So the CD, DVD and entertainment retailer HMV has been saved for the nation (by the debt restructuring specialists Hilco), which as far as I’m concerned is very good news. I really couldn’t see how it couldn’t be possible for a single chain of CD/DVD shops to survive in the high street, and I’m glad that the business consensus has reached the same conclusion – for the time being at least.

However, while this secures HMV’s immediate future, it does nothing about the big question mark hanging over the brand in the longer term. In particular, the fact that it took almost exactly three months from going into administration for the deal to finally be struck suggests that the process was far from straight forward. It even went on past the end-of-March deadline, the point at which the administrators had to cough up another three months’ worth of High Street rent to landlords, which could very easily have been the moment that they pulled the plug altogether rather than send good money after bad. I wonder how close Armageddon came?

But that’s in the past and now the big problem for the new owners is: having bought the chain, what are they going to do with it in order to avoid it continue losing money? Let’s see if we can come up with any suggestions…

Unique selling point

Any business expert will tell you that the first rule in marketing is to identify its unique selling point. And with all due respect to HMV’s detractors, who usually lay into the underdeveloped online side the company (more of which in a minute), the USP for HMV is undoubtedly its physical retail presence in the high street. Without that it’s just another one of dozens of unremarkable, struggling anonymous online web pages. It’s vital that the high street stores continue, and moreover thrive.

That’s not to say that they should stay as they are (or that even all 141 branches Hilco acquired in the deal should remain open.) In recent times money has been pouring out of the chain to service debt repayments, leaving the stores looking older and shabbier by the month; grabbing some of the floor space for an ill-fated dabble in consumer electronics didn’t help either. The one thing that Hilco has said is that the gadgets are going, and thank goodness for that – that desperate ploy was the mark of a previous management in full panic mode with no sense of what the business o market sector was about.

Fortunately for HMV, there’s still a large number of people who just want to walk in a shop and pick up a CD or DVD, pay for it at the checkout and take it home. Not everyone is comfortable with streaming (which too often is ‘renting’ rather than buying) and many want something physical in their hands without having to wait for days for it to show up in the post.

Of course I don’t have HMV’s detailed financial accounts to hand, but my guess would be that up to 80% of their sales come from around 20% of the floorspace in the store: the areas dealing in new releases, current chart toppers and sales/special offer items found near the front of the store. That said, some stores seemingly do their best to hide these areas deep in the shops, presumably in an attempt to make customers come deeper and peruse rather than just grab what they want, pay and leave. But really, if that’s what people want to do then let them have at it – redesign the stores to put these sections right up front and push the rest into the background.

The Long Tail

But don’t, whatever you do, think that you can get away with just curtailing the stores back to stocking just these top sellers. The supermarkets do this already, and in a head-to-head battle they’re going to win and HMV will get slaughtered. What differentiates HMV from the general stores is that they have wider, deeper range of stock rather than just the top 30, and that their staff are more knowledgeable about the items. It’s massively important that HMV doesn’t lose this ‘specialist’ side to it, even if that means carrying more things in stock than the bottom profit margin would ideally like.

However, there is a definite problem in servicing what’s known as ‘the long tail’ – items that may be several years old and only sell a handful of copies a year. The problem is that high street stores invariably never seem to have the specific item that the shopper is after: I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone looking for something in HMV that might be only a few months old and not found it. It’s annoying and frustrating, and leaves me resorting to online stores like Amazon – and while I’m there I’ll grab a few others things, maybe some brand new titles, all of which saps sales from HMV.

Amazon can service the long tail because they can erect huge mega-warehouses in low-cost parts of the country; HMV can’t compete with that because there’s no way of storing such a wide range of items at high street floor space prices. So how can they possibly compete?

The online dimension

Okay, we have to talk about it: what went wrong with HMV’s online offering and what can be done to improve it?

On the face of it, there really was nothing much wrong with HMV’s online service (still shuttered, by the way, even three weeks after the takeover). The site worked fine, I had no problems finding things, and items were dispatched very quickly and arrived faster than most other online outlets. I can’t recall a single glitch with any order I placed. Other online retailers could wish for such a positive report.

Yet HMV got a pounding from business experts and critics who said ‘the company is collapsing because it hasn’t understood online retailing?’ As far as I’m concerned, the correct interpretation of this is because the online wing was never integrated with the high street shops at all – it was an almost entirely separate business. Prices and availability online had no bearing on what you might find in stores; gift cards bought from one couldn’t be used on the other. Truly it seemed that other than the name and brand, the only link between the two was that the stores dutifully posted the URL on their walls, and the website had a nice store finder telling you the branch locations and opening hours. Otherwise, ne’er the twain shall meet.

People expect more from a company these days, and that’s the bit of online that HMV didn’t get – that the digital operation should (indeed, must) feedback and fundamentally change the bricks and mortar operation in turn, in an ongoing cycle. Instead, having set up a (rather good) online shop, the old HMV management considered the job done and came to a dead halt. Emphasis on the ‘dead’.

Not only that, but the existence of the online store ironically became a real problem for the high street operation. Do you price a new online item at the same price as the shops, or the same price as online competitors? If you do the first, then you’ll be hideously expensive in online terms and buyers will quickly click over to Amazon. You’ll be dead in the water. But if you do the latter, than you make it painfully obvious to all your customers how high the store prices are by comparison, and that will rot the business to your branches.

In the early days of their online business, HMV chased the prices of others thanks to the handy Channel Island tax loophole (now closed, which is why the similarly affected Play.com is going out of the retail business.) As the debt situation at the parent company loomed ever more deadly, the online prices started to spike and match the physical stores. But while you can explain that High Street prices are higher because of the considerable cost of running the stores (including staff wages and rents), you can’t use that argument to justify the suddenly sky-high online prices as well. It looks either like price gouging, or like a business trying to stave off bankruptcy by going into frantic money-acquisition mode. We all now know which one turned out to the the reality.

The price is right

The one thing that does come out of this discussion is that price matters. In my previous post on HMV that I wrote in the wake of their going into administration at the start of 2013, I noted that I was willing to pay extra for the high street service because I understood the economic realities behind that increased price; but that my loyalty had limits. When the mark-up got to nearly 80% on one item, I’m afraid I took my business to Amazon without a second thought – and would again, even if it meant dancing on HMV’s pauper’s grave. Don’t play me for a sucker, in other words.

So more than anything else, Hilco must find a way of being able to price their goods at a reasonably competitive level to their rivals, both the online ones and the supermarkets who are circling over the entertainment market like vultures waiting for HMV to leave a juicy carcass to feast upon. Note that by ‘reasonably competitive’ I don’t mean that they need to match or beat the others – as I said, I understand the reality of the overheads here. But they do need to keep it within touching distance so that customers will shrug and go, “Well I could get it online for a couple of quid less, but it’s here in my hand so it’s easier just to get it now …”

If Hilco can’t negotiate rates with their suppliers that allow them to get into this touching distance of their competitors then HMV is toast without question, regardless of anything else we propose. But I think suppliers will want to keep the important HMV retail outlet going, and so I am hopeful that this will prove possible to arrange. If not, and the prices continue to be exorbitant (and I’ve found HMV selling items for well over the manufacturer’s Recommended Retail Price (RRP) in the past) then they’ll get ripped to pieces on social media and their credibility shattered. Heck, I’ll even help if they’re going to continue to treat customers with such disdain.

If I may make a suggestion … ?

Okay, so that’s some of the issues and problems at play in the sector which now face Hilco as they attempt to save HMV in the long term. Pricing aside (which is a purely business negotiation issue), are there any suggestions that we can make based on this overview? Excuse me while I go on a flight of speculative fantasy for the rest of this post…

My first impulse would be to strip down the stores and make them cool and stylish, with a front-of-house dominated by the aforementioned 20% of items that drives 80% of the sales displayed front and centre as people walk in, pick up and take to the counter or a wandering salesperson (like they have at Apple Stores) to pay for by card or cash. Shiny and new, cool and bright, roomy and airy – imagine for a moment all that long tail stock hidden away.

