Producing the Today programme

Around this time last year I wrote an article about my then job, which was managing the social media and website for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Not long after publishing it, I was given the chance to to move off the online team and become a producer on the actual radio show. I thought now might be a good time to write an updated blog entry about what this job involves and give some examples of what I’ve been doing for the past year for anyone who might be interested in hearing more about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the show.

mishal

First of all, just to quash from the gate any suspicion that I landed this dream job by being some kind of ruthlessly ambitious careerist, let me say that this is a role that I never envisioned myself doing. Not because I didn’t want to, quite the opposite, but because working for a programme as prestigious as Today isn’t something I’d ever imagined myself being capable of, and I was acutely aware that the opportunity had come my way through circumstance rather than on merit.

I knew working on the main programme was going to be quite a shock to my system on a number of levels. Apart from anything else, it would be an enormous intellectual struggle; I obviously followed current affairs but knew my knowledge came nowhere near that of the rest of the Today team (probably the most intelligent group of people I will ever work with). My background didn’t match with many of theirs; I didn’t go to a private school or to Oxbridge for university. I did have a first class honours degree, but in Radio Production, hardly Law or History. I spent a far greater proportion of my teenage years studying the lyrics of Lil’ Kim than the theories of Karl Marx. For all of these reasons, I actually tried to talk my then boss out of offering me the job initially, but on reflection I figured that if I could work hard, keep my head down and try not to screw up too badly I might not be identified as a massive imposter. Plus, having done social media for so long, I was eager to get back into producing actual radio.

calm before the storm #r4today #studio #broadcastinghouse

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They started me off relatively gently, on the Planning team. On a planning shift you’re working on news stories which you know are coming. You can prepare for The Budget, the Scottish Independence Referendum or the publication of a government report because you know exactly on which dates they’ll occur, and you can start putting in interview requests early to people you know you’ll want to speak to on that morning’s programme.

You also get the chance to get out of the office a fair bit, doing background research on stories, speaking to potential contributors, recording audio – a far cry from day shifts which are spent mostly phone-bashing and scrambling to get things together exclusively for the following morning’s show (more on that later). One planing story I was assigned last year was about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to stage a production of The Tempest specifically catered to an audience of autistic children. As part of setting up the story, I got to go along to their studios to record some audio of the actors rehearsing to play ahead of the interview we were doing with the director.

Attending #RSC rehearsals for #TheTempest for #r4today

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By the way, as you can probably tell already, most of the stories I mention in this article will be the lighter stories I’ve worked on, to avoid being insensitive in discussing the the behind-the-scenes process of fixing the more serious items.

Because of the required balance of light and shade in the programme, producers are asked to work on a huge range of stories. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable aspects about the job is its unpredictability. When you walk into the office in the morning you could be asked anything from “What happened with the rouble over the weekend?” to “Can you please go with Evan Davis to a sexual health clinic in Soho this morning for a story about sexually transmitted infections?”

#radio4 #EvanDavis #Todayprogramme #r4today

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Working on the day team is a much more tense affair than Planning. A day shift basically means you are working only on the next immediate programme that will be broadcast. These are 10-hour shifts, usually 10am-8pm or 2pm-midnight (although getting away on time is a rarity). You do four of them per week, instead of five eight-hour shifts. As a day producer, you’re normally asked to set up around 4-5 items. As with most jobs, when you start on the programme, there is no welcome pack or explainer to help you get your head around the inner-workings of the office. But you learn pretty quickly that, for example, booking a guest who appeared on the previous evening’s edition of Newsnight or Channel 4 News is a hanging offence, and that putting a Skype line on air is likely to end in disaster. Wherever possible we try and get guests in quality as opposed to on the phone, but it’s not always possible if they are abroad or in the middle of nowhere. We’re incredibly lucky to have a number of BBC resources at our fingertips, so if you want to speak to a guest outside of London, you can ask them to go to their local BBC regional studio so the interview can be conducted over an ISDN line, or even see if a local reporter to travel to them so we can do a simul-rec (where the guest is interviewed by the presenter over the phone, but their answers are recorded in quality so that the two audio strands can be stitched together in the editing process). If we can get a presenter on location, even better.

One of the things you pick up on most rapidly is the identity of each slot in the programme. When you think of a three-hour radio show, someone unfamiliar with Today may think we could organise it however we want, that we’ve got a blank canvas where the editor can put any story into any timeslot as they wish.

But after a while, you realise how rigidly structured the show is, and how much of the programme is already in place before you even begin working on it. You start to understand what type of story makes a 0650 or an 0820; quite a nuanced and tricky thing to put your finger on. Regular listeners know about and expect there to be some constants: The 0810 is always the most important story of the day; a typical sequence might include a reporter-led package immediately followed by an interview with a relevant or accountable politician. The 0740 is usually a single, four-minute interview, sandwiched between the newspaper review and Thought for the Day and is often a lighter, arts-based subject. The 0855 is usually the ‘closing disco’ (short for discussion) where two guests debate or analyse a topical issue. Something to end the programme on a relatively lighter note, basically. (For even geekier terminology, a discussion that features three guests instead of the usual two is referred to as a ‘trisco’). Literally every single slot has its own feel, and editors need to be careful to make sure each story matches the tone of its placing.

Where possible, we try and get in some live studio activity. If we’re doing an item about opera, can we get an opera singer into Broadcasting House to sing out the programme live? Or can we get the presenters to tweet a photo taken with a selfie stick for a discussion about how socially acceptable it is to use them? Can we put Sarah Montague on the roof of Broadcasting House on the morning of the solar eclipse? (The answer to all of these was yes). Such items help ensure the audio texture of the programme is varied and add some much-needed colour.

The other components of the programme, such as weather, sport, business, Thought for the Day and even the hourly news bulletins, are looked after by separate teams, and although they work very closely with us, you won’t as a day producer be assigned any of these slots to work on.

Not every item on the programme is live, of course. We often pre-record items for a number of reasons, usually because of some kind of logistical issue. Perhaps the guest is in the US where it would be the middle of the night when we go on air. Or maybe music needs to be mixed into the piece in between the guest’s answers, which can’t be done live. One main benefit of pre-recording is that it does afford you the luxury of being able to record an interview as long as you want. I often take in interviews which are 20 minutes plus, and then edit them down to around four minutes for air, which makes it a much better experience for the listener as you’ve pre-selected the best content for broadcast. On the other hand, these items take away from the live feel of the programme and make it sound less pacey, so we try not to do them unless we have to. Of the pre-recs I’ve done in the last year, one that stands out is the session I recorded with Paul Sartin of Bellowhead, where he discussed and played songs from a songbook he had curated for the a WW1 commemoration project.

In addition to speaking to big names from the world of music and politics, getting to work with some huge journalistic names is one of the most enjoyable parts of the role. Fixing interviews with people like Camilla Long and Fraser Nelson have been personal highlights this last year, and I even at one point got to go to the theatre with Maggie Brown, who fronted a piece reviewing the opening night of Great Britain (the Richard Bean play about phone hacking). And of course a continuing highlight is getting to work with one of my favourite human beings on planet earth, James Naughtie.

Other notable memories from the past year included working through the night as the Scottish referendum results came in, and I also particularly enjoyed organising some recurring features, such as the week-long series last summer when we broadcast a week of essays from guests suggesting alternative hobbies that people with no interest in football could take up while the World Cup was on. I had a think about this and came up with five different activities (such as knitting, baking, gardening) and found people to write and voice them, such as GBBO winner Frances Quinn and the Stylist/Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan.

With regards to how we decide which stories to cover, ideas come from all over the place. PR companies will call regularly offering stories and interviewees. BBC reporters from around the world will pitch ideas for packages. Producers are also expected to come up with their own ideas or angles for stories and discussions, which we put forward in the somewhat-terrifying morning meeting, which takes place every day at 1130.

