Posts from December 2014

Posted Monday 15 December 2014

Women in Hip Hop Shoot for Channel 4

Our documentary for Channel 4 on women in hip hop is currently in post-production. The shoot took place at Passing Clouds in Dalson, and featured the immensely talented women from the Lyrically Challenged Collective.

Posted Friday 12 December 2014

McBusted: Live at the O2

McBusted's Number 1 DVD, recently delivered to Happy Entertainment.

Posted Tuesday 2 December 2014

Do Not Attempt Humour

‘When was the last time you visited Afghanistan?’

It was the first time I had ever been faced with a real life good cop / bad cop routine. I had seen them before of course, it’s impossible to get to forty-five without having seen at least four or five well known routines from all those television shows that have burned themselves deep into the ‘skyplus viewed’ section of the modern psyche. However, this was different, surreally so. It was real and it was happening, and I was cast in the part of the pock-marked criminal who until now had managed to evade justice despite committing appalling and heinous crimes.

I found myself sitting across a table from the terrifying pair. These two were no Starsky and Hutch, there was no light chit-chat about sports and burgers before getting down to business, no disingenuous but nevertheless charming offers of nice warm coffee before confronting me with their overwhelming evidence and lines like ‘enjoy it ‘cos it’s the last one you’re gonna have as a free man.’ Where I had always imagined Starsky would sit was a huge man who had the look of a Chechneyan rebel fighter posing as a US immigration officer, his uniform trying desperately to cling on to his enormous body like a crying infant to his hugely fat reluctant mother. His buddy, a much smaller man, the Hutch of the outfit, had an ethnically indeterminable look in his identical uniform, a uniform that was much more comfortable with its relationship to the physique it was commissioned to guard.

My first thought was that they looked like a very bad light entertainment team, a Sergeant Bilko tribute act appearing in an early heat of ‘Siberia’s Got Talent’ – presumably it has. But then they spoke. At least, the smaller one spoke, his broad New York accent giving no clues to his ethnic origin. This, I thought, is one of the reasons I love America, the way in which it mixes its races under the umbrella of one shared dream. As a white man with a Pakistani surname and an Indian mother the fact that race played no apparent part in the way one is treated was one of the first things that made me fall in love with New York. I am of course fully aware that the race issue in the States is nothing if not complex but I have always admired that at least they now try. It strikes me that however violent and complicated the pursuit for equality has been, at least they have been violent and complicated in their pursuit. Unlike in my country of birth, England where the races only really mix in four cities while the rest of the nation pretends as hard as they can that they don’t want to get rid of them on the next flights out of here. There is no fight, no battles for equality just a gradual pretence that English fair play will see to everything.

So being in America, or New York at least, always felt easier to me than being anywhere else and allowed me to overlook my unquestionably precarious situation.

- ‘When was the last time you visited Afghanistan?’

It was the first time I had ever been asked that question, possibly because I had never visited Afghanistan and possibly because I had never been an Archaeologist, a heroine importer or a Russian conscript. I answered as simply and politely as I could.

-‘Fellas, there has clearly been some kind of mistake.’

‘Fellas.’ I thought that was a great word to use, friendly but respectful. My father used to address anyone working on the house as fellas, it left them feeling liked and respected at the same time, when in truth he suspected they were all thieves and rapists.

-‘You see guys, I am a comedy writer on a tv show, a show which includes sketches about an old woman who swears and a teenage girl who isn’t bothered about anything. As yet I have had no call to visit Afghanistan.’

I was pretty happy with that. My flip from fellas to guys, from informal to downright friendly, buddying up, and an explanation of my job that would remove any doubt whatsoever that this could be anything other than a ridiculous mistake.

‘-I’ll repeat the question. When was the last time you were in Afghanistan?’

This time it was the huge Eastern European looking officer who was speaking, the man who could have eaten Hulk Hogan. He too had a broad New York accent with no trace of any ethnic origin but there was no way that body could have been forged in the same place as Sinatra, it had definitely been quarried from freezing cold mountain ranges in Transylvania. Either way, my explanation clearly hadn’t cut it. So I moved things on.

