by Suw on March 26, 2017

Warning: This post is going to be just chock full of spoilers, so if you haven’t watched all three series, go do that and then read on!

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching and re-watching (and re-re-watching) Shetland, the crime drama based on books by Ann Cleeves. It is a truly astonishing piece of work, and not just because of the superb acting by Douglas Henshall (as DI Jimmy Perez), Alison O’Donnell (as DC/DS Alison ‘Tosh’ MacIntosh), and the rest of the cast.

What makes Shetland amazing is the writing. Now, I’ve not read Cleeves’ books, so this isn’t going to be about how faithful or not the TV series are to the books. I’ll leave that to others. But Cleeve’s laid an impressive foundation in her books that David Kane, Gaby Chiappe, Richard Davidson, Robert Murphy and Alexandr Perrin have very skilfully built upon.

What excites me most about Shetland is that the writers (a term I’ll use now to mean both Cleeves and the scriptwriters) have worked hard to avoid both character and relationship stereotypes. Instead we get some genuinely refreshing characters and sometimes surprising relationships, which gives the show more depth and interest than you’d get from just a good plot alone. Of course, Shetland has some bloody good plots too, so they haven’t been slacking in that department.

But it’s just such a relief to watch some TV that steers clear of rehashing old tropes and instead gives us interesting people dealing with difficult situations and chewy emotions. I like that. I like being given the chance to think, being treated by a TV show as if I do, in fact, have a modicum of intelligence.

DI Jimmy Perez

Obviously, everything hinges on Henshall as Perez, the detective inspector who was born and raised on Fair Isle, lived for a while in Glasgow, and has now returned after the death of his wife to Shetland to raise his step-daughter, Cassie.

The dead wife is an old trope often used to explain a man’s motivation, and as such it can be hideously misused. Characters with dead partners are often portrayed as irreparably damaged, people who turn to drink or gambling or obsession to fill the void, whose motivations are revenge or guilt or hatred. Such writing is invariably one dimensional, reducing the dead partner (usually a woman, let’s face it) to a prop, an excuse for abnormal behaviour on the part of the hero.

But the Shetland writers avoid that cliche entirely. Perez isn’t a man tortured and unhealthily motivated by the death of his wife, he’s just a widower with a teenager to take care of, a man who’s lonely and needs to pour all his love into his step-daughter to help dull the pain of loss. Perez behaves as many of us might after the loss of a spouse. He gets on with life, maybe works a bit too hard and sleeps to little, but tries to be the best parent that he knows how to be. It’s just that every now and again he can’t help but show the pain he’s in.

Indeed, Perez is a sharp, insightful, intelligent man whose toughness, required by police work, is balanced by a gentleness frequently lacking in crime drama leads. Perez clearly cares not just about his own family, but about his colleagues, about the witnesses and the victims, and he’s not afraid to show it. Henshall deserves the Scottish BAFTA he won last year for Shetland, for the subtlety of his performance is truly a delight to watch. I particularly love the wry smile that dances around the corners of his mouth when Perez is amused, and the kindness he brings to Perez’s reactions to those he feels have been hurt or wronged. You don’t see men doing gentle often enough on TV.

Indeed, it’s rare to see a male character who can be accurately described as nurturing, but Perez very obviously is, not just towards Cassie, but also towards Tosh his detective constable (later sergeant). He is not just her boss but also her mentor, and he clearly cares about her personally as well as professionally. It’s truly lovely to see a male-female pairing with that level of connection, and with that chemistry, but without any undercurrent of romantic involvement. Indeed, as Tosh points out in one episode, that would be truly icky, on pretty much all levels.

DC/DS Alison ‘Tosh’ McIntosh


O’Donnell also does a great job as Tosh, Perez’s sidekick, providing the leavening humour but without the blackness that’s too common in crime drama. Her asides aren’t born of gallows humour but something a little more relatable, and often unconnected to the case in hand. Tosh uses her humour as a way of defusing some of the tension inherent in her work, but never in a snide way.

O’Donnell was a relative unknown prior to Shetland, but you’d never think that watching her. I’m no expert when it comes to acting — I tried it once, was terrible at it, and the evidence of that is still on YouTube* if you’re that much of a masochist — but the depth she brings to Tosh becomes evident as the series progress.

Her performance in S3E5 is just breathtaking. Without going into too much depth, Tosh is kidnapped and, we eventually learn, raped. The whole episode is worthy of a blog post all on its own, because the writing is remarkable. Rape is so often used as a plot device and the impact it has on the victim and those around them often ignored. In Shetland, we see not just the aftermath of the attack for Tosh, but also how it affects her colleagues. The writers deal explore the issue with great sensitivity and sympathy, and the way that they have the other characters respond is a masterclass on how we here in the real world ought to be dealing with sexual assault and rape.