Admittedly, we also closely follow what the press is doing. Despite the declining sales of physical newspapers, they still largely define the news agenda in the UK and the paper review is one of the programme’s longest-standing slots. As a producer, you’re expected to read, for two hours every day, a mixture of both right and left-wing newspapers and current affairs magazines like the Spectator and the New Statesman. Last summer I jacked up an entire disco off the back of a tiny nib there’d been in The Times about The Spectator’s policy of asking applicants not to list where they were educated on their CVs. A great starting point for us to have a debate about meritocracy. This kind of thing happens all the time, little snippets, throwaway sentences, in magazine features and newspaper articles provide ideas for entire items.

A decent editor will assign stories to producers based on their areas of expertise and interest. There are producers who closely follow Russian politics or know a lot about climate change, for example. You may wonder where that leaves me with my rather useless knowledge of Nicki Minaj B-sides, but fortunately arts and music items crop up quite frequently. One of my highlights of this year was setting up a discussion about the lack of ethnic diversity among the BRIT Awards nominees – for which I booked Edward Adoo and Clara Amfo – someone I’d been trying to get on the show for some time.

#lateagram #r4today #SarahMontague with @claraamfo & #EdwardAdoo

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It’s always great booking a guest who has never appeared on Today before, particularly if they end up doing a ‘good turn’ and becoming someone we can go back to in future. It’s especially good if you can book a large number of female guests – because as producers we’re constantly aware that the most common criticism made against the programme is the lack of women on air, something that has considerably improved since Jamie Angus took over as editor.

Anyway, although I work on a huge range of items, stories in areas I feel more familiar with (music, technology, arts, Scotland)  fortunately crop up often enough for me to feel like there’s something I can bring to the table. A recent example that springs to mind, thank you for asking, is a discussion about songwriting credits with Gary Osborne and Michelle Escoffery, which came about in light of the recent Blurred Lines plagiarism ruling. The disco I set up went out on the Saturday edition of the programme, which generally has a less newsy feel and often revisits stories from earlier in the week. Items can run for slightly longer as a result, and discussions can be more analytical and detailed, as this one was. The two guests clicked, both had interesting things to say, and the item was given seven minutes to breathe (unheard of during the week):

Even on the dreaded night shifts (8pm-9am), where your time is largely spent firefighting logistical problems and helping the presenters before outputting the live programme, there’s still some opportunity to make some creative radio. On one recent night shift I was working there happened to be an auroral storm, which was gaining a lot of traction on social media. Despite it being 2am, a lot of people were up to watch it, as the skies were lighting up with colour. I messaged a load of people who were tweeting about it, asked them to call into the studio, recorded them all describing what they could see, and stitched them all together for a standalone audio montage to play out when we went live a few hours later. A great example of how an item can be made using nothing more than Twitter, and how much us producers now rely on it as a guest-sourcing platform.

The most rewarding items to work on are the ones that generate news lines or move an existing story on in some way. We were vaguely interested in this story about a secret reference to Monica Lewinsky being painted into Bill Clinton’s official portrait without his knowledge, but weren’t sure how to make it work for radio. I made some calls to some well-known portrait painters to ask if they had ever done something similar, with the intention of setting up a discussion about whether it’s the artist’s prerogative to do such a thing, or whether it’s morally dubious. In the course of doing this, I spoke to Daphne Todd (former President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters), who came up with an anecdote of pure gold; that she had once painted devil horns on a sitter she disliked, before painting over them in subsequent layering so they couldn’t be seen. They would, however, she said, eventually bleed through and become visible, which will be quite a shock to the sitter when it happens. This is something she’d never revealed before, so I promptly booked her for an interview and she told the story on air. The papers had a field day with this, and I awoke the following morning to find a feature about it splashed across page 3 of The Times – who had tasked a couple of their arts journos with trawling through all of Daphne Todd’s previous works trying to figure out which painting it was. I can’t quite describe what it feels like to wake up and find something you played a part in making national news.

There are some downsides to working on the programme, of course. You are exhausted. All. Of. The. Time. I imagine this job is good preparation for having children in terms of sleep deprivation. Overnight shifts, for example, are 13 hours long and screw up your diet and body clock like you wouldn’t believe. You become ill a lot more frequently because of your weakened immune system making you more susceptible to bugs. You also can’t ever really switch off. In previous years, I spent my Sunday mornings listening to Erykah Badu with a nice latte recovering from the night before. Now I’m up at 0830 to buy the Sunday papers and watch the Andrew Marr show. Even when you’re on leave, you’re still watching PMQs, buying the papers, and, of course, listening to the programme. There’s also always the distinct possibility that you will be trolled by Louise Mensch on Twitter.

As with any news room, the atmosphere can get pretty heated. You have to desensitise upon walking through the door at the beginning of your shift. Press officers and guests may get cross with you for moving them to a less prominent slot or dropping their interview completely if there’s another breaking story, and you’ll be spoken to very sharply during high-pressure times by colleagues. On the flip side, the satisfaction you get when you listen to the programme and hear an item you set up going well or a guest you booked giving a cracking interview make the drawbacks more than worthwhile.

Justin

Quite simply, it’s a volatile job. In an average day your mood switches several times between ‘Bloody hell I did a good job of that story’ and  ‘Christ that was a total disaster I am such a hopeless idiot who should be instantly fired’.

As C.J. once said in the West Wing, I feel like I’m living out the first line of my obituary right now. I’m aware that this is an era I will look back on as being a professional and personal highlight of my life, where I got to work with some incredible people, and contribute to a massively influential programme. So I’m trying to soak it all up and learn as much as I can. I’ve no idea where I’m headed next, as this position came out of the blue and interrupted my career plan (becoming Personal Assistant to Ciara). For now, I’m just honoured and grateful to be working for such a prestigious radio show and doing a job that I adore.

@steviefm

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Breaking news on Today

Just a little update on the blog entry I posted earlier this week about the Today programme’s social media strategy. That post is already out of date because this morning we broke our own Twitter record in terms of the number of retweets a story received.

The sad news of Tony Benn’s death came through at 0658 this morning. In the interests of being accurate rather than first with a piece of breaking news like this, I waited until it was confirmed, a skeleton story had been published on the BBC News website and I had found a picture to attach to the tweet. I sent this tweet out at 0705:

BBC Breakfast beat me by three minutes. However, look at the number of retweets their post got compared to ours:

Their focus was being first with the story, which of course has its merits, but because they hadn’t attached a link, a picture or even a hashtag the tweet looked less appealing and interactive. Us getting nearly 10 times the number of retweets is, I think, solely down to the fact that I took an extra couple of minutes to source and attach a picture.

BBC Breaking also tweeted before us and got a nearly 1,500 retweets – extremely impressive. However, it’s worth keeping in mind they have 9.1m followers (to our 298,000), so actually this amounts to a 0.000164% retweet rate! Our figure isn’t much higher, but a greater proportion of our audience did retweet.

As mentioned in my previous article, in all three cases the total number of retweets received is actually much higher than the numbers stated here – these are just the number of direct retweets and doesn’t include the considerable number of people who manually retweeted a BBC account by copying and pasting our text into their own tweet and writing, for example: “RT @bbcr4today”

Our follow-up tweets, which also included pictures, were successful too:

Our original Tony Benn tweet this morning instantly becomes our most popular tweet of the last year, and certainly the first time I can recall us breaking the 500 direct retweets mark. It seems nothing makes Twitter come alive more than a piece of breaking news.

Tweeting the Today programme

In August 2013, I took on the role of live tweeting BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. This involves posting content online which complements the stories we’re covering on air – a mixture of audio clips, pictures, news lines and quotes from our interviews.

