Sunday, October 14, 2018

Aussie Noir - TV's promising genre

On my telly review posts I’ve dipped into Welsh noir, which has been surprisingly good. I’ve also been immersed this year in Australian TV drama, which has been a bit hit and miss.

But generally speaking, if you watch a few series, you see the same strong lead actors pop up again and again. This is both a blessing and a curse, but the strength of each one is the very powerful sense of place and the leading character's relationship with it, in the absence of other characters to rub against. So much so, it’s hard to imagine any of these storylines crossing over to the UK or the US. I touched on The Code, Top of the Lake and Cleverman here, but here's a bit of an update on a very promising run of form from Australia.

Mystery Road (ABC and on BBC4) - Australia has the blessing of locations and landscapes that take your breath away, used to great effect by Ivan Sen, the director of the original feature film Mystery Road, and Rachel Perkins, the series director who made much of the setting in the far north of Western Australia. But as well as the landscapes this 6-part spin off from the film of the same delved right into the rural tensions between Aboriginal people and the anomie of young white kids in such isolated sparse locations in a hyper connected world. Something social media and organised drug gangs don’t necessarily respect. Beyond the sparkling performances of the main cast however some of the acting is comically bad, something you suspect the writers and directors know. Subsequently a lot is asked of Aaron Pederson as lone operator detective Jay Swan and Judy Davis as the local law enforcement stalwart Emma James. A good story, well told, looking forward to more from this crop. 7/10

Secret City (Foxtel's Showcase and Netflix) - Set in Canberra and set up as a House of Cards style conspiracy thriller, this jogs along nicely and takes some brave twists and turns with both geo-politics and casting a trans character. Anna Torv is a real star as journalist Harriet Dunkley, but some of the politicos are right out of The Thick of It with some very strange motivations of characters which seem a bit fanciful. But frankly I can believe anything these days. 7/10

The best acting in any of these recent televisual tours Down Under has been from Rebecca Gibney as Lola in Wanted (Seven Network and Netflix). It’s a woman-hunt road movie which jumps over to Thailand and New Zealand, as well as making great use of the expanses of South Australia’s outback and Queensland. As well as being a tense and believable thriller it’s also very warm and witty and tests your patience with complex characters. 8/10

Finally, Deep Water (SBS and BBC4) a fairly gripping cop drama set in Sydney. It had the usual macho corrupt cop that seems a staple of all Aussie drama, but touched on some strong social issues around homophobia and ethnic diversity in Sydney. 7/10

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Sir Charles Dunstone at Alliance MBS - why Apple is reaching sunset, ethics and Five Guys

One of Britain's leading entrepreneurs was in town last night. Sir Charles Dunstone captivated an audience of business school students with his well told story of risk taking and innovation. Here are ten things I learnt from Charles' talk.

He's looking very well - I interviewed him at the University of Liverpool in 2012, here, and I have to say he's dropped a lot weight and is looking trim.

He owns Five Guys - I should have known, but possibly forgot, that he owns half of Five Guys in the UK. I love Five Guys. I think the food is a real treat, delicious customised burgers and probably the best fries there are. I don't disagree when Charles described it as an amazing business, even though it's remarkably simple. I was taken with his summary of the business model - it's bright, the music is too loud to be comfortable, they don't sell coffee and they don't have wifi. Basically you eat up and leave. One is opening near work soon, I need to take a lead from Charles and not go there too much.

Six guys - the perfect business has six people in it. For every employee you then add the productivity of the others goes down.

Avoid going public - it shouldn't be an ambition and it caused him great headaches having to deal with the City and the institutional shareholders.

He doesn't like HR - he described it as a poison. All good businesses don't have it he says. His reasoning is that it confuses people at work about who they work for and it confuses managers about their relationship with the people who work for them. "It grows like a tapeworm inside you," he said.

He won't come to your leaving do - he's never been to any leaving do and has never had one for himself. When he's done, he's done, and so should you be.

The most common mistake in business -  you set up, get going, realise you don't know what you're doing, so you hire experts who you assume know what they're doing and they screw your business up. He used an example of that going spectacularly badly at Carphone Warehouse when a group of supermarket buyers came in and started treating Nokia and Vodafone in the way they used to bully strawberry farmers.