I will admit, the episode left me feeling a little shattered. It’s a powerful and affecting performance from O’Donnell, but the way that it’s written… I just wish more TV writers had that kind of empathy and understanding. I strongly believe that the way we portray the world in fiction affects the way that we shape the world in reality. We need to create a social norm where assault victims are believed by default, supported respectfully by colleagues, and responsibility for assault lies solely with the attacker. One episode of a TV show may be a small step towards creating that new norm, but it’s still an important one.

Two fathers

Another aspect of Shetland that I love is how they slowly reveal the nature of key relationships, and how some of those turn out to be very different to what one might expect.

We know that Perez’s wife and Cassie’s mother, Fran has died at some point in the not too distant past, and Perez has made the decision to move to Shetland so that he can raise Cassie on the same island as her natural father, Duncan Hunter, played brilliantly by Mark Bonnar. Hunter has re-married, but we never see his wife, Mary, and we only really find out about her later on through various asides.

Perez and Hunter, then are two fathers co-parenting a smart, capable, feisty teenage daughter. But not only do they have to negotiate their personal relationship, the fact that Hunter is a wee bit of a chancer means Perez at times has to rein him in. This creates two sources of tension within their relationship: their daughter and their professional relationship.

Shetland explores parental relationships through a very different lens than normal, through the experiences of two men dealing with aspects of parenting that are often the portrayed as the purview of women. Indeed there’s even a scene where Perez complains about how he always has to play ‘bad cop’ because of Hunter’s more laissez-faire attitude, and another where Hunter jokingly asks for a ‘divorce’. As the seasons develop, Perez and Hunter are drawn closer together as Cassie grows up and, ultimately, leaves home.

It will be interesting to see where that relationship goes, but again, it’s a joy to see a different take on something as common as parenting. I am fed up of the helpless father trope that we see so often, not just in TV drama but also in ads. How many ads for domestic wares show men as incompetent and women as being somehow being the natural cleaners, cooks and bottle washers? It’s fabulous to instead see men being shown as perfectly capable of bringing up children. There’s no learned helplessness, no appeals to female relatives to take on the burden. Hunter and Perez might struggle at times, but no more and no differently than other parents.

Why you should watch, and re-watch, Shetland

As a writer, I think there’s a huge amount to learn from Shetland. There’s certainly a huge amount more to write about it, though I’m well over 1,600 words already.

But the more I watch, and re-watch (I’ve seen S1 four times in the last, um, ten days, and S2 twice), the more nuance I spot, the more depth. It makes me think hard about how we portray relationships, and why we need to reach beyond what is obvious and explore what is at once both unusual and yet so very normal.

Having two fathers bringing up a daughter is unusual, but yet the father-daughter relationship is very normal. Having a young woman being fast-tracked through the police may well be unusual (hopefully less so these days), but having a mentor/mentee relationship with your boss is very normal. We don’t need to rely on tropes when there’s so much richness in the wide variation of our experiences of “normal”.

And that is something I have found truly inspiring. Regular readers (all three of you) will know I am sporadic at best when it comes to writing, but Shetland has galvanised me in a way I’ve not felt for a long time. I hate talking about works in progress, but I’ve had a concept gnawing away at me for the last 18 months that I’m now actually, properly working on, rather than just mulling over as I fall asleep. I feel viscerally excited by the idea of putting pen to paper again. What with Ada Lovelace Day taking up my of my mental bandwidth, it has been difficult to carve out the time to allow myself to be creative — which is really what Creative 17 was/is all about. So, maybe Shetland has affected me so deeply because in it I see the kind of work I want to produce (though I’m not a crime writer).

Whatever it is that has connected with me, I’m waiting on tenterhooks now for S4.

* You’ll never find it.

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Lucifer charming

It seems I can only be prompted to blog during bouts of strong emotion these days, writing in midst of white hot anger, extreme smug or, in this case, intense over-excitement. Maybe it’s because, after 14 years, the dynamic of blogging has radically changed, moving from the urgent confessional towards a more self-conscious performance. (Or maybe I’m spending too much time on Twitter, which is performative in the same way that theatre must be, with immediate gratification/mortification; blogging is more like a movie or TV show, requiring rather more of our limited stock of patience than perhaps we wish to give.)