At time of writing (March 2014), Today has 296,000 Twitter followers and 60,000 Facebook fans – not enough, but more on that later. To go with a presentation I gave this week, I’ve written a bit about what tends to work and not work for our social media audience. I’m not an expert or anything, this is just based on my own experience overseeing the programme’s social media over the last six months:

Here's Michael Eavis with John Humphrys after the announcement of the 2013 #Glastonbury festival line up.

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Pictures

Images play a crucial role in driving our social media content, as they’re eye-catching and make a tweet far more likely to be retweeted or shared. When Twitter changed its layout in October so that pictures began showing up under text automatically instead of having to be individually clicked, we saw a considerable increase in the level of engagement and number of retweets our stories received.

Twitter has proved vital in visualising radio in general, but we’ve found it particularly useful on Today as so many of the stories we cover are driven by images. Perhaps the most obvious example of a recent picture-led news story was the Somerset floods. This superb ‘mammoth wave’ picture in particular struck a chord with the audience:

(Throughout this blog you can see the exact number of retweets and favourites a post received immediately below the picture, although the actual figure is usually higher as these stats don’t take into account people who manually retweet by copying and pasting.)

Our presenters used to direct listeners to “the website” whenever we had online content to promote, but we always felt that sounded somewhat vague (did they mean the Today website? The Radio 4 website? The BBC News website?) and they’d rarely give out a specific URL. Recently, however, whenever we’ve covered a news story that demands the listeners are able to see a certain picture quickly (eg. recent stories about London’s new proposed drinking fountain designs or the National Gallery’s purchase of their first major American painting), they’ve found it more useful and immediate to be able to direct listeners to Twitter.

But it’s not just picture-led stories that benefit from having accompanying images. Even stories where a photo isn’t necessary can be massively boosted by attaching one anyway. The recent death of the oldest Holocaust survivor is a good example of this:

I doubt this story would have had that many retweets and favourites had the tweet consisted of text alone. But the rather sweet picture of Alice Herz-Sommer attached to the story clearly encouraged people to spread the story to their own followers.

The Today programme does also have an Instagram account, but we’ve never promoted it anywhere. I like Instagram, in fact it’s probably my favourite social network, but the bulk of our audience haven’t heard of it, so our general policy is that it’s there if we need it, but we don’t put as much time into it as we do Facebook and Twitter  – mainly because it’s a difficult platform for sharing and building up a large follower base.

Instagram users can’t easily re-post a picture they like within the app’s ecosystem the way they can on Facebook (via their share button) or Twitter (via retweeting). Sharing instagrams you’ve uploaded on multiple platforms is particularly ineffective – it still baffles me whenever I see people posting Instagram links on Twitter. Because of the extra effort required to view instagrams (they aren’t viewable within Twitter’s timeline), hardly anybody sees them, as most users can’t be bothered with extra clicks and new windows. Furthermore, tweets featuring Instagram links practically never go viral. Having said that, we have found it useful occasionally, such as when we needed an outlet to upload content from presenters’ foreign sends:

Of course, a social media post doesn’t have to have a picture attached to it to become popular. A new top line or an interesting quote can be equally as powerful. Our most popular tweet so far in 2014 was a quote from the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center talking about the situation in Ukraine on a Saturday morning edition of programme – not exactly a set of circumstances which initially screams viral hit:

Certain topics are always likely to score highly with the Today audience. Weather is always popular, for example. Tomasz Schafernaker‘s recent prediction that a sunny weekend was on the way became our most popular tweet of that whole morning.

Education tweets usually perform well too, like Philip Pullman’s call for every school to have a properly-equipped and properly-staffed library, or Malala Yousafzai championing of the importance of studying:

Retweets

Reaching a large audience is made much easier when you’re retweeted by a huge account like BBC World (5.7m followers) or BBC News UK (2.5m). However, many of our followers already follow these accounts independently anyway. What can be much more valuable is a retweet from a person whose fans don’t usually come into contact with the Today programme. Like this recent retweet from Katy B:

Now, Katy B may not have as many followers (258,000) as some of the big BBC News accounts, but her retweeting this pulls Today into the timelines of her fans – young Radio 1-listener types who probably don’t follow current affairs and may not even have heard of the show. Raising awareness among this demographic is, in my opinion, extremely important as they’re our future audience, and if we can convince even just a few of them to tune in or follow our Twitter feed then it’s massively worth doing.

The audience tend to like when we do something slightly out of character. One of the most memorable examples of this for me was John Humphrys’s round up of the 2013 Mercury Music Prize nominees in October:

I try to make the most of the ‘fun’ stories that the programme does on Twitter because the social media audience generally reacts well to them. The Radio 4 audience overall has a reputation of being resistant to change – we received a lot of complaints, for example, when the racing tips were temporarily dropped from the sport bulletins last year – but the Twitter audience, perhaps because they’re (forgive me) generally younger, are more open to it. When we had a new presenter – Mishal Husain – join the programme last year, instead of complaints about there being a new voice to get used to, her first presenting shift was widely praised online.

Reporters and correspondents

The sheer number of tweets I’m sending out while the programme is being broadcast live means our feed can start to look a bit samey, and will in turn clog up our followers’ timelines. If tweets are being pushed out every couple of minutes (which they are on our account at peak times), a reader would start to see the same profile picture plastered all over their feed – which is annoying. It therefore makes my job considerably easier if reporters tweet their own pictures and stories. If I can retweet them, it breaks up the monotony of everything coming from a single account.

Some recent examples – Sima Kotecha and Tom Bateman always tweet their own stories, quotes and pictures. John Shields, who is often sent out as a producer on outside broadcasts, posts lots of photos of our presenters on location (eg. Justin Webb’s makeshift studio in Strasbourg or Mishal Husain’s recent co-pres from Porthleven).

Replies

Perhaps the main thing I’ve learned in my time looking after @bbcr4today is you have to be extremely thick-skinned in order to manage a high-profile Twitter account. I know celebrities moan about this all the time but seriously, you do have to put up with constant, relentless abuse and complaints. Fortunately we get a quite a few appreciative tweets too – but nearly every single item the programme does will be criticised on Twitter by listeners claiming that it was too left-wing, too right-wing, too short, too long, didn’t have enough news value, was biased, a waste of licence fee money, and so on. I do pass social media reaction on to the editors, but I think it would be virtually impossible to put a programme that satisfied every single listener.

Some other facts you may be interested in:

– The Today Twitter audience is 66% male, 34% female

– 42% of our followers also follow Stephen Fry

– Very roughly our follower count goes up by about 10,000 a month (the number of new followers is higher than that, but is offset by a smaller number of people unfollowing us.)

– It takes around 30,000 clicks for one of our clips to make it into the BBC News website’s Most Listened, and around 5,000 listens to become Audioboo’s most played.

– Of our presenters, Evan has the highest number of followers on his personal account (136,000), followed by Mishal (131,000), and Justin, Jim and Sarah (who have 10-25,000 each). John Humphrys is not on Twitter.

Going forward – it’d be good to see Today become as prominent on Twitter in the mornings as Question Time is on Thursday nights – dominating conversations and trending topics. This is probably an unrealistic ambition though because unlike Question Time we face a lot of competition from other news shows being broadcast at the same time and users are less engaged at that time of day. Having said that, the #r4today hashtag currently trends roughly two or three mornings a week, which isn’t too bad.

As time goes on and more people join social media platforms (many of our listeners are only now getting their heads around Twitter), the more we’ll be able to utilise the huge potential of social media for things like finding guests, sharing pictures and videos, and interacting with and building our audience.

There are going to be some potentially quite drastic changes to the programme’s social media strategy over the coming months, the details of which I won’t bore you with here, but basically the programme team is keen for us to evolve because currently our online presence doesn’t reflect how influential and important the on-air programme is. I’ll update this blog in a few months’ time to outline the changes we’ve made and how effective they have or haven’t been.