As well as the new releases and best sellers and sales items, the company should look to build up a supply of ‘HMV exclusive’ items. It should also make to have sections concentrating on items ‘in the news’: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a new entry in a film franchise out at cinemas, or a show come on TV with a new series, thought “Oh, I need to catch up on the previous film/season first” and go to the shop – only to find the relevant DVDs totally out of stock. It’s basic identification of stock demand: while you don’t expect supermarkets to do this for CDs/DVDs, it’s Business 101 for a specialist retailer.

Use the staff in the stores to do some of this thinking for you: give them a section of the retail space for their choice of ‘spotlight items’ and allow them their head to organise the management of it. Maybe make their performance appraisal partly based on their success or otherwise in turnover for their selections to make sure that they’re meeting the needs of the local consumer market.

And yes, allow them to be quirky as well. It wouldn’t help for the stores to have a little individual character here and there rather than all look the same.

But you said not to cut off the long tail!

Yes, I just said that we’re going to be hiding away a lot of the older stock, which seems contrary to my previous assertion that getting rid of the long tail supply would undermine HMV’s position as a specialist retailer. But the key here is ‘hide away’ rather than ‘dispense with’; for one thing, you need that depth of stock to allow the staff to have their choice of items to cycle though and feature in ‘their’ part of the front-of-house. If you only have the new stuff and chart toppers in stock then they won’t be able to achieve that, so there needs to be a proper reserve bank of ‘deeper’ titles on hand.

There has to be a better way for stores to carry this large long tail/backstock than lining it up in row upon row of scruffy shelves, cramped together where you have to practically lie on the dirty floor to read the spines of the ones on the bottom shelves. Browsing in HMV hasn’t been a pleasant experience for some time; while I might spend time on a ‘mission oriented’ seek-and-locate mission for a specific back title, I don’t enjoy trying to browse for alleged pleasure like this.

If the physical shelves are no longer fit for purpose then why not service this market electronically instead? Build a digital presence that suitably mimics (not necessarily precisely copies, but similar enough in consumer experience) the experience of looking through shelves? You can imagine this working very nicely on tablets placed in the front-of house area. They’d be running something akin to cover flow, allowing customers to flick through the virtual shelves which would be organised in the same way that the stores have traditionally organised the layout: rock & pop, opera, indie, easy listening; action, horror, musicals, westerns and so forth. The digital representation has the advantage that an item can be filed in as many areas as needed, rather than the customer having to second-guess which category the store decided to use.

Is this the same as a website? No, not exactly. A website has a number of existing preconceptions and prerequisites, such as the technology needing to be usable on a wide number of different PC platforms. Here we’d be talking about a bespoke experience custom designed for whatever gadget HMV decides on (Apple iPads being the inescapable obvious suggestion) specifically for the purpose of people coming into the store, seeing the banks of tablets and using that electronic device to find the back title that they’re after without scrabbling around anymore. Then they could listen to some tracks of the CD or watch a preview or clips of a DVD as part of the process.

Once an item is selected by the customer then there’s a number of ways that the order could be placed and fulfilled. Firstly – is it in that backroom store on site? If not, is there a local nearby branch that has it in stock that the customer could go to? Or would the customer like to order it, either by placing a traditional online order much as if buying from Amazon or by having it made available for pick-up at the store, either from a central warehouse or by getting it from another store that does have it in stock?

Okay, let’s move on to picking up the item. How does a virtual selection on a general front-of-house tablet station become a paid-for sale and pick-up? I’m rather loath to suggest that the tablets are linked to card PIN readers as I’m not sure how viable or expensive that currently is. I would personally still prefer either the Apple-style wandering salespeople equipped with their own tablets, or else the traditional point-of-sale for cash business, but maybe that’s just me. There’s certainly a case to be made for allowing people to pay at the browsing station for immediate delivery of digital media like music downloads and movies, although to be honest I think this is a tough market given the domination of Apple’s iTunes Store.

What could be done is having the customer enter their mobile phone number into the system; they get a text message when the item it ready for pickup, with an ID number in it. They are able to then approach any sales person or POS to pick up the item by showing them the ID number, and then pay for it. Even if it took a while for the item to be retrieved from the backroom (we’ve all been to Argos!) the customer could head off and wonder around other shops for half an hour before getting their SMS. Yes, they could end up finding the item cheaper elsewhere in the meantime, so allow them a text response channel to cancel the item as well. It might be a lost sale, but at least it will help keep the stock fluid.

The same text message would also be true for any item ordered for store delivery and pick up – whenever the item came in, the costumer would get a text saying it was ready, how long it would be held for, and the ID number used to make sure that they get the order being held for them. Of course, you could also make custom iPhone/Android apps to make this whole side of things more advanced and flashy, but text messages alone would do at a pinch and are available to virtually everyone these days. That said, don’t forget to build in the willingness of the front-of-house staff to do things the old fashioned way for someone who has no mobile with them or simply doesn’t like this approach; no need to lose sales by being overly dogmatic.

One added advantage of this: if you have someone create a (free) HMV ID account that couples their buying history both online and in-store with their mobile number and their credit card details then you have a terrific consolidated database on their buying habits via both channels. You could also have an HMV Members card to offer special deals and exclusives – a RFID touch card could be integrated into the browsing/purchasing process to augment text messages, although I’d be wary of using this as a primary means of carrying out sales especially as HMV’s old Pure points card was such a weak performer.

Online integration

Considering that with this model over half the physical High Street store is now ‘virtual’, it’s natural to think of what this means for the online service overall.

For one thing, there’s no reason why the browsing should be restricted to the fixed tablets provided by the store itself; indeed, at times of peak demand when the place is rammed, giving the people the option to whip out their tablets, connect to the store WiFi, download and use the HMV interface would help keep sales moving.

If you’re going to that length, then really the general online store should stay pretty close in content. It might not have the bespoke ‘browsing’ interface but there’s no reason why people shouldn’t be able to use it look up an item either at the store or from home, see if it’s in stock (or which store it is available from) and to place an order for pick-up before even leaving their homes. They’d still have the option to buy online and have it delivered to them by the postman, just as they would from Amazon, but this leverages HMV’s USP (their physical high street stores, remember) and also ties together the branches and the online presence in a way that’s been distinctly lacking till now.

That brings us to the question of price. I said earlier that HMV needs to do something to bring its product prices to within a reasonable distance of their competitors, and that still stands, but another question remains: what price should be quoted on the website, store price or online price?

To me there’s no question: the price should be the one found in the store. If I’m looking something up, I want to know how much something will cost me if I go and buy it in a local branch. I don’t want to be misled by a totally different online-only price. But that needn’t stop HMV from adding an secondary ‘online special’ price clearly showing a discount for postal delivery that could serve to bring it within fair distance of their online competitors as well. Simply make it very clear what the ‘real’ price is – which should always be the same as the store – and what is being done as a special online offer. The online site is working first and foremost as an extended shop window for your branches, not as a rival chain undermining your stores.

It’s not rocket science

Readers who’ve got this far into this post (and seriously, congratulations for slogging it out and I can only apologise for the hour of your life you’ll never get back) might be sitting back in their seats at this point and saying: “Hmmm. Is that it?”

Yes, I’m afraid that’s it, for now at least. I could throw in a bit about negotiating some link-ups with former rivals such as WH Smiths, Game and Waterstones to put some HMV concessions into their stores on high streets now lacking a stand-alone HMV presence (and thereby adding more ‘pick up points’ across the country for ordered items) but that’s about the size of it. While transformational for HMV, I’d be the first to admit that it’s not hugely revolutionary in terms of the broader retail sector. Other stores have done so much of this already – the decades-old Argos chain has led the way in many of these approaches, and Apple Stores have been referenced multiple times in the post already. So yes, it’s not rocket science and there’s nothing outrageously new. Sorry.