Big companies kill innovation - he hated being chair of Dixons Carphone Warehouse when it got so big. 48,000 people is too many people and the edge has gone, he said. People spend so much time working to avoid doing something wrong that they never have the time to do something right. Every successful internet business was a recent start-up. That's where innovation is coming from, nothing new and revolutionary has emerged from a big company.

Apple is heading for the sunset.  - I asked him what insights he had of Apple, and whether they were the exception to the rule about big companies losing their agility. He answered by pointing out that they haven't come up with a revolutionary new product since Steve Jobs died. They are squeezing every last drop out of their hardware business. Tim Cook is the Steve Balmer of Apple, a product marketing guy, not an innovator.

Ethics is ever more important in business - he drew a diagram and asked us to imagine a rectangle, inside that is everything that's legal to do in business. Inside that is a circle inside which is everything that is ethical. Between the two are things like drug companies selling opiods. It's legal, but they shouldn't do it. I had the fashion industry in my mind at the time and the environmental damage cheap cotton is having. And how our children's clothing is so cheap because other people's children are making it in Bangladesh, and no-one seems to care. That was the question I didn't ask. 

This was part of the Entrepreneur series produced by the Manchester Enterprise Centre at the University of Manchester and supported by A2E. Vikas Shah was asking the questions and elegantly leading the Q&A. Next event is with Wayne Hemingway on Tuesday the 27th of November at the Alliance Manchester Business School. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

My mates - the 245 crew - #26

Jazz hands outside the Student Union

The weekend just gone has been epic. 30 years after we graduated from the University of Manchester the housemates from 245 Upper Brook Street got together. It took a bit of planning, not least because of the 7 of us who got our degrees in 1988, three live abroad; France, Hong Kong and New York, with one in Hertfordshire, one in London, another in Lancashire, while I'm the only one who's returned to Manchester.

What was so good, so life affirming and so warm about the time we all spent together this weekend was the ease. I felt comfortable, loved and relaxed in the company of guys who've been a part of my life since 1985. We pretty successfully stayed in touch through the 90s - weddings, a funeral, baptisms and a social whirl. The last decade has  - with some more than others - been trickier; we managed to get four of us together for John's 50th and five at Chris's wedding in 2016. But this weekend we hit six, which was good going. 

I just loved the stories, the reflections, not all of it necessarily good stuff. There was also something else. We've all taken different paths, but what's amazing is the similarity on how we've sorted the priorities of life. Our families, loved ones and friends at the centre. I love how everyone does something for other people, volunteering and fundraising for our personal passions. And not sweating over the small stuff.

So, thanks so much for making the effort - Dave Knights, John Dixon, Chris Lodge, Dave Crossen, Mark Sibley and hope we can get you on the next one, Adrian Carr. I love you all. Friends for life.

So, I thought I'd add them all to the my mate series on this blog, where I randomly shuffle my address book and talk about my friends, how we met and what I like about them.

My eldest son Joe and his girlfriend Jess joined us for a brief drink on Saturday. He's a first year studying in this great city, while the son of another mate of ours was with us too. If they can come through their time here with friendships like these then I'll be very proud and very happy for them.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Sometimes the other team is just better - Sheffield United were

Moving up a division is a tough task. Even from the first home game of the season Blackburn Rovers were up against a far better goalkeeper from Millwall who proved to be the difference. On the back of this home defeat I don't question the abilities or the credentials of the squad, or the manager. I'm happy to take a long view on this.

But here are my nagging doubts.

Character. 2-0 up with ten minutes to go, Sheffield United saw out the game without any sense of panic, nor did they at any point in the match have to adapt their style of play. This is something Mowbray hasn't forged into the character of this team.

The signings. I'm still not sure what kind of player Bell is. He doesn't have a firm defensive presence, he doesn't tackle and though he has the ability, he isn't brave enough going forward. The bloke behind me tells me he used to roast opposition defenders when he was at Fleetwood (Bell, that is, the chap behind is in his 70s). I think Mowbray wants to play him wide in a 3-5-2, but at the moment he's a square peg in a round hole.

Our liveliest game changers aren't getting game time - I like Joe Rothwell and think he can be a big impact player, but he has to have time. Same with Palmer. Brereton? Not seen enough to convince me yet that he's worth the outlay.

Lewis Travis. Everything I've seen of Travis I've enjoyed - except for the sending off at Portsmouth. I hear they tried to loan him out. Personally, I think he could be a very special player for us and hope his run in the side comes soon.