@steviefm

Mishal Husain and John Humphrys presenting BBC Radio 4's Today programme

Radio Academy: Playlists – What makes a hit in 2014?

On Monday I attended the Radio Academy’s event Playlists: What makes a hit in 2014?

You’ll likely have already read this morning about the main news line that came out of it – George Ergatoudis, Radio 1’s Head of Music, confirmed that the station’s Top 40 chart will start including streaming data from some point this year. He described it as one of the biggest transitional changes in the Official Chart’s history, which is probably fair to say as it’s the first time that a consumer won’t actually have to spend money on a song for it to influence the chart. It does, however, raise a few questions – for example, how long will a song have to be listened to before it registers as a play? 30 seconds, 90 seconds, the whole duration? Also, how easily could it be hijacked? Someone could conceivably place a song on repeat on their computer and then leave it there for the whole day, racking up lots of plays and having considerable influence on its chart position.

Ergatoudis also went into some detail about how they test and research music with their audience. I was particularly struck by his comment about just how long it can take for a massive hit to become familiar to and connect with the public. Rather Be by Clean Bandit – an absolute beast of a record and currently no. 1 – is apparently still only recognised by 66% of Radio 1’s audience. This is a song which has had a huge amount of airplay, broken all kinds of records (highest sales for a no. 1 in January since 1996, most streamed track on Spotify in a single week ever etc.) and yet a third of people who listen to Radio 1 don’t even know it.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the discussion was George’s comments about how the singles were chosen for Beyonce‘s most recent ‘surprise’ album. Apparently the record label wanted Drunk On Love and Blow to lead the album campaign, but, within 24 hours of the album dropping on iTunes, pretty much every radio station had told them neither song was going to be suitable for their daytime playlist. Several stations, including Radio 1, instead suggested their preferred alternative – XO – which the label (I assume reluctantly) agreed to. Maybe this story was already public knowledge but it was news to me, and an interesting example of what goes on behind-the-scenes between radio playlist teams and record labels. Obviously playlist teams have always been powerful but I don’t think I realised quite how much influence they could collectively have on a major album campaign. In the pre-download days, if a lead single had been chosen and radio stations decided not to support it, as a record label you were stuck. The CD singles would already have been pressed, the promotion already well underway. I would have thought that Beyonce’s team would have guessed in advance that in this case their two chosen lead singles wouldn’t receive massive daytime support, but maybe they didn’t care and assumed (correctly) that everybody would be so caught up in the publicity surrounding the surprise release that the lead single and quality of the music on the album didn’t even matter.

There was also a bit of discussion about On Air On Sale – a concept which has divided the music industry. The idea, if you haven’t heard of it before, is that a song should be available to buy as soon as it’s played on the radio. It’s been tried many times before, perhaps most notably with Lady Gaga‘s Born This Way album, and in some cases it’s been hugely successful. Using this method, a song usually enters the chart at a fairly low position, but gradually climbs as it builds momentum and more people hear it. Sony have apparently made it clear that they intend to go back to this as their standard model for all their artists later this year. Most other record labels are against it though – they’d rather get all the hype and promotion done first, ahead of release, so that when the song is finally available to download in iTunes, it has a higher impact – ideally debuting at no. 1, as opposed to elevating up the charts gradually over a number of weeks.

The industry can’t seem to agree on the best approach here. Capital FM, for example, apparently point blank refuse to support a record an unless they’re given it in advance. A recent example which was used to illustrate this at the talk last night was Can’t Remember To Forget You by Rihanna & Shakira. Capital haven’t supported the song at all – which is quite a statement in itself given how target those two artists are. It’s interesting to note the song’s low chart placing as a result of this; it hasn’t even broken the top 10 in the UK. It probably would have charted significantly higher with support from Capital, and more support from Radio 1 – who put it on their C List. Yet the video for the song has received 130 million views (at time of writing) on YouTube. Admittedly this probably doesn’t have much to do with the quality of the song but rather the content – music videos featuring young attractive female artists wearing little clothing always score highly. Evidently, immense online popularity doesn’t necesserily always translate to high sales and high awareness of a song with a mainstream audience.

On the flipside, iTunes apparently (and again I didn’t know this until it was said last night but maybe this has been revealed before) refuse to promote a record on their front page unless it’s On Air On Sale. They say that their customers have told them they want a song to be available to buy instantly, as soon as they’ve heard it. Therefore a 6-week campaign of promotion ahead of release would actually cause iTunes not to promote it, which would be a major negative from the label’s point of view. It must be incredibly difficult being the record company in this situation, there’s basically no way to please both supporters (iTunes) and critics (Capital) of the model.

The floor was opened to questions at the end and there were a couple I would’ve liked to ask myself but there were so many that they ran out of time. I’d have been particularly curious to know Radio 1’s current policy on recurrent tracks. For example, I’ve heard Fireflies by Owl City on an almost daily basis on Radio 1 over the last month or so, despite the song being released in January 2010. For a station that champions new music, why does it cling on to some old songs so strongly – and more interestingly how does it choose which songs to keep playing on air once they’ve left the charts? Starry Eyed by Ellie Goulding and Shake It by Metro Station are others I’ve heard several times in the last few weeks – both of which seem like very random choices for continued play. These are songs which are receiving an almost C List-level of rotation, despite being years old and, I would argue, having had limited popularity in the first place when they were initially released.

I would also have asked George Ergatoudis what the Radio 1 playlist team’s bloody problem is with Christina Aguilera but to be fair I imagine few others in the audience would have been as troubled as me about that issue.

Anyway, the discussion overall was fascinating. Last night was the first Radio Academy event I’ve ever attended (I only heard about this one through my flatmate the day before), but I’ll certainly go to more of them in future and continue to write round-ups on here if anyone actually reads this one.

shak

Here’s a rather nice picture of Shakira and Rihanna which might seem a bit random after an entire post of nothing but text but it’s so that when I post this on Facebook an image appears next to the link.

@steviefm

2013 Review: Books & Albums

Books

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith 9/10
J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was my favourite book of last year, so when it emerged she’d written second adult novel under a pseudonym I was keen to see if it could live up to its predecessor. The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t quite as strong, but it’s still an excellent novel in its own right. Rowling has proven herself as a superb crime author, more than capable of writing likeable, intriguing characters and well-plotted storylines.

The Average American Marriage by Chad Kultgen 7/10
After a couple of reasonably-good-but-not-amazing novels, I was extremely pleased when Chad Kultgen decided to write a follow-up to his masterpiece debut, The Average American Male. The lead character is now married and settled down but equally as vile and shallow, making for a highly entertaining book that should be read by anyone who wants an insight into the male brain.

Amy, 27 by Howard Sounes 6/10
A pretty good read that deals with the coincidental (or are they? etc.) deaths of so many rock stars at the age of 27. Obviously the Amy Winehouse chapters were the most interesting to me but the sections on the others (like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin) were just as good and will probably be of interest to you if you have better taste in music than me, which you do.

Mutton by India Knight 10/10
Outstanding. Mutton is everything you could possibly want from a novel – warm, realistic, sharp, brilliantly written, relatable, and packed full of genuine laugh-out-loud moments. The character of Gaby alone is reason enough to read this book. India Knight was already one of my favourite newspaper columnists, but after this she now also ranks among my favourite fiction authors. Mutton is so good that after I finished it I went back to the beginning and read the whole thing again. Do not sleep on this absolute beast of a novel.