That simply highlights the big underlying point here: if none of this is particularly startling, then why hasn’t HMV been doing it already? Why are they still using a store model essentially the same as that of the 1960s and 1970s? It’s the application of these newer approaches and learning the lessons of other High Street and online stores to create an integrated presence that is the Big Idea, at least as far as the currently chronically compartmentalised HMV goes.

I don’t really expect anyone to listen or take much notice of this article, in truth. But it gets some thoughts off my chest, and if in 12 months time HMV has rebuilt itself in a way that coincidentally uses even one or two of the thoughts and ideas collected here then I’ll be pleased.

If not, then I’ll be worried that HMV might yet not be long for this world after all…

I admit it, I’m very sad and even somewhat depressed about the news that HMV has been placed in administration after 92 years in business. That said, you’ll notice that I didn’t say ‘shocked’ or ‘surprised’, because frankly this moment has been coming for some time now.

Actually, I genuinely thought that HMV would collapse early in 2012, but that time the management was able to hammer out a financial rescue package with the banks to keep it afloat. But once news emerged that the entertainment retailer’s pre-2012 Christmas sales had suffered a 8.1% like-for-like drop. That’s pretty disastrous, and clearly meant that insolvency could only be a matter of weeks away. It turned out to be just days instead.

The signs were clear in-store: there may have been piles and piles of sales stock, but strangely it simply hasn’t been selling – customers weren’t interested in the store’s selection of discount titles even at rock bottom prices, so the piles stubbornly stayed put. Meanwhile the rest of the shelves in the stores that I went to in London were showing obvious signs of not being restocked even of comparatively recent releases. To anyone who has seen a retail chain collapse in progress in the past – and there have been plenty of recent opportunities, sadly – these were clear and ominous signs.

When HMV staff started slapping on blue cross stickers onto large swathes of their remaining stock in preparation for a 25%-off clearance sale starting on Saturday, it gave every impression of a desperate and feverish attempt to liquidate as much stock as possible before having to call in the receivers. I figured that they would limp to the end of the month before the collapse, but rather than two weeks it was actually just 96 hours later that the edifice crumbled.

I still find it amazing that a chain which had been handed a de facto high street monopoly by the collapse of a succession of rivals apparently still could not survive in business.

What are the reasons behind it?

The obvious culprit is online stores undercutting HMV’s prices on CDs, DVDs and computer games. And you have to have some sympathy for HMV here because they faced a far from level playing field; some online stores like Play.com were taking advantage of a tax loophole available to businesses based in the Channel Islands, while Amazon.co.uk has notoriously been indulging in some very near-the-knuckle accounting practices relating to VAT and corporation tax. HMV wasn’t able to follow suit, while also having the overheads of high street rent and staff wages to support.

However, just blaming online buying isn’t the whole picture by any means. After all, what was to stop HMV from setting up its own online business in the Channel Islands? Well – it did. Unfortunately the enterprise was pushed and pulled from all directions by corporate priorities: pursuing low prices to match the likes of Play.com and Amazon.co.uk just drained further sales from the high street stores, and embarrassed the physical shops by emphasising how overpriced they were even to their own online operation; but being forced to match the same prices, offers and sales as the stores made them look absurdly expensive in the online realm. They literally couldn’t win.

Anyway, ‘online’ is no panacea. Play.com was once the poster child for e-commerce, but it’s been in decline for some time and when the government finally got around to closing the Channel Island tax loophole, the company announced it was pulling out of retailing altogether just a week before HMV was forced into insolvency. If even Play.com can’t make online retailing work without an opportunistic tax break then who can?

For the record: I’m not one of those who has ever piled on to the companies that have made use of some creative but completely legal accounting practices. Everyone – individual or business – seeks to get the best deal on tax possible to them, and Amazon.co.uk is no difference. They might get a break on corporation tax and VAT, but they’ve also built huge facilities in the mainland UK and employ a lot of staff in the process. Besides, do you really want to crack down on Amazon.co.uk now and force it out of business like HMV and Play.com before it, and leave us with nowhere at all to buy CDs, DVDs and games while also adding to the unemployment numbers?

Another culprit for the demise of HMV is supermarkets which now stock top CD, DVD and even game titles and therefore take the top-selling cream off the market that otherwise would have gone to HMV. On the face of it, it’s difficult to see how supermarkets can undercut HMV quite so much on these top titles. After all, supermarkets can’t take advantage of the same creative accounting that online companies have been able to; they have the same overheads in terms of rent and staff wages. It’s unlikely that the supermarket chains can get better bulk purchasing deals than HMV, and hard to see that CDs and DVDs are worth making ‘loss leaders’ supported by profits from the sales of other goods in the same way that alcohol often is. So how come supermarkets were able to consistently undercut HMV and steal the business?

This one comes down to HMV’s expansionism at the height of the entertainment market from the end of the 1990s through the first decade of the 21st century. As well as opening up new stores they also diversified into books (buying up the Dillons/Waterstones book chain) as well as cinemas and live music venues. That was fine at the time, but the borrowing the company did to fund this strategy came back to impale them after the credit crunch took effect. Not only have the last few years of austerity taken their toll on consumer spending power which in turn has curtailed sales in the entertainment sector as a whole, it also forced HMV’s management to be fixated on managing its debt burden rather than developing the business.

The last couple of years, HMV has been all about servicing its debts and fending off creditors, selling off relatively profitable assets like Waterstones and the live music business in order to get the cash together to meet the next bank loan repayment. The more the company contracted, the more it forced the remaining debt burden to be heaped on the core business – the stores. The only way of generating enough revenue from the remaining rump was to increase prices, treating their market like a monopoly when the truth was this just forced disgruntled customers to look online or to supermarkets instead. Far from increasing HMV’s revenues, price gouging (as it came very close on occasion) just killed it.

The moment I really knew that HMV was toast was when the management announced a new retail strategy: they would pull back from stocking CD and DVD and instead focus on developing new products in personal entertainment technologies. Or as one wag put it: the visionary HMV management decided to exchange their existing share of the £1.6bn CD market for a hope of a share in the £160m headphones market, which was already in decline as the demise of high street electronics stores like Dixons demonstrated. Sorry, but that never seemed like a winner: and if it’s your emergency Plan B then you really are terminally screwed as a company, as it’s proved.

What’s going to happen now?

So now we’re facing the prospect where there will be no stores on high streets selling CDs and DVDs, and only the formerly insolvent Game chain currently surviving to service the computer game market. Back in 2005, there were around eight stores in my local city centre (Kingston-upon-Thames) which were either CD/DVD specialists (Virgin Megastores, Silverscreen) or were big stores with large sections selling CDs and DVDs (Woolworths, WH Smiths, Borders.) Now as we enter 2013, the last sick man standing is about to drop down dead.

Is there really insufficient consumer demand left on the high street to maintain a single CD/DVD retailer anymore? I genuinely find it hard to believe. Yes, I know that online sales, downloads and streaming services have taken a huge chunk out of the music sector; but a lot of people either can’t go that route or prefer to be able to walk into a store, browse, and walk out holding a physical item in their hand. Not everyone wants to be forced to go to Amazon.co.uk for every single electronic entertainment item that they buy, surely?

Even in the 24 hours since the news of HMV’s insolvency hit the wire, there have been some green shoots of optimism breaking through the icy frost in the high street retail business. Knowledgeable sources confirm that many – a majority, even – of HMV stores actually trade a reasonably strong profit in their own right, it’s just that this is soon swallowed up in unsustainable debt servicing. Free the stores from this debt burden and do some basic reorganisation of the chain (which would include a ruthless pruning of their the deadwood from their 239 store, which will inevitably cost at least some of the 4500 jobs currently at risk) and you have a viable business, surely?