-‘Well like I said, I write a comedy show and while we haven’t finalised all our tour dates as yet we have never played Kabul.’ I chuckled. They didn’t. I thought that was a fairly decent line. I’d have been happy with that had I been paid to come up with it. It ticked all the comic boxes, it took the real situation, acknowledged the danger then undercut it by turning it into something trivial and domestic. I could tell that the two retarded Stooges didn’t feel the same way. They had an entirely different view on the rules of comedy, some people do, you can just tell. What they did do is simultaneously sway apart with the unexpected grace of a celebrity ballroom dancing couple, or a pair of weird Siamese twins grabbing a brief moment of independence. It transpired the reason they were doing this was to reveal something on the wall behind them. It was a huge poster, just not huge enough to be seen over the massive frame of the immigration officer sitting in front and to both sides of it. Its message was simple ‘DO NOT ATTEMPT HUMOUR.’

My initial reaction was to smile. When you see the word humour you smile, it’s like kitten or sandwich. I’m not sure why sandwich makes me smile but it has increasingly done so since I gave up smoking. Fairly quickly I realised that smiling probably wasn’t the facial reaction they were after. They were looking for horror or shame. I went straight to humble.

-‘I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to trivialise the situation by making a joke.’ I was. ‘It’s just that making jokes is mostly what I do. It’s instinct.’ It isn’t, it’s just an annoying habit.

Their faces suggested they didn’t share this ‘instinct’ for laughs. I looked around the room to see if anyone else in there may have been on my side. The place was full of muslim men with beards and women with burkas. I realised that I was the only white man in this room apart from my two interrogators. I was a white terrorist, a white terrorist with a sense of humour. I felt sorry for these poor souls who were being put through this humiliation purely because of their religion. For them this must be an everyday occurrence. For me it was rare, a result of sharing my first initial and surname with a man who tried to blow up an American phone shop in Riyadh and a branch of Freeman Hardy and Willis in the Yemen.  The rest of these people were going to be victims their whole lives, all because some people who claimed to have the same religion as them smashed some planes into the Twin Towers. However, despite my sympathy, I assumed that not many of them would be sharing my need for jokes. It suddenly occurred to me that putting a ‘Do Not Attempt Humour’ sign up in this place was a waste of time, like putting a sign up in Estate Agency that says ‘remember to be a total arsehole all day long.’ 

The gaps in the dialogue were becoming lengthier, they were clearly trained to say as little as possible so that the person opposite them would break. Sadly for them I wasn’t going to break, not because I’m not a massive coward I most surely am, but because I am strangely comfortable with silence. I tend to wander off in my thoughts, and where I had gone was to a place of sadness. Not for my situation but for my long held belief that Americans were the funniest people on earth, and more specifically New Yorkers. Now admittedly these two mooks in front of me weren’t the hilariously uptight, hyperchondriacal Jews that were so responsible for my love affair with comedy, but they were still New Yorkers. So surely they understood the role of humour in tense situations on some level. How could even the most humourless of native New Yorker fail to see the funny side of a comedy writer being mistaken for a homicidal maniac with a desire for eighty virgins? Jesus I only ever slept with one and I had no desire to repeat the experience. So I ploughed on.

-‘Have either of you seen the movie Manhattan?’ By Woody Allen.


-‘Well that is why I’m a writer. I think the perfect mix of jokes, romance and dramatic arc is a sublime example of why great comedy can reach so much further than any straight drama.’ Now I was pretty sure that none of the fellas on those planes that flew into the World Trade Center had ever made a speech like that. This had to prove that I was not the man they were looking for.

-‘You like Woody Allen?’ Hey presto, a human response from the smaller of the two.

-‘Like him? He’s a god among men, don’t you think?’

-‘I don’t think he’s been funny for years.’ The other one piped up.

-‘You don’t?” I was starting to enjoy this. A breakthrough.

-‘No,’ he went on, ‘not since his early cabaret records. They were funny but since he married his daughter I think he’s been kind of creepy.’

The other one agreed. As far as they were concerned the incest took the edge of his comedy.

-‘I can’t agree at all,’ I retorted, ‘I think while his early cabaret records are a sublime example of a man reinventing the form his films for me have grown in comic stature as his career has gone on. If anything his films since he married Sun-yi, who by the way isn’t his daughter but his adopted daughter, have been as funny as anything he has made. Except the British stuff, that’s obviously shit.’