Eleven by Mark Watson 9/10
Mark Watson is, in my opinion, a rather irritating and unfunny stand-up comedian, so I was reluctant to read this book – but I decided to give Eleven a try because the premise sounded interesting (the lead character is the presenter of a late-night phone-in radio show). I’m pleased to say I was very pleasantly surprised, it turns out Watson is a superb author who writes interesting and engaging characters whose lives overlap in a series of unexpected ways. Not a new concept I know but a pleasure nonetheless.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger 8/10
An accomplished novel – beautifully written and well-observed; there are a lot of subtle touches that highlight the many cultural differences between Bangladesh and the US – where the two lead characters are from. Its only downfall is its length, the plot lags quite a bit in the middle and by the end of the book it has become a bit of a slog. You’ll struggle to find a better quality of prose though.

It’s All News To Me by Jeremy Vine 7/10
An enjoyable book for anyone interested in working in radio and/or current affairs, and an accurate representation of what goes on behind-the-scenes at news programmes. There are some lovely anecdotes in here and for a ‘celebrity’ autobiography it’s well written and has a fair bit of substance.

Straight White Male by John Niven 9/10
Kill Your Friends is my all-time favourite novel which I doubt John Niven will ever top, but of all the follow-ups he’s released, Straight White Male is the strongest by quite some distance. A repulsive yet strangely likeable main character holds together a well-plotted storyline. Marvellous and hilarious.

Honest by Tulisa 5/10
This is a book that I, um, needed to read for, er, research purposes. Anyway. Tulisa actually has a rather compelling life story and I thought this was a pretty good read. The sections on the recording of her (massively underrated) debut album, her X Factor judging role, and the sex tape controversy, were particularly interesting, and it was refreshing to read such a genuinely candid celebrity biography.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw 7/10
My summer holiday read this year was a delight, a perfect book to while away the days spent lying on the beach. Five Star Billionaire featured a host of interesting characters, and made me want to visit Shanghai, but its weak point was actually the simplistic and unchallenging writing. Still, a very pleasant, easy read.

The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei 5/10
This novel has a pretty good crack at a John Niven/Chad Kultgen-style main character, but in this case the protagonist actually isn’t a complex enough character – he doesn’t have any redeeming features to balance out his nastiness. He’s just a two-dimensional, plain, noxious piece of work without the subtleties, humour or intelligence to make you warm to him despite his personality.

Back Story by David Mitchell 5/10
The concept of Back Story is original – a walk around London with David Mitchell recalling how his life has played out in the different pockets of the capital, from sharing a flat with Robert Webb in Kilburn to his first script writing job at Broadcasting House in Portland Place. A nice read.

Mr Gig by Nige Tassell 8/10
Don’t be put off by what is probably the worst title for a book in the history of literature, Mr Gig is in fact a brilliantly-written account of the joys of live music. Each chapter focuses on a different concert or festival, across a wide-range of genres, from Glastonbury and concerts held in forests to 80s tribute bands, student union events and disastrous independent music festivals. Anybody who enjoys live music should read this book.

Albums
Just a quick word about the sales success of some of the records reviewed below – it is slightly annoying that artists who never musically rock the boat or say anything controversial in interviews are able to release (distinctly average) surprise albums in the middle of the night and everybody goes mental, while those who are making much better music are less successful in sales terms because of their unpopular off-stage personalities. I do wish albums would sell on the strength of the music on them rather than the hype, controversy or other irrelevant surrounding factors. Anyway, lecture over:

V.V. Brown – Samson & Delilah 6/10
V.V. good. As many reviewers pointed out Samson & Delilah is a strong ‘artistic statement’ – groundbreaking, innovative and a far cry from her excellent (far more mainstream) debut. Having said that, it’s not a classic and I can’t see it having the same shelf life on my iPod that Travelling Like The Light had.

Cassie – Rocka Bye Baby 5/10
I’ve always found Cassie’s deadpan voice oddly endearing, and while there is nothing here to match the brilliance of her 2006 masterpiece Me & You, this is a highly-listenable album. Loses marks for being way too short at half-an-hour long (although to be fair it was originally intended to be a mixtape rather than a full LP). Hopefully there’ll be more to come from her soon.

M.I.A. – Matangi 8/10
As experimental and creative an album as you’d expect from one of music’s most visionary artists. M.I.A.’s debut, Arular, remains my all-time favourite album, but all of her follow-ups, Matangi included, haven’t quite matched its quality. The beats are excellent though, particularly on songs such as Double Bubble Trouble and Yala.

Jessie J – Alive 7/10
It’s a shame that so many people have turned against Jessie J because of her personality. Pretty much every girl I know dislikes her because of it, and therefore the thing she should be getting judged on – her music – is overlooked. Male musicians like Kanye West are allowed to behave like twats and nobody cares, their records still sell in their millions, but strong women who know their own minds (i.e. my entire music taste) are seen as threatening, no matter how good their music is. This is infuriating – especially when, vocally, Jessie J is the closest thing we’ve ever had to a British Christina. Anyway. The songs here are pretty decent, albeit not groundbreaking, and you can’t really go wrong with an album that features a guest appearance from Brandy.

Fantasia – Side Effects Of You 9/10
The songwriting here is of an extremely high standard, Fantasia is vocally impeccable as always, and the fact that the album was recorded with a live band gives it a wonderfully vibrant feel. Bursting with attitude and emotion, Side Effects Of You hooks you in from track 1 and maintains its quality right through to the end – even the bonus tracks are brilliant.

India Arie – SongVersation 7/10
Certain tracks on SongVersation feel a bit preachy, as India Arie continues to shoehorn her religion into her lyrics, but the music itself is superb as always, brilliant songs and a beatifully acoustic and organic overall sound. Special mention to Moved By You, which is one of the most lyrically beautiful and inventive songs of the year.

Ciara – Ciara 9/10
This year, Ciara produced her fifth excellent album in a row – an achievement among my favourite singers matched only by Pink. Ciara (God I really hate self-titled albums) is a great record with well-chosen producers and guest spots. The only thing that places it slightly in the shadow of its predecessors is its more standard approach to R&B. Her fifth record is less visionary and groundbreaking than 2009’s Fantasty Ride, for example. Simply put though, Ciara is, in my eyes, one of the best R&B singers in the industry, whose considerable talent and formidable back catalogue have been unfairly overlooked in favour of her less-talented peers.

Eve – Lip Lock 5/10
Not good enough for a rapper that hasn’t released a studio album for 10 years. Lyrically, it’s sound, but overall Lip Lock is nothing spectacular and has no songs that can touch the quality of Scorpion. There are a few gems, like Zero Below and E.V.E. but the production lets many of the other songs down.

Lady GaGa – ArtPop 9/10
I assume the reason Lady Gaga’s career is collapsing is people have grown sick of her elaborate costumes and the drivel she spouts in interviews. Anybody who was able to look past those things, however, would find that – in amongst all the hype and opinions – she actually made the best pop album of this year. The highs here are higher than anything she’s done previously, particularly the more upbeat, anthemic songs like Donatella and Mary Jane Holland. ArtPop is admittedly short on artistic evolution – a lot of the material here could quite easily have been from The Fame Monster era. No problems there though – that was an awesome album and why abandon a working formula.

Diana Vickers – Music To Make Boys Cry 8/10
My adoration for Diana Vickers is well-documented so I won’t go into it here, instead I’ll actually mention some negatives – an album that clocks in at half-an-hour is disappointing considering the 3-year wait. And there were some fantastic songs that leaked before its release (Colours, Kiss of a Bullet) that would have fitted in here perfectly but for some reason were missed out; a pity. Everything else great, obviously, super pop songs and as for her voice… I can’t even.

Kelly Rowland – Talk A Good Game 9/10
Look I’m as surprised as you are alright. That Kelly Rowland would follow three average albums with an outstanding fourth was entirely unexpected, and yet interestingly this is precisely the same trajectory followed by her Destiny’s Child bandmate Beyonce. Kelly, for some reason, decided to pull it out the bag this year and came up with an R&B album of an extremely high standard featuring a blinding array of writers and producers including Rico Love, The Dream, Pharrell and Mike Will Made It. Vocally, Kelly strains ever-so-slightly in places but the songs are as fine as R&B comes.