This must surely be the plan of the administrators Deloitte, and it must be hoped that they won’t follow the astounding strategy of PriceWaterhouseCoopers at Jessops, which permanently shut down the entire photographic retailing chain just 48 hours after taking over. But in these troubled economic times, does anyone have the funds to risk coming in and salvaging what’s left of HMV?

There are a few companies with pressing reasons for doing so: the record companies, TV networks, film studios and computer games manufacturers for starters, who rely on home sales of CDs, DVDs and games to keep their own core business afloat. There’s a serious risk that the loss of a high street retail channel could tip many of these businesses into financial problems; and as for the companies that make and distribute the products, it’s hard to see that they have much of a future at all if HMV isn’t replaced.

But won’t people just buy online or at supermarkets, as we’ve just discussed? Well, certainly some sales will go to these channels: the big blockbusters and family films which are already among the six to eight new titles per week that the supermarkets deign to stock will be okay, and ironically so will the very niche products like indie arthouse pictures and vintage classics since most hard core collectors will be motivated to seek out the titles online or even directly from the distributor if necessary. It’s the huge ‘middle mass market’ that’s at risk: the sort of films not big enough for the supermarkets to want to waste shelf space on, but are nonetheless only bought on impulse when someone walks into a shop and sees a cover that piques their interest, albeit not to the extent that they would bother seeking out online.

You’ll perhaps notice that I’ve shifted to talking about films here, and that’s deliberate. I’m not sure that the high street music market has the same claims to surviving the current storm. That’s because most people browse their music on the radio (or by streaming services) and form their purchasing decision right there and then so it’s the most natural thing in the world to boot up the PC and have the music on their iPod 60 seconds later. Moreover, these days it’s usually a specific single track they want. You can get that single serving on iTunes, but the high street stores selling the music on albums alone actively fail to even offer the specific product that customers want. No wonder sales are collapsing.

Films are different: you don’t simply hear them on the radio and decide you want it, so what’s going to drive sales if you can’t see rows of titles in a store? There’s also no equivalent of wanting a ‘track only’. And the downloads from iTunes, Netflix et al can be big and time consuming if you’re on slow broadband, and if you have metered internet usage then you can pretty much wipe out your entire month’s capacity with half a dozen films and a couple of TV shows if you’re not careful. Oh, and the end product is significantly poorer from the online download/streaming versions as well, even for DVD – let along high-def Blu-ray.

Still, the signs are clearly on the cards. While I think film sales on physical media via shops are still viable for the time being, the fact is that as technology and networks improve then films will indeed eventually go the the way of music sales. Or at least, they will once the crusty ancient ‘I want something real to hold in my hand, dammit’ oldtimer brigade die off.

Who’s to blame?

Let me come clear: I’m one of those crusty ancient oldtimers. Not to extremes: while I would prefer to have an actual product in my hand, if I only want a single track then I’m obviously going to buy it from iTunes. And if an entire album is half the price online than it is in the stores, then I’m going to treat the physical product as a prohibitively expensive luxury item and settle for the download there, too. My preference may be to buy the physical item, but it doesn’t override my rationality.

That preference has led me to keep supporting HMV by buying items from there regularly over the last few years. Indeed, my obsessive DVD buying has at times made me feel like I’m single-handedly servicing HMV’s entire debt mountain by myself. I value the high street presence, and I recognise that overheads make it more expensive to run than an online operation so I’m willing to pay out a little extra premium in order to support it.

For example: my last visit to HMV was on Sunday, the day before the news about the insolvency hit the headlines, and there were lots of vultures eagerly circling the discounted stock in the hope of picking the bones of the carcase clean before the corpse starts to reek of decay. Admittedly, one item I bought was indeed something in their 25%-off blue cross fire sale, but the other two were items that were full price and which I could have got a pound or two cheaper if I’d ordered online. But the price was still reasonable, and it wasn’t something I was going to bother with ordering from a website, so I paid it in the meagre hope that it might help the company survive in some shape or form. I’d have bought other things, but everything else I looked for was apparently out of stock – which itself tells a crucial tale of the problems facing high street retailers.

That loyalty has its limits, mind you. Just a few days before this crisis erupted, I noticed that the latest release in the BBC’s Classic Doctor Who DVD range was for sale at £25 at HMV (in store and online) compared with £14 at Play.com and Amazon.co.uk: I’m sorry, but a 78.5% overhead is simply too great to swallow, so the order went to Amazon.co.uk instead.

I have the same sense of wanting to support other high street stores under threat in the current economic downturn, so when I can I buy large format books from local bookstores and even made a point of buying books for Christmas gifts for several people from local bookstores as a way of showing support. Better that than sleepwalking into having no bookstores left on the high street in a year or two. Unfortunately even this resolve is tempered: for my own reading I’m increasingly preferring to read novels on a nice, light e-reader, with the added advantage that the bought volume doesn’t add to my already overburdened bookshelves in my tiny flat. Even if that means buying the e-book from iTunes or Apple.

So even I’m crumbling and losing my fortitude, feeling like Canute trying to order back the inexorable tide to zero effect. Soon, the choice on the high street will be gone and I’ll have no choice anyway. I’ll be very sad when that moment comes, and wonder what will become of the high streets when they’re just a collection of ghostly empty spaces quickly forgetting why they were ever gathered together in the middle of town in the first place.

I noticed on Twitter that many people are not happy by the lack of trains from the south coast into Waterloo Station over Easter, and thought the pictures contained in this post might be of interest explaining why the rail service is so poor.

It turns out that in this case “rail replacement service” is literally apt. The bridge shown in the photos below might appear innocuous and no different from the dozens of similar railway bridges we drive and walk under every day, but this one is the source of this weekend’s disruption for the very simple reason that it’s not been there this weekend.

Here’s the current state of the bridge on Easter Sunday 2012, first from the Lovelace Road side of the bridge looking into Surbiton:

And these from the Surbiton side looking the other direction:

The bridge has been in a deteriorating state for some time and has been receiving increasingly frequent patch-up jobs in the last few years. Looking up at the underside of the bridge, it’s been disturbing to see big patches of sky showing through and parts of the rails literally suspended in mid-air. Finally it seems even patch-up work is no longer sufficient and a longer-term solution is needed, which is what this weekend’s work is about. As well as rail replacement, it’s a total bridge replacement service.

Here’s some pictures from the past of the bridge before this Easter’s work:

During previous restoration work in 2009:

Surbiton Railway Bridge closure - view into Surbiton

During the snowfall in December 2010:

Snow in Surbiton - December 2010

Condition of the underside of the bridge:

Surbiton Railway Bridge - underside

The position makes this a particularly awkward bridge to replace: it’s just outside of Surbiton Station, and is the only way for trains to continue travelling south. Take it out and trains can go no further (and because of the places where trains can be turned around, it means that Wimbledon is really the furthest out of London they can come, although local loop lines to Teddington Wick, Dorking and Dorking can still come out as far as Raynes Park and New Malden.)

A planned bridge replacement can be done (they hope!) in four days over the long Easter weekend, whereas an unscheduled closure for a structural failure could wipe out the service for a month or more, so rail commuters have much to thank National Rail for in this case. Whereas motorists come out of it particularly badly, with the road under the bridge closed for 3-4 weeks to allow for the preparation and follow-up work that needs to be done. It’s no minor road either: it’s the A243, the main link from the M25 through to Chessington, Surbiton and Kingston-upon-Thames.

Closing the road also means the buses are suspended, which is a genuine concern to the many elderly and handicapped residents in the area for whom the bus service is a literal lifeline. Some of the buses are diverted through sideroads in the area, but then there is the issue of (a) finding out where they go, and (b) persuading the bus drivers that they should actually stop while on diversion – some have contrary feelings on this point.