‘Shit?’ The massive cop wasn’t having that. ‘The only film I like of his since he became a paedo was Match Point.’ His pal agreed. ‘It really got to the bottom of why people fall in love.’

I couldn’t agree. ‘I’m afraid it was a representation of an England that exists only in the minds of Americans and Richard Curtis.’

‘I like Richard Curtis,’ came the impassioned response from the smaller one, who I now felt was probably Cuban. ‘Four Weddings was the funniest film I have ever seen. When that fat faggot has the heart attack I nearly pissed my pants.’

-‘And Notting Hill was even better,’ added his huge pal. ‘ “So what does an actress earn for a film these days then? Sixteen million dollars.” Brilliant.’

As I was about to respond with a full analysis of Curtis’ comedy from Blackadder on I was interrupted, but not by them.

-‘But what about Love Actually?’ We all looked round. A man with a long beard and a white dress was looking at us. ‘If ever there was a cynical exercise in audience manipulation, and frankly lazy story-telling, it’s that movie. It’s one thing taking a classic film structure and deconstructing it but its another packaging some half-baked sketch ideas and claiming that together they make a film.’ We all took that in. I wasn’t alone after all, I was right about this country being great, about everyone here having an innate understanding of comic ideas.

I was happy again. I turned to the Officers:

-‘Great well now this misunderstanding has been cleared up, am I free to enter this great city of yours?’

Their lightness had gone and been replaced once more by their ‘we have the right to put you on a plane, remove your balls with scissors or kill you whenever we choose’ faces.

-‘Like I said, we need you to be honest with us, when were you last in Afghanistan?’ I couldn’t believe it. What the hell happened to our impassioned chat about Woody and Richard? Should I have been less forthright about Match Point? I did quite like Scarlett Johansson in it I suppose. Would that have really turned them against me? What the hell just happened? Unless of course I had made the whole thing up, unless I had wondered off in one of those lengthy silences and created the entire comic debate in my ridiculous suspected terrorist head. I had, hadn’t I? Shit. I was still going to Rikers Island to have my testicles whipped day and night, and not in a good way. 

-‘We know who you are and we know who your brother is Mr. Ditta, so why don’t you just tell us the truth and we can work out what to do.’

‘Work out what to do’ what the fucking hell did that mean? I asked them.

‘We have several options open to us, Mr. Ditta.’ I really wished they’d stop saying my name, even I was beginning to think that my name sounded suspect. I was starting to believe that someone called Ditta could do awful things to innocent people.

-‘What options?’

-‘I would say the best option for you would be for us to send you back on the next plane back to England.’

That was the best option? What was the worst? Six years in Guantanamo bay being water-boarded by G.I’s from Wisconsin who believe Jesus was a Marine and turned water into blood.

‘-If we feel that you are withholding information then we can hold you in custody for up to two weeks without charge.’

I made a decision. I would no longer attempt humour, in fact I would attempt nothing other than to keep the contents of my stomach from cascading through my arsehole, which was now in a state of wide open surrender.

‘-Please. It isn’t me. I’m a writer and I have a Pakistani step-Grandfather whose name my white Scottish father took as his own cos he didn’t know his real father. I am not a Pakistani I am a white Anglo-Saxon Englishman. Yes I have an Indian mother but as far as I’m aware you have no specific beef with them. My point is...’ and to my eternal shame and turned to the poor souls sitting behind me… ‘I am not one of them.’

I hated myself. My cowardice knew no bounds, I was distancing myself from an entire nation, an entire race, from people I liked, people for whom I had huge sympathy, for whom I had even marched on at least one occasion.

‘-I am a liberal, I love all races, but especially Jews, and not just because they’re funny. Isn’t Israel where Jesus is due to come back?’ I couldn’t stop myself now. ‘Why would a Jew lover like me want to blow up a branch of Freeman Hardy and Willis? It makes no sense. If I was to blow anything up, which I wouldn’t, it would be something like a…I wouldn’t blow anything up at all. Please let me go.’

To this day I am not sure whether it was the begging, the crying, the pro Israeli stance or the fact that they were bored of listening to me whine, but the upshot was that they stamped my passport and waved me through.

