, it was lovely to see Alison. I’m so incredibly fond of her. We sat in a cafe on Haymarket and put the world to rights. As I left, a friend of her’s arrived. He’s a Tory councillor from Sunderland, and despite his despicable political views, I found him compellingly amusing. I've never heard anyone talk so fast; seemingly without breathing! In his favour, he did describe himself as the most liberal Tory in the country. I suppose it just seemed really odd to hear someone with a Mackem accent talking about David Cameron in such positive terms!

It’s proper windy up here at the moment. As I walked to the BBC this afternoon, I was almost blown off my feet, which is obviously a lie, but on a couple of occasions the gusts rather took my breath away. That's also a lie, but I couldn't hear my Mum on the phone...

This afternoon we took more soloists through their music. Will this process ever end? We had another wonderful rapper, and a woman with a glorious voice but the saddest past. She lost her husband and child - the former in a plane crash - but refuses to allow it to destroy her. She glows like a beacon of calmness and strength and I think we could all learn a great deal from her outlook on life.

We’re off now to watch the Newcastle Kingsmen rehearsing in a pub in Byker. The Kingsmen are clog dancers who perform with incredibly dangerous-looking rapper swords. They are extraordinary, and will be dancing for us on an actual Metro train, which would freak me out, if it weren’t something they do most Saturday nights! Here they are in their little shorts...

February 2nd 1660, and Pepys was entertaining various family members in style. Their normal chef, Slater, was unable to cook the food, so a “strange cook” was sent in his place. The event couldn’t have been much cop, because Pepys left mid-way to do some work in a nearby tavern. By the time he returned, he was surprised to find that half the guests had left. Pepys was pleased to report, however, that the other guests had had a lovely time, which was lucky for it was the last dinner party he expected to throw for some time; the three dinners he’d hosted in the last 2 weeks had cost him a wince-laden 15l.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The heady scent

The heady scent of hyacinths in the BBC office is making me feel quite faint. The smell seems to be dividing people. Men hate it, women quite like it, but it’s not a smell I think I’ll ever become accustomed to; in fact, it’s beginning to make me feel quite sick. Furthermore, hyacinths are ugly, sinister-looking things. There’s something rather prehistoric about the way they look. The petals look like little blisters.

Today’s been incredibly long and terribly tiring. People have been coming in and out every half an hour or so, and I’ve been taking them through their solo lines. Today’s crowd, a sparky bunch, included a ballet-dancing soldier, a male soprano, a female bass, a trio of brothers, a girl who’d just had a car accident, a poet who made me cry, a man who smelt of ripe cheese, and 2 pregnant women who seem to be within weeks of giving birth. It’s all go...

I’m looking forward to crawling into my little Travelodge room and putting my feet up in front of the tiny television with a nice bowl of soup. Sadly, that’s some way off, as there are about another 6 people to see before I can leave this hyacinth mayhem.

I just got very upset talking to one of our cast members, who said she’s been trying to raise enough money to pay for her nephew’s headstone. As if it weren’t bad enough that the lad was murdered, the poor bloke’s now lying in an unmarked grave. It’s terribly sad that his family can’t afford to have him buried properly. I hope they find the money.

This morning, I was up with the lark to go jogging along the Tyne. Running underneath all of those iconic Newcastle bridges is such a wonderful experience. Many Geordies say that they only truly know they’re home when they can see them there, lined up, and stretching into the distance. And they are iconic. Each bridge seems somehow grander than the next. First high, then low, then steel, then stone, then brick. Swinging, dipping, blinking like an eye in the morning air. And all the while, The Sage, like a metal hedgehog, keeping a watchful eye over the waking city.

February 1st January 1660, and Pepys went into town to buy some books and a belt, and to collect his newly refurbished sword. He went to bed, leaving his “people” to prepare the house. They were planning yet another dinner.