Here’s the nearest alternative route, under the railway bridge that runs over St Mary’s Road:

And then there is the issue of pedestrians: on the Upper Brighton Road side of the bridge, a five minute walk to the local Sainsbury’s becomes a 20-minute-plus detour even for a relatively able-bodied person. To their credit, National Rail have limited the closure of pedestrian access to just five days over Easter during the period when the bridge is literally being replaced and when the overhead work makes it genuinely impossible to allow anyone through.

[There's a 'bus service' for pedestrians advertised, but it turned out to be one 13-seat mini-bus running an hourly service only. Considering you'd normally get a dozen people walking this way every 5 minutes, I think you can label this "the very least they could do" in every sense, and strictly for the most disabled groups - although how the disabled and elderly could stand around (no seats provided) for an hour waiting for the service is another question entirely.]

Even so, it’s an interesting psychological effect that the whole thing has as a result. The empty A243 – usually full of traffic at most hours of the day – has that unearthly silent feel that you associated with end-of-the-world scenes like the start of 28 Days Later… Similarly the lack of trains is rather spooky; and the inability to get to the local shops or into London without taking a long detour also has a peculiarly isolating effect.

That brings out the bloody-minded streak in me, and I’ve found myself going out of my way (literally!) to get to the other side of the railway tracks over Easter, more than I would likely have done over a similar period when the road was open on a normal weekend. Today’s excuse was to take the pictures to take here (which my brain insisted had to show both sides of the bridge for the sake of the public record.) And I threw in the purchase of a Sunday paper while I was round there, just to make it feel even more worthwhile.

Hopefully the railway line will be open on time on Tuesday morning for the resumption of the commuter peak time rush, and the pedestrian access along with it. Even so, it’s estimated to be another two weeks or so before the work completely finishes, the road itself reopens and life in the area around the bridge gets back to normal.

Today sees the completion of a process started a little under a year ago by a ministerial decision issued by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude: the closure of the Central Office of Information (COI).

Although it’s been a good long while now since I last worked at COI, I still can’t help but feel very close to the place and to the people that I was privileged to work with during my 11 years there. Despite having been one of the earliest to jump rather than wait around and be pushed, it’s still hurt to watch from afar the slow decline of the place over the interim 18 months. It’s rather like watching a loved relation be gripped by a terminal illness and whither and die before your eyes. The fact of today’s inevitability hasn’t made watching it come about any the easier.

One of the hardest things to bear with a loved one suffering from terminal cancer, Alzheimers or any such dreadful affliction is the sense of not having anyone to blame for the suffering and pain that’s being caused. In the case of COI, there is a clear and direct line of responsibility and someone to be very angry at; but the truth is that when it comes to the final day and as the life support machines are clicked off, it’s no help and makes no difference. Dead is dead.

I knew nothing about COI before I started to freelance there in April 1999. It was quite eye-opening to find out how much of their work I did actually know and which had been weaved through my childhood: everything from the Charley Says child safety films to the AIDS awareness campaign, the Green Cross Code Man and the horrifying (to a child!) “death by the river” public information film. I felt honoured to work at COI given its heritage, and especially knowing that all our marketing and communications efforts were all about one thing – making people’s lives better and safer – rather than just trying to flog another packet of soap powder to a family that really didn’t need it.

The decision to close COI down was made in the middle of 2011. After review upon review of COI, its role, functions and structure, and of public communications strategy in general – all of which had envisioned and recommended an ongoing role for COI or for a successor body created by its reform – the minister capriciously decided to have none of that and instead swept away 66 years of history and proven accomplishments at a stroke. It was a decision that made little impact outside of those working at COI personally affected by the decision and by the public and private sectors in the communications industry that already worked with COI. The broader public heard little and cared less, but they should have been paying more attention – because I can’t help but theorise that there is a direct line to be drawn between that moment and the current unravelling political situation in the UK.

The day that the government opted to shut down COI against advice, evidence and formal report recommendations was the day that the Coalition first openly tipped its hand as to how things would go: to me it said, clearly and baldly, that this was a government that preferred to put the settling of a 15-year-old ideological score and unfinished business ahead of the principles of modern good government. Since that day we have seen it become a pattern: in how the government has similarly ignored advice, reports and expert recommendations over the NHS for example, because it wants to take care of more unfinished business from the Thatcher/Major years. Or how it’s using the cover of austerity to drive through the ideological measures it wants to see in the Budget, seemingly indifferent to advice from all sides about the impact this will have on families and businesses across the country.

There’s a fine dramatic irony that the final closure of COI comes in the week that the minister involved, Francis Maude, finds himself entangled in the mess of a row about advice he gave to the nation over a possible fuel shortage next week, telling motorists to fill up jerry cans and thereby sparking the very fuel panic he was supposed to be averting. Since I don’t believe that Maude is remotely so spectacularly stupid as to have made such a Horlicks of it by accident, I can only think that stoking up the panic is an intentional tactic on the government’s part: that they are using the strategy of stirring up a crisis in order to turn public opinion and to blame the tanker drivers’ union for what then ensues. In other words, you could say that they’re once again putting their ideological battles ahead of the principles and responsibilities of good government for the nation as a whole.

The whole fuel crisis/jerry can fiasco (along with a number of other spectacular own goals in recent weeks such as pastygate) could have been averted if only the government just had some sort of experienced body or agency to hand that could act as a centre of communications and marketing excellence and expertise to which it could turn to for advice on the proper way of handling such situations. A sort of central office of public information, that sort of thing. Such an agency might even have come up with a slogan that could have been used to help set the right tone. “Keep Calm And Carry On.” Catchy, right?

It’s just such a crying shame there’s never a COI around when you need one, and that you never appreciate the things you have until you’ve dismantled them and lost them to the annals of history.

—-

Farewell and my deepest respects to COI, 1946-2012. And to all the fine people I knew and had the good fortune of working with while there: I hope you go on to even better and bigger things in the future and that you carry your own little bit of COI’s DNA of quality forward in all that you – all that we – do from here on.

Increasingly posts here are going to be more about writing (and at some point about e-books as that’s where writing meets my long-standing technical interests, obviously), and we’ll start with this one about a couple of writing days this week which have been remarkably … what’s the word? Oh yeah: good.

I know that writing is meant to be a painful, horrible, torturous process involving suffering at every step of the way. I’ve never been quite that authentic as a writer, but certainly there are days when you labour over something and it feels like a drudge. And the work that comes out just reads (to yourself, at least) appropriately like sludge. But just occasionally there are some bright, happy, shining days where it all goes right despite your best attempts to foul it up.

Last week I started writing a new long-form fiction project for the first time this year (a shameful admission) as of late I’ve been mostly distracted by keeping up with motor sports writing. At times this has taken over whole weekends, or even long weekends such as the one just past in which every motor sports series in the world suddenly seemed to hold events at the same time.

The most exciting of them was the F1 Grand Prix at Spa, Belgium – which was a terrific race. Unfortunately it wasn’t one of the ones that I was slated to write-up for crash.net and instead I was covering the IndyCar race from Sonoma, California later that evening. Whereas the problem with the Spa race was packing all the incidents into a single coherent post shorter than War and Peace, the Somona race presented an entirely different problem: that quite literally, nothing happened.

Honestly, I could write up the whole race in a short paragraph: “Top five cars finished in the same order they started after 75 laps of following each other around. A couple of minor crashes toward the end failed to affect the crucial results and affected only midfielders.” Trouble is, if you’re a writer who is supposed to be turning in a lovingly crafted 1000-word race report on an event, then handing in a 36-word stand-first instead isn’t going to really cut it.