I knew from the moment I saw the first trail for Lucifer that it would be My Sort Of Thing. I didn’t realise for the first couple of episodes that it is loosely based on Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer from The Sandman, but for various reasons which will become eminently clear at some point in the next few weeks, or months, I’ve been a little distracted lately and had not been paying attention. Tsk tsk. Always said I was bad at being a fan.

If you’re a better fan than me, and are familiar with Lucifer from the work of either Gaiman or the wonderful Mike Carey who wrote the spin-off comic, I’d advise that you put that out of your mind right now. Lucifer the TV show takes Lucifer the character, and his backstory, and does something very different, but just as good, with him.

Lucifer (Tom Ellis) has grown bored of Hell, has shut up shop and moved to LA where he’s spent the last five years running a nightclub and charming the pants off anyone who stops moving long enough. When Delilah, a singer whose career Lucifer ‘helped along’ is shot dead, he cannot help but get involved in the hunt for the real killer. Enter Chloe Decker (Lauren German), detective with the LAPD, who is peculiarly immune to Lucifer’s ’superpower’, his ability to extract from people an admission of their deepest, darkest secrets. And so we end up with the unlikely team of Lucifer Morningstar and Detective Chloe Decker, fighting crime on LA’s lawless streets… Except not.

In the same way that it is unhelpful to think of Lucifer as a comic book adaptation, it’s also unhelpful to slot it into the supernatural police procedural genre. It’s not CSI or NCIS or The Bill or New Tricks (yes, yes, I’ve been trawling Hulu for old British TV shows, what of it?) with added Satan. Whilst there is a crime of the week, they’re really just a backdrop, the scenery against which we see a far more interesting narrative play out.

If anything, Lucifer has more in common with Sleepy Hollow than any of the million or so police procedurals that have graced our screens. Like Sleepy Hollow, Lucifer features a character dislocated from his normal reality and is paired with a modern cop who is dealing with their own problems and who also serves to ground not just both characters but also the show.

Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a man out of time who has to not only adapt to an era radically different from his own, he also has to protect himself, Lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and their extended family/team from supernatural evil. Lucifer is, well, the Devil, a fallen angel who’s trying to adapt to this messy, weird, very human world that he now inhabits. He’s not supposed to be adapting, he’s not supposed to change at all. He’s supposed to be emotionless and unsentimental but instead he finds himself having these… these feelings… which he can neither explain nor understand but which he yet finds fascinating. Lucifer is a lot less interested in protecting others, even if he does find himself intervening when perhaps he ought not, so the dynamic isn’t entirely parallel to Sleepy Hollow, but the overall structure is similar.

Co-incidentally, both Lucifer and Sleepy Hollow feature a white British male actor called Tom playing the ‘out of time/place’ character. (They also share an executive producer, Len Wiseman.) As a Brit living in the wilds of Wisconsin, perhaps this idea of the dislocated Brit dealing with all the strangeness of a different culture resonates particularly strongly with me. I particularly look forward to the episodes where Lucifer and Crane try to order a glass of water in a restaurant only to find themselves deemed entirely unintelligible. Now there’s a crossover to boggle the mind.

!! (Minor?) SPOILERS !!

As I said, Lucifer is only vaguely a procedural, not least because Mr Morningstar himself isn’t hugely interested in these crimes, unless he’s getting something out of it himself. In the first episode, Pilot, he’s interested in Delilah’s death because he was responsible for her having a music career in the first place. After that, the crimes are, for him, either a mechanism that allows him to get closer to Decker, who intrigues him, or an opportunity to play with his own (im)morality. But by S01E06, Favourite Son, the novelty has worn off and Lucifer walks away from the crime scene because the murder of a security guard and theft of a shipping container is “boring”. It’s only when he finds out that it’s his shipping container that’s been nicked that he engages.

Lucifer’s real interest lies not in solving crimes, but in understanding humans and their emotions, finding out why Decker is immune to his charms and, as the series progresses, understanding what it is to become (more) mortal. Having never had to deal with humans in their natural habitat before, he finds that perhaps they are a bit more complicated than he had been lead to believe, and he the ambiguity is irresistible.

This is, imho, one of the major strengths of the show. Most TV series or movies that tackle human nature head-on suffer from hideous interminability. There is nothing, to borrow Lucifer’s word, more “boring” than a worthy exploration of the human condition. The best way to tackle such introspection in popular culture is obliquely, through the medium of humour. We can take a sneak peak at our humanity through the lens of the Devil, and if we’re smart we can learn something about ourselves as we laugh.