As I waited for my bag to come round on the carousel, my head was full. The only bags waiting to be claimed were mine, and those that belonged to the poor bastards still being questioned by the two most powerful men in their lives.

But hey, I was in New York, and I love New York.

Posted Tuesday 2 December 2014

Blog: Batteries Not Included

By Aschlin Ditta

When I was around eight years old I saw Father Christmas. As I lay in my bed I caught sight of a pair of black boots as they disappeared up into the chimney in my bedroom. My younger sister didn’t see anything. She had been asleep when the incident happened. It was a defining moment in my life, and when later that morning I went downstairs to discover that the glass of whiskey and three mince pies that had been left out for him had also gone, I was certain. The cynics in my class were wrong. He existed and he liked whiskey, so much so that my mother pointed out to my father that Santa had also stayed around to polish off two thirds of the rest of the bottle that was sitting in the drinks cabinet. My father left the room without saying anything. Well, why wouldn’t he? Even at that age I could sense that for the man in the house this whole thing must have been an emasculating experience. After all, who was this other man who was not only able to get up onto the roof and clean the chimney but also give his children what they wanted? Both of which my mother had been asking him to do for years.

Thirty eight years later and I am that father, that man who knows that the loose tiles on the roof need dealing with, that man who knows that he really should be better with his kids than he feels able to find the time to be, and who sees just what it is that Santa sees in whiskey.

Christmas has always been a magical thing for me. My parents always made it that way: the tradition of reading the Night Before Christmas; encouraging us to find the pictures in the advent calendar exhilarating, ‘look it’s a cat with a bell,’ ‘oh my God it’s a boot with some holly.’ We always went to a carol service, indeed one of my early ambitions was to get to sing the solo of Once In Royal David’s City. Imagine, I thought, how easy it would be to get Sally Fowler to go for a walk with me if I could nail that gig, and if she still said no to the walk she would surely stop telling me to ‘fuck off and wash.’ Everything seemed possible at Christmas. Even my parents held a truce on the big day, a kind of 1970’s version of football in the trenches where the football was replaced by Monopoly and the living room made do for No Man’s Land. It was always curious to me how two people who seemed so desperately sad about the way life had turned out, who had been served badly by dreaming, and whose lives were almost entirely made up of broken promises, could be so engaged when it came to giving all those things to me and my sister. But they did, and we loved it.

Obviously I didn’t see those boots that morning, although I remember telling them all and remember seeing my younger sister’s face as she cursed that she had missed them. I also remember my mother shaking her head and saying something to my father about me being a fantasist just like him. He seemed delighted that I was following in his footsteps of making stuff up and creating a world for myself that ran parallel to the one in which we actually existed.

It’s something that has served me well ever since. I think it’s the reason dramas and comedies are often scheduled straight after the news on television. Essentially saying to us ‘well, here’s what’s actually going on in the world first, then you can have a made-up version, you choose where you wish to exist.’ Although clearly in this era the news is also largely made up so it seems us fantasists won in the end.

There is no doubt in my mind that it was Christmas that started this process in me. The notion at the heart of child-rearing seems to be that if we tell them a series of well-meaning lies then they will be able to one day look back on an idyllic childhood comprised of magic and myth. Presumably the hope is that it will help dissolve the awfulness of being an adult. Santa coming down a chimney and mysteriously leaving exactly what we want, the reindeer eating the carrot, the idea that he is watching our behaviour all year just to see if we are deserving of gifts, it’s all an extraordinary thing. It’s not that it’s wrong of course. Now I have children of my own I repeat it in every detail, the reading of the story, the preparing of Santa’s booze and snacks for the reindeer. I sneak in at the dead of night, an act I find intensely stressful, and play the magical character myself. A friend of mine once described to me the moment his six year old woke up and saw him placing the presents in his stocking. The boy said ‘Daddy, are you really Santa?’. My friend’s response was to panic, drop the gifts, some of which he later discovered smashed, shout at his son to go to sleep and claim that Santa had already been but he’d left them in the wrong room. As Santa was so busy that night he’d asked if the boy’s father could help him out. My friend told me that he thought his son had just about bought it, but he knew deep down that he hadn’t. He knew that every time anyone mentioned Santa to his son from then on, that he had the knowledge. The glance he would throw at his father, a secret between the two of them. They were linked by a lie, a lie that was supposed to make his life magical, the exposing of which made the little boy one step closer to the adult version of magic… Santa’s whiskey.