Little Mix – Salute 8/10
It’s no understatement to say there are elements of The Writing’s On The Wall present on this album, and the vocal harmonies are easily up there with what you’d expect from Cherish or En Vogue. Remarkably accomplished for a sophomore record, Salute establishes Little Mix as genuine players on the Pop/R&B scene.

Gigs

R&B fans have never been well-served in the live music stakes, most of my favourite artists rarely tour – for some reason the live black music scene is far less busy than the indie live music scene, for example. But something changed in 2013, singers that have practically never played London before like Tweet and Truth Hurts suddenly popped up to do live shows, and there were more gigs on offer for R&B fans than any other year I’ve lived in London. A special mention has to go to the indigo2 – they must have hired a new booking agent this year or something because, out of nowhere, they scheduled gigs with Ashanti, Keyshia Cole, Ciara, Brandy, Eve and Lil’ Kim amongst others. I hope the renewed interest in such artists and the success of their live shows mean there’ll be more to come in 2014.

Eve at Proud Camden 9/10
Superb, definitely the most high-energy show I saw this year. The intimate setting suited Eve perfectly, and the crowd were hyped and totally engaged –  standing front row centre I was practically crushed to death. A cracking setlist – Eve performed every song you could wish for from her impressive back catalogue, even including her cameo raps on songs on other artists’ songs.

Ciara at the indigo2 9/10
I’ll tell you what, Ciara can DANCE. Opening the show with a five-minute tribute to Michael & Janet Jackson, Ciara had the audience mesmerized before she had even opened her mouth. I will never forget seeing her perform the famous Billie Jean routine perfectly down to every last step, just incredible. Her interaction with the audience was great too – inviting members of the crowd up on stage for the dance breakdown in Work (doing this is often a recipe for disaster but it turns out Ciara’s fans can dance almost as well as she can), and overall the setlist was brilliant. Many people forget how strong her back catalogue is – on top of the big singles like Love Sex Magic and Goodies she also has a huge number of collaborations like Lose Control (with Missy Elliott) and Taking Back My Love (Enrique Iglesias) which she performed solo versions of.

Tweet at the Jazz Cafe 9/10
Tweet’s first ever UK live show was worth the 11-year wait, and the Jazz Cafe provided the perefct setting for her blend of funk and soul. She was very down-to-earth and un-diva like, at one point she asked if there were any singers in the audience, who she then invited to join her on stage. After the show was over she came out into the crowd and posed for photos with everyone too. Most of the setlist was from her Southern Hummingbird era, but she also did a section near the end where the audience shouted out songs she hadn’t performed and she did impromptu a cappella versions. A wonderful show.

Little Boots on the Deezer Bandwagon 7/10
My first ever silent gig was an intriguing experience. You’re given a pair of headphones on the way in and the gig is broadcast straight into your ears. Acoustically, it makes for a far better quality of sound than a normal gig as the band is being mixed live by an engineer. As for the music itself – I’m not a particularly big fan of Little Boots (we won tickets to this) but the songs she performed at here were pretty good.

Kelis & Lianne La Havas at LoveBox, Victoria Park 9/10
I originally bought a Lovebox ticket purely to see Lil’ Kim, but predictably she didn’t show up. Fortunately the day was saved by two other blinding sets – firstly from Lianne La Havas, who has been phenomenal every time I have seen her and is probably my favourite UK live act, and secondly from Kelis, who for some reason really pulled it out of the bag. I’ve seen Kelis four times and never did she have as much stage presence or energy as on this occasion. A terrific, dance-driven set.

Brandy at the indigo2 8/10
Considerably better than her last show over here – this time she actually sang live and had a much longer setlist, which ranged from her early material through to her new stuff, with some Whitney Houston covers thrown in for good measure.

Lil’ Kim & Eve at the indigo2 7/10
Eve always delivers a brilliant show, as mentioned earlier – she plays the songs the fans want to hear, she has great stage presence and audience interaction, fun dance routines and never forgets her words or loses the beat.

Now then. First of all let me state that you will not find a bigger Lil’ Kim fan than me. She is the greatest female rapper in hip-hop; her lyrics and wordplay are unmatched. Her live reputation, however, is not good – she’s only turned up to one of her four scheduled gigs in the UK in the last decade. She’d already failed to appear at LoveBox earlier this year, so my hopes were not high for this. Fortunately, she did turn up this time – but the gig itself was a mixed bag. She was constantly out of breath, despite barely moving during the show, and went off stage for a few minutes after practically every song, leaving her DJ and dancers to fill in. She forgot words and lost the beat quite a few times, but her vocals were strong, particularly on the slower songs like her cover of Man Down. The setlist overall was pretty good too, and overall I’m delighted I finally got the chance to see her in the flesh. I sincerely hope, now that she’s had one successful appearance over here, that she’ll play the live circuit more often in the future and improve.

Read more: 2013 Arts Review: Films & Shows

2013 Arts Review: Films & Shows

Shows

The Book of Mormon at The Prince of Wales Theatre 8/10
Unlike anything I’ve seen in the West End before – funny, original and surprisingly sweet in places; The Book of Mormon is a highly entertaining show, albeit also completely unsubtle and not one to see if you like your humour politically correct. A welcome addition to the West End, although it became overrated very quickly after its debut at the beginning of the year.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Apollo 6/10
Possibly the best staging I’ve ever seen – an incredibly clever and elaborate set which is brilliantly utilised. The play itself is far too long and the lead character, although brilliantly depicted by Luke Treadway, becomes extremely grating – there’s only so long you can listen to someone shouting maths equations at you. A fair and accurate portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome, and a thought-provoking show, but not one I would go back to see in a hurry.

Once at the Phoenix 4/10
Disappointing; a thin plot and average acting. The interaction with the audience was good though – half an hour before the show starts the cast come on stage for an improvised jam session, and audience members can go up to join in and buy drinks from the bar on stage. Overall though I’d say the show is generally not worth bothering with unless you’re a huge fan of Irish folk music.

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane 9/10
The best show I saw this year. Creative and imaginative, with brilliant use of staging. The first Oompa Lumpa routine and the golden-ticket winners sequence are among the best things I’ve ever seen on a West End stage. Only disappointing thing was the music – the stage score isn’t quite as strong as the songs in the original film version.

The Commitments at The Palace Theatre 8/10
This show is so good you almost don’t notice the complete absence of an actual storyline. The songs (Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin) are terrific, the script funny and the cast superb. This is the blueprint of how a fim should be converted to the stage.

Wicked at the Victoria Apollo 6/10
Not what I was expecting at all. Wicked gets off to a brilliant start but turns quite dark and psychedelic towards the end. It’s a stunning production in terms of the staging, choreography, costumes etc. and to be fair I probably enjoyed it less than most people would purely because I always struggle with the fantasy genre. Glad I finally got round to seeing it though after seven years of living in London.

The Bodyguard (with Heather Headley) at The Adelphi 7/10
The songs and vocals on their own make this one of the most enjoyable shows I saw this year. Heather Headley’s phenomenal voice was more than strong enough to pull off all the Whitney songs, but unfortunately her acting let the show down slightly; the night we went she spent the whole show mumbling her lines and generally looking like she didn’t want to be there. Also the script isn’t anything special; the corny dialogue leaves a lot to be desired.

Viva Forever at the Piccadilly Theatre 7/10
Genuinely not as bad as everyone made it out to be. Obviously it was never going to be cool or credible to see this musical so critics revelled in watching it fail, but the singing, acting and choreography was easily up to the same standard of any other show on in the West End. With four band members going through a TV talent show, the plot more closely resembles the story of Little Mix than the Spice Girls (not that it was meant to be biographical), but it worked well and they made good use of the songs.