This question of identity is a crucial one to every human who’s awake and paying attention. It’s certainly an important one for me. Having had what one might call a ‘non-standard career’, I can feel some of Lucifer’s pain. Who are we, really? Are we here for a reason, or do we just blunder through life and hope for the best? Does our work shape the person we become? Or does our nature draw us to certain types of work?

Lucifer’s own sense of identity is in crisis. He feels a deep-seated contradiction between his role as the Father of Lies and the fact that he is himself truthful and honourable, for certain definitions of truthful and honourable. His ability to draw the truth out of other people is mirrored by the fact that he never actually lies, though his truths often sound so ludicrous they are ignored. And, as he says, his word is his bond; Lucifer always upholds his end of a bargain. How can he, or we, square this with Satan’s reputation for deceit, manipulation and trickery?

And there are more wrinkles: How can he, or we, ignore the fact that his honour is not a little besmirched by the fact that he tells people that if they want something, they should take it. He might argue that ultimately the people he manipulates make their own decisions, but we can’t ignore the fact that he still encourages transgression.

“So the Devil made you do it, did he?” Lucifer asks Delilah. “The alcohol and the drugs and the topless selfies. The choices are on you, my dear.” But time and again, we see him nudging people towards choices they might not otherwise have taken.

These conflicts, between Lucifer’s conception of himself as truthful and honourable and both his actions and reputation, are at the heart of the sub-plot that explores Lucifer’s damaged relationship with his dad. After all, Lucifer Morningstar was once called Samael and was the favourite son of God, the most beautiful of all the angels. But, being a tad feisty, he rebelled some 3 seconds after the moment of Creation and was cast out of Heaven to become the Lord of Hell. But, as he says, was he made Lord of Hell because he was inherently evil, or is he a good person doing the job his father commanded him to do?

From this springs Lucifer’s second rebellion, his closing up of Hell and relocation to LA. He turns his back on his father, dismissing God’s demand, delivered by the angel Amenadiel (DB Woodside), and the pleas of the demon Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt ) that he return to Hell. And thus we have another story strand, that of Amenadiel’s and Maze’s attempt to persuade Lucifer to resume his duties. In, Pilot, Amenadiel asks what has become of the tortured souls and demons that Lucifer should be looking after? That question, so far, has not been answered. I was half-expecting to see more in the way of supernatural crime as the damned and the demons run riot. I’m actually glad that’s not the case, because Lucifer’s personal journey is far, far more interesting.

Of course, Lucifer isn’t the only person with issues. Decker has a broken marriage and is ostracised at work for daring to think that perhaps a fellow cop, now deceased, wasn’t squeaky clean. “Palmetto Street” keeps coming up as a major turning point for her, and an unresolved issue she can’t keep from revisiting.

One of the things I really love about Lucifer is that Decker’s relationship with her ex-husband, Dan, isn’t black and white. Whilst Lucifer himself refers to him as “Detective Douche”, and it’s easy to agree with that summation in early episodes during which Dan is at risk of being a cartoon of a character, by Favourite Son, he’s beginning to be a real, fleshed-out person. He doesn’t just have feelings, he has complexity, he has virtues and vulnerabilities, and he’s likeable. Maybe Chloe and Dan’s relationship is actually meant to be, maybe it’s worth saving.

This kind of character arc is not an uncommon one, but in Lucifer it’s essential. How tedious would it be if Detective Douche was actually a douche, if Lucifer really was the best man in Decker’s life? Not only would that be trite, it would be a disaster for Decker. Lucifer describes himself as “like walking heroin: very habit forming. It never ends well.” And you know that if Decker got involved with Lucifer it would indeed end badly, and she’s far too good of a person for that.

So often, buddy set-ups are predicated on romantic love between the leads, or some kinda of platonic bro-love if it’s two men. (When the leads are two women, it’s usually hatred morphing into basic platonic friendship, cf The Heat, because heaven forfend two women have any kind of love for each other.) And whilst Lucifer is desperate to provoke an amorous response from Decker, she is entirely disinterested in him, which makes their relationship both more credible and more satisfying. Instead, the romantic focus is on the estranged husband and wife, and it’s done with nuance and complexity, things of which I am a huge fan.

Lauren German is fantastic as Decker, with that perfect mix of suspicion and level-headedness that makes the whole show work. Without German, Lucifer would feel like nothing more than a vehicle for Ellis’s very obvious charms, but she brings an everywoman vibe to her performance that allows us to relate to her. Decker got where she is by being tough and determined, and not taking any shit from anyone, lease of all some weird bloke who says he’s the Devil. She is exactly the person that Lucifer needs, and German does her brilliantly. I love her to bits.

Tom Ellis is equally well cast. He has the insouciance, the accent, the eyebrows for the job, and his interpretation of Lucifer as the bastard child of “Noel Coward and Mick Jagger” is perfect. Of course Lucifer’s going to be cocky — he can’t be killed because he’s immortal. Of course he’s going to have swagger — women are irresistibly drawn to him (as might also be some men, as we find out in one scene). But where Ellis really excels is in portraying uncertainty, those moments when Lucifer really isn’t sure what the fuck is going on, and doesn’t quite know what is happening to him. It would be easy to overdo Lucifer, but Ellis is at his best when he’s reining it in, those moments of barely controlled rage, or the intense perplexity when Decker doesn’t behave the way he’s expecting.

If you haven’t seen Lucifer, then I recommend binge-watching as soon as you feasibly can. Watching the episodes back to back is hugely satisfying, not least because each episode is fresh in your mind so you pick up on the smaller details that you might miss if you waited a week in-between. And, of course, if you haven’t seen Sleepy Hollow yet, you seriously need to binge on that, too. All of it. Right now.

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We need a female Dr Who

by Suw on March 30, 2013

We need a female Dr Who. We also need women writing Dr Who. I was quite shocked to read in an excellent piece by Mathilda Gregory that the last episode of Dr Who written by a woman was in 2008. Said Gregory: 

[S]eason seven of Doctor Who will feature no female scribes at all. Not in the bombastic dinosaurs and cowboys episodes that aired last year, and not in any of the new episodes we’re about to receive. In fact, Doctor Who hasn’t aired an episode written by a woman since 2008, 60 episodes ago. There hasn’t been a single female-penned episode in the Moffat era, and in all the time since the show was rebooted in 2005 only one, Helen Raynor, has ever written for the show.

In my opinion, it shows. Whilst some episodes Dr Who are amazing examples of storytelling, some are really quite dreadful, bad ideas that are emotionally flat with little complexity or depth. I think this comes, at least in part, from a lack of diversity on the writing team. Homogenous groups only too easy go along with each other’s ideas, even bad ones, because they lack dissenting voices. The best way to diversify your ideas is to diversify the group of people having them. Which doesn’t just mean having women in your writing team, of course, but looking at all other areas of diversity. 

But whilst having some female writers on the Dr Who team would be a great step forward, an even bigger, better step forward would be to make Dr Who a woman. Not just for a novelty episode, but for several series, just like any other Dr Who actor. 

With Ada Lovelace Day, we focus on the importance of role models to women and girls, and work towards raising the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (and other related fields). We do this because women’s achievements and contributions often go unrecognised, and the women themselves are often sidelined in favour of their male colleagues. By pointing out women’s achievements, we hope to slowly build new role models from whom girls and women can draw inspiration. 

One area that’s just as important but less easy to address is the role of women in fiction. As a teen, I was absolutely entranced by the novels of Anne McCaffrey not least because the vast majority of them featured strong female leads. These fictional women were people I could relate to, that I wanted to be. It’s much, much easier to be inspired by someone of your own gender, because you can more easily imagine yourself as them. And research has shown that female role models are important to women, more so than male role models are to men. 

Dr Who is one of the most important science fiction shows on TV in the UK, and yet the lead role is always a male. Females are always companions or tertiary characters there to advance the story. Whilst many of the Drs companions are very strong, intelligent women, they are still secondary characters. The message they give girls and women is that it doesn’t matter how smart, strong, or independent you are, there’ll always be a man in charge. 

It’s about time that the Dr Who team took the bull by the horns and cast a woman as Dr Who. Preferably a woman who’s got the experience to show the Doctor as the complex emotional creature we know her to be. And preferably this female doctor would be written by a team that includes a couple of women as permanent members, rather than having the occasionally female-penned script thrown in every now and again. 

I’m very obviously not the first to think about Dr Who in these terms. Indeed, I had a great conversation with some women scientists recently where we were wondering who we would have to lobby to get a female in the lead role. And in a rather wonderful piece, Alasdair Stuart runs us through an alternative history of Dr Who, reflecting on who might have played her if she’d started off as a woman. 

Having a female Dr Who, well co-written with female scriptwriters, would be utterly fantastic. It would provide a strong female role model for girls, it would provide a great opportunity to explore some complex themes around identity – something that Dr Who has done so well in the past – and it would be a great watch for us women who are so fed up of seeing a male world reflected to us as if we don’t exist. 

So come on, BBC, get your act together. More female writers and a female lead is exactly what the Doctor ordered. 

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(Cross-posted from Kits and Mortar.)