I’ve often had this sort of ‘stage fright’ before where I’ve wondered, just before a motor race starts, whether I would find anything to write about afterwards. Invariably the race delivers and there’s a load of stuff to cover, so much so that trying to condense it becomes the overwhelming problem (and one I always struggled to satisfactorily overcome and have always ended up with reports that are too long, I confess.) But this IndyCar race at Sonoma is the first time I’ve got to the end of a race and suddenly thought: “F*** me, I have absolutely nothing to write about.”

Actually it’s a two-fold problem, because while it’s always possible to just pad it out with some witless prose at the end of the day, if you do that you’re doing a disservice to the readers: if a race was dull and boring and non-eventful than that’s what the story should say. It shouldn’t make it artificially hyped up or you’re lying and deceiving your readers.

Given this starting point, I was very happy therefore at how the final piece turned out that you can read on crash.net if you care to. It’s over 2000 words long, but up to a half of that is sourced driver quotes and hence don’t count for my purposes here. The rest of it tells the story of the non-event, making the most of the two mid-field incidents near the end, but also not hiding the fact that this was a deeply dull race in which everyone was just playing team loyalties and holding position. In fact it says so, repeatedly – in I hope a dryly humorous fashion that ends up making it a more fun and interesting piece than many of the incident-packed race reports that I’ve diligently put together from the race synopsis in the past.

I’ve rarely felt quite so smugly self-satisfied as when I finally published that piece. I’d gone from literally not having a clue what to write, to delivering a piece that was both accurate and didn’t flinch from properly reporting the dull nature of the event, but which in itself was still hopefully a good and entertaining read. In fact I was a little jealous about all those people who would (I sincerely hope) enjoy reading the piece in its own right and in doing so would be forever spared the two hours of having to watch the original race that it represented, as I’d had to do.

I think perhaps it’s weekends like this that are having a massively improving effect on my longform fiction writing as well. For one thing, after a frenzied weekend of motorsports to cover on a deadline, sitting down on Tuesday and rolling out 3500 words of fiction from my carefree imagination seemed like a holiday compared with having to research every little detail and put it together coherently in a short space of time.

With the fiction, my mind goes to work overnight and the next morning I have some idea what I want to write. I can sit down at the keyboard, my fingers get busy, and before I know it I’ve somehow got to the word count and it’s not been a strain at all. It’s rather miraculous, in fact. Whereas with the motor sports writing, you can’t start until the race is underway; and once it’s finished, the piece has to be written and up as soon as possible. No time for long walks along the riverbank to find one’s muse, it just has to get done.

It’s fine training for writing in general and seems to be doing wonders for my creative writing, although at the same time the motor sports work does eat up almost all of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday time which means the creative writing had to be condensed into four days of the week, which is exactly not what the writing self-help books tell you to do. They will all insist that you should write continuously, every day, at the same time each day, and that to pause or hesitate or take a day off is probably fatal to the cause.

That was certainly my fear when I returned to the creative endeavours on Tuesday: would I be able to pick it up after several days ‘off’ for the other writing? Would there be a noticeable join in the text? Would it flow, or would I just sit there unable to think of what happened next? Even after Tuesday went well (so well I even merrily skipped away and did three reviews for Take The Short View while I was at it as a sort of literary dessert or cheese board) I was still thinking: maybe that was just a one-off, a sort of “this is everything that was stored up from before your hiatus, but don’t expect anything more once this has gone.” So I was a full of trepidation on Wednesday as I sat down, wondering if this time the well would be dry.

Nope. Actually, better even than the day before. I massively overran my word count and practically had to drag myself away from the keyboard mid-scene to finally bring the writing day to a halt.

Not that all days will be like this. God knows, I’ve had days where it’s been a real effort to write anything; where the words will not flow; where the result on paper is truly execrable and you just want to give it all up and never write another word ever again in your life. Any writer who tells you otherwise is almost certainly deceiving you – or themselves. And we hear a lot about such days from writers who love to martyr themselves and romanticise their periods of writer’s block so that we all know how much suffering and effort they’ve put into the final product, as if that will somehow make us like their book more.

I’ll have days like that too. Maybe today will be one of them. Or tomorrow, or next week – it’ll come, as the inevitable by-product of the act of putting letters on paper in the first place. And I’ll whine about those days, I can assure you – you will suffer, dear reader, mark my words, just so that you will duly appreciate the miracle of there being any end result whatsoever, and are perhaps more forgiving of its faults as a result!

But fair’s fair. If I expect you to share the copious bad days and the cliched long dark nights of the soul, at the very least I should also share with you the good days when things go really rather well. The days when it’s even possible to read back through some of the product without flinching, and instead to find yourself thinking: “Hmm, not bad. Heh, that bit’s funny. Maybe it’s not terrible after all.”

Such days are good days. Really, really good days.

It may have seemed strange that I never commented in this blog about the final decision to axe COI and not replace it with a ‘Government Communications Centre’ as had been recommended by the Tees Report. I’d followed the story of my former employers here, so why miss out on that final act?

Actually, I did write a blog piece about it. It’s on my hard disk somewhere, I’m sure I could find it if I looked. But I wisely held off posting it, because it was an incoherent outpouring of rage about the whole outcome that really would have done no one any good, least of all me. Better not to say anything at all until the blood had stopped boiling.

It mostly has now. Now I’m just in the ‘sadness and regret’ phase of grief, having moved through denial and anger and into acceptance.

It still amazes me that after at least half a dozen reviews and restructuring plans for COI, all of which agreed that COI was at heart still a valuable and useful body albeit one in need of considerable change and transformation to meet the needs of a 21st century government, that the powers that be should then abruptly set all those reports and recommendations aside and just close the whole thing down.

All I could think is that one of three things had happened: 1) that the decision was based on pure political ideology and was the plan all along, and the ministers were just annoyed when none of the reviews they commissioned came back with that recommendation in the meantime so that they had to do the deed themselves; 2) that the question of ‘what to do about COI?’ had simply dragged on too long and was now bogged down in so much haggling that the minister, Francis Maude, essentially decided: to hell with this, just get rid of it so I don’t have to take any more meetings about this irritation anymore; or 3) that once COI and the Tees Report lost its principle advocates (Matt Tee and ex-COI CEO Mark Lund) then it had no defenders from those who surged into the vacuum to hack it to death.

None of the three options speak well of the process of government, I fear. I’d understand it more if in coming to the decision they did, they at least had an idea of what they wanted instead: after all, it’s not like this hadn’t been thought about for over 12 months now, so it’s not exactly asking a lot for them to at least know what they would do once the decision to scrap COI and any possible successor bodies was made. But apparently it is asking too much of them because even all this time after the decision it seems no one has a clue how the shutdown of COI will be handled or where its functions are going.

In the meantime, the old COI is dying anyway. The staff who are its lifeblood are obviously and rightly looking to the future and starting to move on, as highlighted by yesterday’s news that my old boss at COI, Nick Jones, now has a foot in Number 10 as Head of Digital there. Bravo to Nick, and I wish him all the best – as I do to all those who are now enacting their exit strategies and getting the hell out of Dodge before it becomes a ghost town. I wish you all the best – and exciting, rewarding and fun new careers ahead of you. To Infinity and Beyond!

For myself, I’ll just have another moment of sadness and regret as I watch the passing into history of COI, the like of which we will never see again. Maybe it’s right that we don’t – maybe COI outlived its purpose a decade or two ago – but such thoughts are for another time and a different blog post.

I briefly considered writing a blog post about Steve Jobs’ departure from Apple last week, but it seemed rather unnecessary – the last thing the world needed was another blogger pitching in on the subject when it seemed everyone on the Internet was already doing exactly that. So instead, I’ll be very brief on the subject now that the immediate furore about it has quietened down.