The Duck House at the Vaudeville theatre 9/10
A razor-sharp political comedy with bang-up-to-the-minute jokes. On the night we went there were gags about Nigella Lawson’s admission of cocaine use and the 11% pay rise for MPs, despite both news stories being only days old. They must be doing rewrites every night to keep it fresh. The entire cast is great – particularly Ben Miller in the lead role as the MP who has been claiming all sorts of ridiculous items on expenses. I went to see this purely because Diana Vickers is in it, but the whole show is terrific as an entire package, despite perhaps becoming just slightly too farcical in the second act.

Stag Nation at the Colonel Fawcett 8/10
A very funny, original play – which is set in the aftermath of a stag party. The premise is that the male and female characters have switched bodies by the time they wake up the next morning (I know, this sounds like a truly dreadful idea on paper but bear with me). The result is surprisingly eye-opening. Seeing the events of a stag night from a female perspective provides a great deal of humour as you can imagine, but the play also holds a magnifying glass up to the different ways men and women behave, and shows what it would be like if roles were reversed and, for example, women had physical fights on nights out as a matter of course and men were hired as prostitutes.

The Bodyguard (with Beverley Knight) at The Adelphi 8/10
When it came to singing the big songs, Beverley Knight’s voice was equally as good as Headley’s, but in the acting stakes she easily outshone her predecessor. This remains a highly-enjoyable show, although it is slightly furstrating to see such incredible songs woven together with such a lacklustre script, with the music uncomfortably shoehorned in to the storyline. Also, it wouldn’t have killed them to include It’s Not Right But It’s Okay.

Thriller Live at the Lyric Theatre 7/10
There’s no storyline in Thriller Live and barely any narration – which I suppose is sensible given Michael Jackson’s off-stage life story. The show is simply made up of singers and dancers performing his songs. Fortunately the performers are very good, and the songs well chosen. The early Jackson 5 years are a delight and the choreography for Dangerous is particularly awesome.

The Light Princess at the National Theatre 6/10
An intriguing idea – you could imagine it would be a nightmare for any production team to be landed with a show featuring a lead character that ‘floats’. However, they do an admirable job of using all kinds of techniques to make sure she never touches the ground, and as a visual spectacle this show is a triumph. The main attraction for me was that the music was written by Tori Amos, but as is often the case with her, there are no standout choruses or memorable melodies – not a problem when you’re listening to one of her albums but tedious when delivered in the form of a two-and-a-half hour musical.

Films

Blue Jasmine 7/10
Being 26 years old, I shouldn’t really be enjoying Woody Allen films for another few decades yet, but the critics’ unanimous praise for Cate Blanchett’s performance made me curious to see this one. She is indeed outstanding in this movie and thoroughly deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but there’s plenty more to enjoy about Blue Jasmine – the supporting cast are terrific too and it’s well directed & beautifully filmed.

Thanks For Sharing 9/10
I would quite happily have sat through a crap film for the sake of seeing Pink’s major acting debut, but fortunately Thanks For Sharing turned out to be a superb picture all-round. It deals with the issue of sex addiction humorously but sensitively and has some excellent performances from Tim Robbins and (unbelievably) Gwyneth Paltrow.

Hitchcock 7/10
A superb film, but one which didn’t really take advantage of the big screen. The production values are basic, making it look like a made-for-TV movie rather than one that needs to be seen in a cinema. Hugely enjoyable though, and Anthony Hopkins is outstanding as Alfred Hitchock.

The Fifth Estate 1/10
It’s rare to come across a film with a completely unlikable sleazebag of a main character, which actually wouldn’t be a problem in itself if this movie had any redeeming features, which it doesn’t. The Fifth Estate is boring and impossible to warm to. Such a frustratingly wasted opportunity – the Wikileaks story is an incredible, fascinating and controversial one, but this movie is just an endless stream of men with dodgy accents on laptops having conversations in chat rooms about encryption codes and servers. One point given for Peter Capaldi’s performance as Alan Rusbridger. Otherwise awful.

We’re The Millers 8/10
Easily Jennifer Aniston’s best film (although admittedly that’s like saying “Kings of Leon’s best album”). Everything about this movie suggested it was going to be a disaster, not least the title, but going in with such low expectations meant I was pleasantly surprised – it’s actually a clever, sweet and genuinely funny film with an original storyline. Don’t miss it.

The Call 9/10
An extremely compelling film, The Call grabbed us by the throat from minute one and didn’t let go. The plot is exhilirating, Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin are both excellent, and the film as a whole is bloody terrifying but brilliant. Of all the movies that I saw this year, this is the one that has stayed with me the most, long after the credits started rolling.

World War Z 6/10
Zombie apocalypse movies aren’t exactly my favourite genre of cinema, and I usually struggle to get my head around any fantasy films, but I was keen to see World War Z as some of it was shot in Glasgow, and it was actually reasonably good. Some incredible scenes, particularly in the first half hour, but ultimately it lost steam towards the end.

After Earth 8/10
I took some persuading to go and see this film because I think Jaden Smith is an arrogant tool, but After Earth really impressed me. A gorgeous film to see on the big screen – much like Avatar in its style with some beautiful cinematography. Considerably better than you might imagine.

The Counsellor 8/10
Despite having a plot that was near impossible to follow, The Counsellor was a superb film that held us throughout its lenghty duration, even though we didn’t really know was going on until the closing minutes when everything starts to make sense. Brutally violent, expertly filmed with some lush dialogue.

Philomena 9/10
Amazing performances from Judi Dench are so taken-for-granted that it’s almost not worth mentioning, but she really is terrific here – as is Steve Coogan. An engaging drama with some nice touches of humour and a neatly unfolding (true) storyline.

The Bling Ring 6/10
Brilliantly filmed; the hand-held cameras give the feeling you’re there with the teenagers as they rob the homes of Paris Hilton and Audrina Partridge. Not amazing, but a fun ride.

Pitch Perfect 9/10
This film was marketed as a run-of-the-mill teen movie – but it’s well above average. There are lots of sharp lines and well-performed musical numbers, and it’s perfectly cast with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson (among others) fitting their roles perfectly. Outstanding in its genre.

Jack Reacher 5/10
A strong start and an intriguing plotline, but not enough substance to hold up a feature-length film. Worth watching but nothing special – and Tom Cruise doesn’t quite match the threatening character described in the original Lee Child books.

Gravity 8/10
I know space epics are hardly known for their realism, but the ending of Gravity is quite literally unbelievable. Fortunately it doesn’t matter because holy christ the visuals are just sensational. Worth splashing out to see in IMAX, and probably the best use of 3D I’ve seen since Avatar. Definitely one to see in the cinema.

The Hangover Part III 3/10
Predictable, disappointing, and basically unnecessary. A few funny moments, but nothing that left me with the desire to see it a second time.

Flight 5/10
This film gets off to an amazing start with a stunning opening sequence, but the quality unfortunately isn’t maintained throughout the whole film. Once the plane crash is out of the way you can basically predict the rest of the plot.

The Way, Way Back 8/10
Allison Janney’s presence in any film automatically makes it a minimum 8/10 but The Way, Way Back has plenty more to offer. It has a slow-burning storyline but is warm, funny and perfectly cast – it’s no surprise it comes from the same team behind Little Miss Sunshine, this is just as rewarding.

Runner Runner 4/10
You would think, given that Ben Affleck’s last film was Argo and Justin Timberlake is passable as an actor these days, that this would be a lot better than it is. Runner Runner is enjoyable enough but overall it’s pretty thin and forgettable.

This Is The End 3/10
Really quite bad. You’ll probably enjoy this if you like Seth Rogen’s other films but generally they aren’t my kind of thing. There are, however, some nice cameo appearances and the scenes with Emma Watson are particularly funny.