Ever thought about converting a chapel into a cosy little house? Or driven past a derelict barn and wished you could renovate it? Have you taken the plunge and bought a chicken shed that’s just oozing potential? And are you going to do something green with it?

Well, I had a call from a lovely chap called Greg Goff at Twofour Broadcast this morning who’s looking for an eco-rennovation project to film for a new series called House Wrecks to Riches. The team are currently filming a number of builds, including a warehouse, a windmill, a milking parlour and a lighthouse, and Greg is really keen to find a green project that they can add to their list.

The programme will follow a project from the very beginning, so you should have planning permission and be ready to rock and roll, but not have quite started yet. The production team will then come and have a look round the existing building and talk to you about what you’re going to do with it. They’ll then film through until the end of the year, which will hopefully be enough time for you to reach completion!

Your project doesn’t have to be huge, it just has to be green – and part of the interest will be in seeing how you interpret the idea of ‘environmentally friendly’. One thing I’ve learnt in the short time Kits and Mortar has been around is that ‘green’ definitely means different things to different people. The key thing is that green is at the centre of your build. That might mean a reed bed water filtration system, or straw bale building, or turf roofs, or using any other green technique or material.

It also doesn’t matter what you’re intending to do with the finished property, whether you move in to it as your primary family home, sell it on at a profit, or run it as a holiday let. The build can be almost anywhere – Twofour Broadcast are based in Plymouth, so most of England and Wales is within easy reach – and they are following projects on Anglesey, Essex and Cornwall

The programme is going to be presented by Gary McCausland from How to be a Property Developer and Zilpah Hartley from A Place in the Sun.

If you have such a build in mind, and you’re ready to take the plunge, get in touch directly with Greg Goff by email, or phone his direct line: 01752 727528.

There was one closing quote in the blurb Greg emailed me yesterday: “The UK needs 250,000 new homes built every year to keep up with demand. Each year we’re 100,000 short of the target… but there are 750,000 empty properties out there to be renovated.” Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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A tangle with gravity

by Suw on January 30, 2008

I wrote this post yesterday afternoon with the intention of posting it on Strange Attractor, but technical problems have stopped me from being able to post it there at all. Horizon was, by the way, fab.

Whilst Kev and I were at the gym this morning, we caught an interview with Dr Brian Cox on BBC Breakfast, talking to Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams about an episode of Horizon, What on Earth is wrong with gravity. I’m looking forward to seeing the programme tonight, having already seen a number of outtakes on Brian’s partner Gia’s blog. Thankfully, Gia has grabbed the interview and put it up on YouTube:

Now, gravity is tricky. It’s the sort of thing, like mass, that seem pretty obvious. You drop a pencil, as Bill did, and it falls until it hits a surface that stops it falling any further. We all know what gravity does. What’s less clear is what gravity is, how it works, what makes gravity pull things together. It’s actually a pretty difficult subject to tackle in a six minute segment.

Unfortunately, Bill and Sian – and whomever produced and researched the program – didn’t prepare any decent questions. Gravity is one of those subjects where seemingly simple questions have horrendously complex answers, if they have answers at all. Bill and Sian went for the simple questions, but Brian had only a few minutes – if that, given that they showed two clips of the programme – to try to answer.

Now, to my mind, the job of the presenter in these situations is to act as a proxy for the audience and to ask the questions that the audience want answered. The question that I suspect the audience most want answered about an episode of Horizon is: “Why should I watch this programme?” That was a question that Bill and Sian spectacularly failed to address, even indirectly, because they were focused on small but unanswerable questions instead.

Bill concentrated on dropping his pencil and asking querulously, “Why is it so complicated?” and then giggling like a schoolboy, I suspect because he felt a little out of his element. “I thought it was dead simple myself,” he says.

Brian has some great stories to illustrate his point. Most surprisingly, he talks about how if we didn’t correct for the way that time passes differently in orbit to on earth, our satnav systems would drift by 11km per day. But he’s forced to talk about spacetime without being able to fully explain what spacetime is and, frankly, anyone would be forgiven for struggling with that.

Sian then says, “I’m still not sure what causes gravity.” Well, you and the rest of the physics world. That’s not a smart question to ask, because there’s no answer, and the lack of an answer is going to flummox people. The point of this six minute segment is not to solve one of the universe’s greatest riddles, but to spark a little curiosity in people’s minds. And I can pretty much guarantee that no one woke up this morning and asked, “What causes gravity?”

Indeed, I did a straw poll of my friend son Twitter and Seesmic, and asked, “If I was an omniscient being, what scientific question would you like answered?”

From Twitter:

jrnoded: @suw why 42?
michaelocc: @Suw Is faster than light travel possible?
adamamyl: @Suw: why, on taking government office do incumbents forget they have principles/spines? Or, why int a resignation, a resignation, thesedays
zeroinfluencer: @Suw: How to make an affordable Holy Grail (Assorted Colours)
londonfilmgeek: @Suw Can i haz an Aperture Science Portal gun, kthanxbai
The_Shed: @Suw Are we even close to knowing the truth about anything?
johnbreslin: @Suw: Is this like “does anything eat wasps?” 🙂 how about, where does all the time go (inspired by the Time Snails in “Captain Bluebear”)?
aidg: @Suw Science q for the omniscient: How the universe was created or the story of creation from primordial soup to multicellular organisms.
meriwilliams: @Suw Why is life?
tara_kelly: @Suw Dear omniscient being: is time really as linear as we like to think it is?

From Seesmic, my question:

An amazing question from DeekDeekster, that I personally would love the answer to:

Jeff Hinz echoes MichaelOOC, but from the opposite angle:

Christian Payne takes the Prince Charles line:

Dave Shannon asks the hardest question:

You’ll notice that no one, not one single person, asked “What is gravity?”.

Then towards the end of the Breakfast interview, they bring up the entirely spurious issue of the asteroid that missed hitting the Earth by 334,000 miles at 8;33am this morning. Cue the stupidest question of the morning: “If gravity is such a big deal, how come that asteroid that Carol told us about didn’t crash into Earth?” That’s like saying, if the sky is blue, how come grass is green?

To add insult to injury, Sian ends up by saying, “See, that’s why he has a PhD and we haven’t, because he can understand these sorts of things and we’re still bamboozled” and Bill finishes up with, “You’d managed a major achievement this morning, which is that you’ve managed to explain something to all of us and made us both feel really thick.”

Poor Brian didn’t stand a chance. How can you manage to extract even a shred of dignity from that? How can you pull back from that and say something that will encourage people to watch your programme?

If the Breakfast team had thought for a moment and actually talked to Brian before the interview about what questions would make for an entertaining and interesting interview, ruling out questions that no physicist alive can answer, and including ones that perhaps the audience actually want to know the answer to, then I suspect things would have gone much better.

But to me, this is indicative of the attitude of the media towards science and technology: “Oh, look at those weirdos over there with their white coats and strange ways of talking. They’re not like us. They’re Boffins.” It’s an attitude based in ignorance and fear, and nurtured by the unnecessarily divisive split between science/tech and the humanities at school and then university.

Yet at times like this, the “I’m too dumb to understand you boffins” attitude is counterproductive. All Bill and Sian have done is put off people who might otherwise have watched Horizon, and pissed off the people who definitely will. Which is foolish, given that they are working for the very same organisation that commissioned Brian’s programme.

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Get well soon Hamster

by Suw on September 22, 2006

Richard Hammond, one of my favourite TV presenters responsible for making Brainiac and Top Gear such compelling viewing. I mean, I don't drive, and all I know about cars is that they have a wheel at each corner and go 'vrrooom' … why would I want to watch a programme about cars? But Richard, known affectionately as the Hamster, just made things so entertaining I started to think that maybe I might want drive myself again one day.
Time Commanders Hammond
So I was very concerned to hear yesterday that the daft git had managed to crash the Vampire jet car at 300mph and was in hospital in a critical condition. His condition's stable now, and it appears he's improving, which is all good news, although no one will know how serious his brain injury is for a while yet.
I know there are thousands of fans out there who feel the same way I do, and they've come out en masse to do something about it. The people at have set up a page on to collect donations for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, who flew Hamster to Leeds General Infirmary. Initially they wanted to raise the £340 that that single flight, but the last time I looked there were up to £36,895, and it's going up by about a £1000 every half hour as the network effect takes over. It's wonderful to watch.
So get well soon, Hamster. Looking forward to seeing you back behind the wheel and givin' it some attitude.

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by Suw on May 15, 2006

I love ads that riff off other ads. This one is just ace. (Thanks Kevin!)

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Office policy

by Suw on April 17, 2006

Not really all that work safe at all, I'm afraid, but very funny. (Thanks KM.)