My memory tells me that in the 1970’s, while my parents were keen on a decent build-up, the actual event was much more straightforward.  We’d stay at home, get up, open some presents, play some games, have lunch, watch Top Of The Pops, play some games, have a period of tension which on other days would turn into something massive but today would be quelled, then eat some more, watch Morecombe and Wise while listening to Dad saying that Eric was a genius and Ernie a very lucky man, eat some more, then fall asleep beacause we’d been up since six am. Now, however, things are very different.

Christmas now starts in early July when the negotiations about where we might be spending it begin. This kicks off with a disagreement about what we did last year. Even though it was only six months ago, no-one can be certain. All I remember is that I spent most of it on a motorway moving cardboard and plastic around the South of England. What I can also be certain of is that I will be doing that all over again this year. The only question is, which direction I will be doing it in: my parents and then my partner’s parents, or the other way round? So many options. For some reason Christmas has now become a time for everyone, where the build up was once empty and the day minimal now the build up is mental and the day chaotic. In the weeks leading up to it, with friends and colleagues insisting that ‘we should have a drink before Christmas,’ when in fact we’ll see them again a week later, old friends Facebooking you saying that this year we really should make more effort, and distant relatives who you haven’t seen since you were twelve inexplicably sending you cards.  I got one this year from someone who I’m convinced tried to abuse me when I was a child. It was as if he’d thought it would be strangely nice for me to hear from him.

Kids are desperate to see Santa, to go see the lights, to do nativity plays that parents are actually expected to go and see. I am sure my parents never saw any of my nativity plays. In fact I’m not at all sure we even did any for them to see. Office parties that mean that the streets of every town and city in England are full to brimming with Santa hats and vomit. We have to spend an extraordinary amount of money on buying a two year old the kind of computer that can not only play Ninja Run but can also tap into local air traffic control. Then comes Christmas day itself, a series of massive highs as the presents are opened, followed by the desperate depths that can only be reached by the words ‘batteries not supplied.’ Everyone knows that you need to fill the house with batteries for Christmas, and every human knows the feeling of utter dejection when a game that’s going to be the greatest experience to date of a young life has to go back into the box cos Dad was too busy catching up with mates he doesn’t know anymore and drinking his own body weight in mulled wine to actually remember to buy the fucking things. 

Once the negotiations have finished post battery absence, negotiations which involve offering more gifts as a way to make up for the ones they can’t use (tickets to pantos, exorbitant Winter Wonderland experiences, Centre Parcs), then it’s time to fill the car with plastic and get driving. After two days of eating, trying to talk to brothers-in-law who barely speak and wish they were dead, wondering why the person who knows you best in the world has got you a biography of Joe Pasquale, and eating levels of pork that endanger human life, it’s time to drive to the next place. Hopefully that place, where other parents and siblings live, will be at the other end of a horrible motorway which has road works and a couple of multiple pile-ups to negotiate. By the time you and the family arrive there you hate not only the entire country’s transport planners but also everyone you know, and most of all the very core of your own self for not telling all said people to fuck off and leave you alone. Two more days of pork and plastic and not enough batteries and you are left with no option but to reassess your entire existence. It may even be three more days not two if your mother’s passive aggression and overt disappointment that you chose not to live in the town they brought you up in still gets to you (a town whose only claim to fame is a man who killed half a dozen hookers).

But then… one more journey back home during which you realise you have left half the kids’ presents and all of your self-esteem in your parents’ spare bedroom, and you’re through. All that remains is to tidy your house from top to bottom, watch your children not play with the computer you bought them that cost more than your first flat, and wonder whether those pains in your stomach are just pork-related or something a lot more serious.  Frankly you hope the latter, your energy has all been sapped and what is never truer in your life than at this moment is that batteries are very definitely not included.

I’m not saying it was better, it wasn’t, I’m saying can we just maybe have it once every four years, like the Olympics… and sex.

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