I thought September looked really, really tough and six points was good work. October is going to be tougher still. But here's the thing, I think Mowbray knows all of this. He's worked wonders before and he's looking ahead.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

No false modesty - I'm dead chuffed this blog is a finalist

I'm not going to lie. I'm not going to claim false modesty. Nor am I going to say it's a team effort, because writing never is. But what I will say is this - I'm chuffed to bits to be a finalist in the Northern Soul Awards 2018 - writer of the year category.

I've never thought of myself as a 'former journalist' since I stopped formally editing a magazine in 2012. Since then I've written for loads of websites with a wide hinterland. I've written for the UK's largest circulation business magazine, Economia. I contribute to Met Magazine at Manchester Metropolitan University. In the last two issues I've contributed the type of feature I like best - the set piece sit-down interview. One was with Greater Manchester's Mayor, Andy Burnham. The other was with the man who did more than anyone else to create the powerbase Burnham now wields, Sir Howard Bernstein. There's one with another northern politician in the next one.

I also write speeches for other people. There is something incredibly satisfying when I hear someone else's voice relaying words I've written for them. There's an example here and another here. Having been to hear two of my favourite writers this week, I would dearly like to have another crack at long form writing again.

But it was for this wee blog that I entered the award. A mixture of obituaries, grumbles about trains and politics, TV reviews, and melancholic tales of football and fatherhood. And not being diagnosed with bowel cancer. I don't blog as much as I did in the pre-Twitter era, but I have been at it now for 12 years. I love having the outlet and the platform and I enjoy getting messages from visitors from all over the world. So to be able to fly the finalist flag on here is a great lift.

I've also realised how much I enjoy reading Northern Soul, the organiser of the awards. Helen Nugent has done a brilliant job curating a hub of culture and northern life. So, please support her enterprise, wish me luck and I hope you continue to enjoy visiting the Marple Leaf blog.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Clubbing, football and mates - two nostalgic memoirs

If you'd asked me 25 years ago what I enjoyed the most about life I'd probably have said clubbing and playing football. Sadly, now I do neither.

Over summer I read James Brown's Above Head Height, a memoir based around his footballing life, mostly playing five-a-side. As he's roughly my age and hung around various overlapping media circles, I'd be amazed that we didn't play with some of the same people at some point in the 1990s. I played for a Sunday team called Shepherds Tuesdays, as well as the Blackburn Rovers London Branch and was a regular in various 5, 8, 9 a-sides all around London. His observations are familiar and amusing, his namedropping impressive. His playing with Woody Harrelson definitely trumps my Neil Arthur from Blancmange.

That all said, I find James a far more interesting character than just as a park footballer. I bought a fanzine off him at Leeds Poly in 1982 (Attack on Bzag) and was inspired to produce my own. I've followed his journalism ever since, NME, Loaded, GQ, Jack and Sabotage Times, which I occasionally write for.
Others have told the story of Loaded magazine and the lad mag culture of the era, and he tip-toes around it. But I think he's found an angle with the football, a social arena that brings disparate men together in regular games of football that outlast marriages. It's full of fond recollections, many stemming from the death of one of his footballing pals, who he realised he knew very little about.

I'd have been quite interested in James Brown taking on a memoir similar to the terrain of Dave Haslam's delightful tome Sonic Youth Slept on my Floor. Dave is someone else I've known about for 30 years through his Djing and his writing, but have actually got to know him more recently. His book takes us from Birmingham, where he was born, to Manchester, where music plays a central role. His stories are reflective, rather than riotous. Melancholic, as opposed to embittered score settling. I like his recollections of his complicated relationships which never sound nasty, but lay out home truths. The fall out with Tony Wilson sounds achingly familiar to anyone who actually worked with him, and it's sad that they never reconciled before Tony died in 2007. There's a lesson there, for sure.

I'm probably dwelling on this kind of retrospective as the old crew are getting back together this weekend. It's more than 30 years since we graduated, 7 of us sharing 245 Upper Brook Street over two years, though one left to tour Europe with Sonic Youth and we took on a squatter. We all have memories of Manchester, though of course I've been drawn back, even showing the daughter of one of our number around our old stomping ground, while my eldest son is also enrolled nearby. Obviously I'm really looking forward to seeing everyone, but I very much doubt we'll be playing five-a-side, or even clubbing for that matter. Afterall, we have our memories for that.