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Bloggers on telly

by Suw on January 13, 2006

Last time I saw one of my friends on TV, it all turned out to be a wee fib. This time round… the evidence is incontrovertible. And on Flickr.
Someone must have video, surely?
But wow! Our own Tom on telly. Whatever next? (*cough*me?*cough*)

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Whilst I was in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to work on the Technorati Live 8 site. It was a concatenation of lucky events that led me to being involved, but I feel proud to have had that chance. The Technorati Live 8 site gives all bloggers a single point of reference to find out what is going on in the blogosphere. Amongst other things, we have resources there to help you contact the G8 leaders, and the Live 8 badge so that you can show support for the cause on your blog. We even have a version of the Live 8 Technorati tags page for your Treo!
Right now, I am watching the Live 8 London concert on TV, watching as thousands of people enjoy probably the biggest, most spectacular gig they will ever see. Part of me wishes that I had been there, but I can do my bit from my blog, as can every blogger.
There have been some cynical reactions to Live 8, not just from corners of the media but also from normal people, who think that it's a waste of time. Well, all I can say is this: We are privileged by an accident of birth. That is all that separates us from those suffering and dying in poverty. Nothing else. We have a responsibility to act and to do something to relieve the pain others are feeling, every day, with no end in sight.
Our leaders have for years assumed that they could do what profited them, what profited the big businesses that fund and support them. For years they have ignored the poverty-stricken and the disadvantaged because they saw no profit in it for them. And for years, we have let them.
It is time we remembered that our leaders are in fact our servants. We put them in power in order to represent us, but they have ignored us one time too many. We have a voice and we must use it to ensure that we send a message, strong and unequivocal, that we will not tolerate prevarication any longer. We will not tolerate their profiteering. We will not tolerate them ignoring our will.
Debt. Aid. Trade. Governance.
Debt: Africa is crippled by debt it cannot repay. It's time to wipe the slate clean, to drop the debt, to stop profiteering off the poor.
Aid: Much more aid is promised than ever delivered. A huge overhaul is needed, not just in how much aid our governments promise, but how much money they actually provide and how it is used. AIDS is wiping out half the population of the continent, and we need to do more to ensure that it's insidious spread is halted, and that drugs are made available to those who need them.
Trade: African trying to earn a living are being driven out of business or kept in poverty because of unfair trade laws. These laws are drafted and enacted by the richest countries in the world, and guess who they benefit?
Governance: There's no doubt that there is corruption. There's is also no doubt that there are good people doing good work in Africa. We can't ignore the problem of fair governance when addressing the problems faced by Africa.
Who benefits?
We do. All of us, because a stronger Africa means a stronger world. Every African who earns a good living, who has independence, dignity and health, who can provide an education for their children and security for themselves and the next generation, they all help our world be a better place too.
We don't want your money, we want your voice
Live 8 is not about raising money, it's about raising your voice. Join billions of others in telling your leaders that you want them to act, now, to make poverty history. Don't allow the G8 Summit to pass without telling your leaders that you want them to take an historic stand, that you want them to drop the debt, reform trade laws and double aid.
Live 8 is the first rung on the ladder – there is a lot more that will need to be done. Turning out for a gig is a great show of solidarity but we need to keep the conversation going once Live 8 is over. Let this be a start, a new beginning. We must continue to discuss what is happening, what needs to happen, and what we can make happen. And we need to keep the channels of communication open, and keep the pressure on our leaders to do something constructive.
All the links you could possibly need are on the Technorati Live 8 site. Use them.

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Dr Who is such a tart!

May 30, 2005

Just watched last night's Dr Who and I have to agree with Tom that not only is Dr Who is a bit of a tart, but he's also a bit free and easy with gender/species/group sex distinctions. Good for him, I say. Bit jealous really. I never get to dance, let alone set up an […]

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Edge of Darkness, episode 1 at last

May 14, 2005

It was nearly two years ago now that I sat in my lounge in Reading, watching Edge of Darkness on BBC4. That time round I missed the first episode. Tonight I saw it. Twenty years is no time at all. Two years is but a blink.

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Bad Wolf

May 9, 2005

Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? I think Dr Who will require repeat viewing now.

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Dw i eisiau Sky+

May 9, 2005

Llynedd, pan o'n i'n byw yn fflat fy ffrind Svet, des i arfer i ddefnyddio Sky+ i recordio'r teledu. Mae'n fendigedig – ti'n jyst setio'r peth i recordio rhaglen neu holl gyfres, ac mae yn. Jyst fel 'na. Dim ffys. Dim problem. Gwylies i fwy o deledu Cymraeg wedyn na'r holl flwyddyn o'r blaen, jyst […]

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Jacques, Jacques, Jacques your 2CV

April 29, 2005

Absolutely wonderful version of the Citroen C4 Transformer ad, which I loved. (Thanks Stereo!)

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