Behind The Candelabra 5/10
Some great performances – Michael Douglas is superb in the lead role, but the film is hard to warm to with its shallow and morally-dubious characters. It’s certianly worth seeing the early scenes which portray what a talented musician and all-round showman Liberace was.

Captain Phillips 7/10
Pretty good, although not the masterpiece it was made out to be by the critics, and perhaps a touch too long. Tom Hanks is marvellous, especially in the closing scenes – a believable and realistic hero. This is a film of two halves, the second of which I though dragged on a bit, although the friend I was with that cried at the ending would probably disagree.

The Great Gatsby 5/10
An interesting take on a well-told story. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t make quite as much of a mess of this as he did Moulin Rouge – his style works here for the most part. There are some cracking party scenes and his unusual decision to use contemporary hip-hop to soundtrack a story set in the 1920s works brilliantly. As Leonardo DiCaprio is one of my favourite actors, I was surprised to find him slightly miscast here, his Gatsby doesn’t quite hit the mark, and the film overall fell a bit flat.

Argo 9/10
I know this was technically released in 2012 but I pretty much ignored it until it somewhat unexpectedly won Best Picture at the Oscars in February, and deservedly so. Fortunately it came back into the cinemas as a result of the renewed interest. A superb film, which owes much to its original (and true) storyline and brilliant cast. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are especially entertaining together.

Parental Guidance 5/10
Very funny in places but god the children characters are annoying. Billy Crystal and Bette Midler’s chemistry is nice though, and it’s a fairly sweet, if unchallenging, film overall.

CrazySexyCool 7/10
An excellent biopic of TLC, expertly cast with Keke Palmer, Drew Sidora and Lil Mama. It seems to be a fair and accurate representation of the band’s story and the film doesn’t shy away from some of the more controversial topics – I didn’t know, for example, about all of their financial problems in the early years or how mentally unbalanced Left-Eye was. Very good.

Prisoners 7/10
One of the most beautifully-shot films I have ever seen. The cinematography is just sublime and something well worth experiencing on the big screen. Spoiler: It’s quite annoying that they spend two thirds of the film on a giant red herring, especially considering it’s so long. Hugh Jackman is superb though and would be a deserving Best Actor nominee at the Oscars for this.

2012: Arts Review: Albums

Looking back over my review of last year, I realise that 2011 was a seriously crap 12 months for music. When Jennifer Lopez makes the best pop album of the year you know something’s gone wrong. Fortunately, 2012 has been considerably better – seeing newcomers with promising debuts balanced by comebacks from well-established artists.

Music composite double NOC copy

Angie Stone – Rich Girl 9/10
There isn’t a single bad track on this album and it flows beautifully. Play it on a Sunday afternoon while reading the papers and you will experience true bliss. An absolute triumph for real soul music – highly recommended.

Brandy – Two Eleven 4/10
I’ve forced myself to accept that we’re never going to get another Full Moon – but it still pains me to see an artist who was once R&B’s most visionary and groundbreaking artist put out something so generic.

Rihanna – Unapologetic 8/10
Rihanna’s best album to date – which, unusually for her, has plenty of good songs to offer beyond the singles. The budget afforded to a Rihanna album ensures her vocal weaknesses are covered up by some of the best producers in the business

Jessie Ware – Devotion 7/10
This album soundtracked my breakup, for which reason I never want to hear it again in my life. Which is a shame, because it’s bloody good. An accomplished debut – which owes much of its brilliance to The Invisible’s Dave Okumu, whose production is off-the-friggin-chain.

Rita Ora – ORA 7/10
A promising and high-energy debut. A seriously impressive array of producers – Stargate, The Dream, Diplo, Michael Linney and will.i.am – ensures Rita Ora’s vocals are put to good use.

Emeli Sande – Our Version Of Events 6/10
The songwriting here is of an extremely high standard. A surprisingly mainstream album given Sande’s urban background, but it’s great that Scotland has finally produced a successful and credible R&B artist. It’s patchy, but songs like Where I Sleep, Mountains and Beneath Your Beautiful are just sublime.

Macy Gray – Covered 5/10
Macy Gray takes on Radiohead, Metallica and My Chemical Romance with mixed but always interesting results. Ironically original for a covers album.

Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded 10/10
The best female rap album since La Bella Mafia. Despite being let down by possibly the dumbest title ever given to an album (which suggested this was a re-release of her debut, when in fact it was 19 brand new songs), Roman Reloaded saw Nicki Minaj find a perfect middle ground between hip-hop and mainstream pop.

Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough? 5/10
The quality really drops towards the end but there are several tracks here that show UK soul at its very best. And you couldn’t ask for a better album opener than the gorgeous acappella intro to Don’t Wake Me Up.

Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss 6/10
A decent pop album that proves she’s better than her one-hit-wonder status. Lightweight, but catchy.

Pink – The Truth About Love 9/10
Lyrically as shrewd as ever and, despite being 6 albums deep, Pink manages to stay relevant while many of her rivals continue to struggle. This album is never boring and drifts effortlessly between rock, pop and R&B.

Vivian Green – The Green Room 8/10
Given the experimental and often disappointing recent efforts by India Arie, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott – thank god someone like Vivian Green is still championing real soul music. This is a gorgeous album.

Madonna – MDNA 6/10
As is the case with many of her albums, Madonna’s poor vocals are saved by some lush production from William Orbit, Martin Solveig and Benny Benassi. Multiple guest appearances from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. add a lot too – with I Don’t Give A being a particular standout.

Alicia Keys – Girl On Fire 5/10
A pretty uninspiring effort that suggests Alicia Keys is running out of things to say. Until now, she has grown and evolved with each of her albums, but this one shows little progression. Still – Alicia Keys at her worst is better than most artists at their best.

Little Mix – DNA 5/10
Not a bad pop record and probably the best X Factor winners album to date, not that that’s saying much. They’ve found a nice Brit-TLC sound which is fun and catchy. Red Planet and Going Nowhere are particularly nice.

Monica – New Life 3/10
Way too ballad heavy – and disappointing after 2010’s excellent Still Standing. Monica’s vocals are still pretty good but when you consider her hugely impressive back catalogue this just doesn’t cut it.

Tulisa – The Female Boss 6/10
Truly cringe-worthy in places (British Swag) but there’s the odd moment of brilliance (Foreigner – best album track of the year). Vocally she’s straining a lot more than when she was in N-Dubz and is massively out of her comfort zone – but this record wasn’t nearly as bad as the press made it out to be.

Keyshia Cole – Woman To Woman 3/10
Keyshia Cole’s first couple of albums were brilliant, but while her voice remains strong she’s really struggling now to break any new ground musically. I think she has spread herself too thinly by releasing 5 albums in 7 years – although then again that strategy hasn’t done Rihanna any harm.

Christina Aguilera – Lotus 9/10
Christina Aguilera is quite simply the best vocalist of her generation. If anyone wants to pick a fight with me about this please feel free and I would be delighted to utterly destroy you. Lotus is an album of strength and beauty with all the ingredients you could hope for in a pop album: impeccable vocals (obvs), outstanding production (Max Martin, Alex Da Kid), and first-class songwriting (Claude Kelly, the always-brilliant Sia Furler).

Leela James – Loving You More: In The Style of Etta James 5/10
Cover albums tend to be a bit of a waste of time but the gorgeous rasp of Leela James’s voice is still utterly enchanting and saves this record from being totally pointless. Something’s Got A Hold On Me is a particular standout – one of my favourite songs of the year.

See also:

Steven’s 2012 Arts Review: Books
Steven’s 2012 Arts Review: Films
Steven’s 2012 Arts Review: Gigs, Shows & Art Exhibitions

@steviefm