Obviously, Apple will miss Jobs – how could it not? He transformed the company, and through Apple he transformed our lives. That’s literally no exaggeration, as I sit here surrounded by my iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod …

But perhaps one of Steve Jobs top ten achievements is how he finally managed to write himself out of the Apple story. A few years back, when the news about his ill health first broke, he and Apple were blasted for (a) concealing the information, and (b) having no transition plan, no line of succession for a post-Jobs era. They were right to be criticised on both counts.

Fast forward to last week: Apple and Jobs have used the intervening time to bring along and put in place the people they needed for the transition. Jobs’ long heath sabbaticals had allowed the transition to be road-tested and the next generation leaders to become established and well known in the industry. By the time Jobs handed in his letter of resignation it no longer seemed alarming or unplanned for, just confirmation of what we knew had been the situation for some time. Apple hadn’t crumbled in the meantime with Jobs off ill, and so we are reassured that it wasn’t going to go horribly wrong now he’s stepped down, either.

The moment for succession has arrived; it had been planned for; and it has worked, in just the way that five years ago it never could have.

In the meantime the general reaction of the blogosphere was a slew of near-eulogies for Steve Jobs, which slightly irked me – he hasn’t died after all, just stepped down as CEO. That’s no cause for weeping and wailing and the rending of garments. Not yet, at least.

Of course in the back of our minds we wonder about Steve Jobs’ health and prognosis in the light of his resignation. But you know what? It really isn’t any of our business now. Five years ago, when Jobs and the Apple board were borderline-illegally concealing relevant information about the company from shareholders by refusing to discuss the state of Jobs’ health, it was very much a matter of public concern and debate. But not now, not that he’s stepped down as CEO and left the shop in the hands of Tim Cook – now it’s a private matter for Jobs once again, and rightly so.

So it really is none of our damn business, and I’m not going to comment or prognosticate on the issue at all. Instead I’ll just wish Steve Jobs and his family all the best for the future, whatever it may hold, and thank him and the team at Apple for the ways in which they have contributed to all of our lives. And also, thanks for not screwing up the company in the leaving of it.

A relatively brief blog post, back on the subject of writing having spent the most part of the last two hours writing a 3333-word race report on Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix. (Again, don’t worry, this is about writing rather than about motor sport per se, I promise.)

I’d taken the last couple of Grands Prix off in terms of writing a post-race report on what happened. It’s not because I’m losing interest in F1 or that the races themselves weren’t very good (Barcelona is usually a bit of a snoozer but was enlivened immeasurably by new technology and a new tyre provider, while Monaco is my favourite race of the year and was packed with incident and controversy) – but simply that May got so overcrowded with motor racing that I had to prioritise my work for crash.net instead and put GP2, IndyCar and NASCAR first as explained in last week’s post.

Strangely, though, after just two races “off” on hiatus, I found my attachment to F1 wobbling despite how good the races themselves were. Without the investment of writing about it afterwards, I felt strangely removed from it, as though F1 was becoming a “secondary” interest compared with those that I was still covering and writing up. It made me realise how much the process of writing about it now connects me with the event and the sport itself: because I was still doing that for GP2, NASCAR and IndyCar, they were becoming closer and more pre-eminent to me.

I even doubted that I would get around to writing up this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix; having been on hiatus for two races, surely another one wouldn’t matter? Especially because, thanks to the IndyCar event at the weekend being in the middle of Saturday night, I was feeling a bit tired and wiped out by the evening and wondered whether I would just doze off – especially when the race was interrupted by a two hour rain delay that must have infuriated BBC1 viewers wondering what had happened to the 8.15pm showing of Antiques Roadshow just to make way for grown men staring at rain puddles.

Actually my big problem after the race itself was: how to write about four hours of events that made absolutely no sense? Far from the old processional days of old when I first started to do these reports in the 90s that made for easy translations into a linear narrative, recent races have thrown up so many incidents that whole theses could be written about any one of two dozen race incidents. How to boil that down to a single race report that made any sort of sense and yet still do the race as a whole sufficient justice?

This is of course a universal problem facing any writer: how to take any story and characters that the writer has in their mind and chip away all the other details that aren’t quite so important in order to leave the best possible end result? It’s like a sculptor chipping away at the marble in order to reveal the statue of David that he knows is within, if only he can get rid of the distractions; but that means discarding so much fine marble in the process that you could weep for the waste, which to another artist could have been a different wonderful piece altogether.

So it is with a Grand Prix, and especially so with this week’s where there was just so much to cover than you just have to absorb it all and decide which pieces of the marble raw material you wish to keep, and which – sadly – have to go.

So I decided early on that this would be a story of one team – of McLaren. The story would be from their view, from the depths of despair in the early laps when their drivers took each other out, to the heights of the most extraordinary victory. But so do that I knew I was leaving to one side just as many if not more amazing stories, such as Michael Schumacher’s dramatic return to form after looking on the verge of quitting (again) because he wasn’t enjoying his return from retirement; of the travails of the Ferrari team; or the heartbreak for Sebastian Vettel who threw away a race win. All of these were secondary footnotes in the service of the McLaren story and many others not mentioned at all, but someone is sure to be writing an account which centres on them which is wholly different to my version.

I’m not pretending that the end result is some work of art comparable with David, it’s “Just Another F1 Race Report” at the end of the day. But I’m pretty pleased with it, not least because when I started I genuinely didn’t know how on earth to even begin capturing the events and the sense of the afternoon – most of which had gone by so fast that I could barely remember it let alone keep it straight in my head – and yet by the end it it was all there, on paper. All the key facts, but also all brought to life. It’s this challenge of bringing some sense and order to complete chaos, no matter how overwhelming the basic initial pool of facts and events is at the start, that gives me a real sense of achievement by the end.

It’s actually not unlike the type of work I used to do in the past: as a digital media consultant, I’d go into a situation and be presented with a load of facts info-dumped on me and be expected to make sense of them, form a narrative and be able to not just understand and interpret them but come up with some sort of “answer” to boot. That was the job, and no matter how difficult or how unlikely it seemed to be at the start, we did exactly that each and every time – just like the process of taking a real life event such as a Grand Prix and making order out of chaos there, too.

Whether writing or consultancy, when it all goes right, it’s really one of the best feelings you can have. Although I’d imagine Jenson Button would say there are even better legal highs and that he’s in the middle of one after his Canadian victory!

We’ve come to the end of the first half of Doctor Who season six, which makes it a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the Whovian nation.

As someone who has loved and admired Steven Moffat’s work ever since the early days of the superb The Press Gang, this should be a no-brainer question and a short blog post declaring everything is just brilliant and wonderful. Should be … But I’m afraid it isn’t. There’s something nagging away at me, something making me uneasy about the future of the show we love so much.

(And this was before today’s Private Eye story suggesting there was trouble in the production team and that there might not even be a 2012 season, rumours subsequently squashed by a BBC announcement confirming 14 more episodes have been commissioned.)

This is the battle of demon’s run, the Doctor’s darkest hour, he’ll rise higher than ever before, and then fall so much further.

It’s hard not to agree that the Doctor has truly risen higher than he ever has before right now, at least as far as Doctor Who fans are concerned: we have the writer/producer we admire more than any other, who is at the top of his game and producing the most fabulous scripts, season arcs and characters. Matt Smith has made a genuinely brilliant Doctor; the threesome combination of the Tardis crew has given us something authentically different and new after too many years of the tired Doctor/female companion formula – even before we add the fantastic recurring character of River Song who we just yearn to join full-time. The production team also seem to have managed to get over the funding squeeze that compromised key moments in season 5 with below-par CGI, because season 6 has all looked fabulous (well, save for one Flesh Jen monster CGI too far…) – even before the impressive jaunt to America that added to the sense of sheer scale and substance.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this almighty high does indeed potentially come before the biggest fall and darkest hour, and that there are signs and portents that should worry all Who fans at least a little.

Some of these are external matters: the tabloids loved reporting that viewing figures for the early episodes were sharply down, and while this was not entirely accurate (the iPlayer/view on demand figures pretty much reversed that situation so it’s more a sign of an error in the scheduling of the show at 6pm or so on warm, sunny May and June evenings that’s a mistake of the network programmers rather than the show itself) it did lead the papers to gripe about how it’s no longer a family show, that it’s too dark, too scary, too bloody complicated for children now.

Actually the children are fine by all accounts, and follow it perfectly – as least as much as they need to. It’s the adults who are feeling lost, puzzled, worried or horrified. But that’s still a problem for the show, because this is the BBC’s family tent-pole offering, and if the adults are scratching their heads and shrugging before going off to do something else – or deciding it’s not suitable for the little’uns – then it’s undermining a major element of the show’s success and profile, both of which are vital to keeping the show mainstream and properly funded.

When Russell T Davies took on the task of regenerating the show in 2005, he was commendably open about how this was the most commercial, market-tested, focus-grouped project he’d ever done. Every last bit of it had to be hand-crafted to make sure it hit the market properly, delivered the whole-family audience, spun off the merchandising and won the awards. It had to, if this wasn’t to be a one-season flop. Artistic integrity be blowed: to make any expensive TV show, first you have to make the show a proven success to earn your right to experiment. It might sound cynical, but it’s survival in the modern broadcast arena and RTD knew it better than anyone. I’m sure a little piece of him died everytime he had to subjugate his artistic inclinations in favour of ensuring the commercial success, but he pulled it off: he took a revival that no one gave much of a chance of really working and delivered to the BBC’s their biggest international blockbuster property.

As a result, Steven Moffat doesn’t have the same pressures: the show is a hit right now and he doesn’t have to permanently look over his shoulder fearing cancellation. That security has given the show an undoubted confidence and swagger; and in any case, Moffat is not the kind of person to ever allow anything to override his artistic integrity. He will do the show his way no matter what, believing it’s the best for the show: focus groups and market testing be damned.

It’s admirable, and arguably is giving us a better, higher calibre show than we’ve ever seen before as least as far as hard-core fans are concerned. But it’s also markedly different from the show that was reborn under RTD that we grew to know and love in its own right. Davies might have had his problems as head writer (and not really seeming to grasp what a science fiction story really was, and continually relying on cheap deus ex machina get-outs were definitely among them) but every episode was suffused with a sense of love of the show and with a huge feeling of fun that made it accessible and enjoyable by everyone of any age or level of interest.

You don’t get that with Moffat’s seasons. I have no doubt that he loves the show every bit as much as RTD or you and I do, but he never allows that passion to override his story judgement – or to show through in the episodes themselves. Instead they’re far more coolly cerebral, intricate and complex, always eschewing the obvious even when it might end up frustrating the viewer. He is not writing for the casual fan who may dip in and out, miss a week or read a paper at the same time: this is a show for people who watch. And rewatch. And sit and think and talk about it for a week afterwards. And even if you do all that, it’s still likely to have scrambled your brain and leave you with a headache (as the end of “Day of the Moon” did for me, I confessed at the time.)

It’s asking a lot of viewers to submit themselves to this mental overload; casual fans will depart, and even die hard fans have been struggling to sustain the level of absolute concentration the show now demands. Instead of the fun, easy, family viewing under RTD, the show just got worryingly difficult, fan-ish and closed-up by comparison.

For those fans who push through and keep watching, it’s worth every minute. It comes together like the most wonderful puzzle box, and not only can you appreciate how perfectly it all comes together but you can also see how all the clues were left in plain sight all along and it only seemed complicated but actually you really did understand it all along after all, giving a lovely frisson of feeling like you’ve cracked it and are worthy of being one of the Whovian nation – and that your brain isn’t as broken as you thought after all.

But then we hit another snag: where does the show go from here? After being raised to such eye-popping heights, what’s next?

It’s hard to imagine the show going back to the nice, fun “adventure of the week” format. Indeed it tried that with “The Curse of the Black Spot” and how poor that episode felt, even though in previous RTD seasons that would have been a perfectly fine albeit average episode (no offence intended to RTD.) Not every episode can be a Silents/Flesh/Gaiman/Demons Run blockbuster every single week, but these episodes have raised the bar so high in season 6 that a merely ordinary episode is now a deep disappointment. You pity anyone who is tasked to take over from Moffat, because no one can reach the sort of heights he’s been delivering this season – and anything less is doing to be the Doctor’s darkest hour and his furthest fall (and potentially at worst, his latest cancellation.)

This problem is echoed in a development in the Doctor’s character in the show itself: he’s become so big, so epic, so unbeatable that the loveable old eccentric “mad man in a box” has never seemed so far away. These days he can wipe out entire Cyber battle fleets as a rhetorical flourish in a pre-credits teaser, or reboot the universe, or send aliens running away in fright just by reading them his CV. This started back in RTD/David Tennant’s era with “The Christmas Invasion”, was echoed in “The Eleventh Hour” at the start of the Moffat/Matt Smith era, but has now becoming a recurring problem with both “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes to War” both essentially focusing on it.

Quite simply, there is no one left who is more powerful than the Doctor. He is a God. Even the Daleks – who were revamped so successfully in season 1 as the ultimate nemesis of the Time Lords and the only race able to defeat them in the Time War – are now so “reliably beatable” that Moffat himself has concluded that they have no credibility left and have to be rested from the show. But if not the Daleks – who can threaten the Doctor anymore? It’s rather like the ‘scope creep’ that infected the character of Superman, in which a character who could initially simply jump high and run fast suddenly became invincible and as a result lost both empathy with the readership and also potential plots. How could Superman bear to spend his time dealing with muggings with all his powers?

So to it is with the Doctor. He’s now so powerful that nothing really seems to threaten him anymore. Some lovely dialogue in “A Good Man Goes To War” stressed how he is now more myth than regular person: how “Doctor” is becoming a galaxy-wide synonym for “great man of learning” or “warrior” depending on your point of view (apparently an idea Moffat had in 1995 according to some links on the Internet pointing to ‘proof’, but we’ll take these with a pinch of salt for now – you can fake anything on the Internet. Even Moon landings, I hear.) Did you spot the sublime way that Rory is made to see that this is happening to him, too: as he consoled Commander Strax, he realised he was talking to a warrior who had become a nurse, while he himself was a nurse who was now a centurion warrior? An uncomfortable realisation for both.

The stakes have been raised too high too many times: the show has seemingly killed off the Doctor, Amy and/or Rory too often, just so that we feel something bad really did/could happen, but it’s backfired and now they’ve all died and restored in too many ways that so we just roll our eyes, say “oh, not again” and wait for the plot to unravel and restore everyone to life.

Moffat seems acutely aware of this “Godhood” problem with the Doctor now, and it’s why the trope has been returned to in “A Good Man Goes To War” with dialogue specifically riffing on this (which in turn is an echo of dialogue that RTD’s Davros used on Tennant’s Doctor in “Journey’s End”.) I suspect Moffat’s overall intentions for the current convoluted plot arc are to do something about this “all-powerful” Doctor and restore him back to something like his old original self, the eccentric traveller.

The trouble is that the genie is out of the box, and we can’t go home again: would we be remotely satisfied with a show of a group of friends amiably poking around investigating a deserted city or scrapping with some cavemen?

Steven Moffat’s a sharp guy with far greater writing and creative skills than I possess – maybe he’s figured all this out and has an answer for us, and that’s what we’re heading to. We should certainly hope so, for the sake of the future survival of the show hinges upon it. Far more than the side questions of identity of River Song or whether the Doctor will retrieve Rory and Amy’s baby, this is the most important and pressing question facing the Whovian Nation this morning as we head into the summer recess.

Next Page »



Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 810 other followers

%d bloggers like this: