No advertising today please…

penI had not realised until recently how much I dislike advertising. I have always been averse to it, but in my youth took very little notice of it and prided myself in believing that I was completely uninfluenced by it, that I had never bought anything because of an advert; most of it seemed completely idiotic to me; I found it hard to believe that anybody could be taken in by it. But it must work; otherwise we would not be so inundated with it.

Until a few years ago, I suppose I ignored it. I rarely watched commercial TV and somehow managed to avoid noticing the adverts when I did. Six years ago I bought a DVD which could edit recorded programmes, so now I very rarely have to put up with adverts – I simply pre-record, edit out the adverts and watch. On the occasions when there is something too good to miss though, I do sit through them. In 2011 Ofcom announced an increase from 7 minutes to 12 minutes of adverts allowed in an hour. Now, there was certainly more than 7 minutes before the increase and since the increase there is more than 12 minutes. Perhaps the seven minutes was manageable; it was possible to stay with a programme despite it; it was not too intrusive: two short breaks an hour or three very short breaks were just about acceptable.

Now the amount of advertising is definitely intrusive and there is much more than 12 minutes an hour. One example is the US import, Homeland. It is scheduled at one hour and five minutes, but my edited version (adverts removed) comes out at 41 or 42 minutes. Although the second and third series are pretty silly, it’s just about watchable. But it is impossible to watch live; the adverts are just too intrusive. After the lengthy introduction which is shown every week and the lengthy recap of what’s been happening, the first break comes after about 8 minutes, barely longer than the break which follows it. It is impossible to get involved in the storyline, the breaks come too often and are too long – all narrative flow is lost.

The extended breaks were originally proposed for a trial run. I doubt if there was any intention for this to be temporary; the breaks have continued and, without any announcement or permission, extended. It is claimed that broadcasters would invest more money in drama. That may be true, all commercial drama is now sponsored by somebody, but the dramas produced are just vehicles for advertising. I can’t think of one memorable drama that has come from ITV, despite an increase in production. Broadchurch was probably the best, but it was spoiled by being too long with a ridiculous and sentimental ending; it contained the same amount of adverts as the US imports with only 42 or 43 minutes of actual programming.

Broadcasters get around the new laws by starting programmes late and finishing early. They tag on adverts for their own programmes so that each break is 5, 6 or 7 minutes, fifteen to twenty minutes in total. I think the new laws have rendered commercial TV unwatchable. The fact that it is watched by millions says rather a lot about the people who watch it. How they allow themselves to be subjected to the advertising, I don’t know. Presumably a great many are influenced by it.

I remember twenty years ago that programmes had two breaks per hour. I can’t remember how long they were, perhaps three or four minutes. It was bearable. I also remember more adverts containing humour, so that even if you were not interested in the product, you could have a laugh about the ad. Adverts now seem consistently puerile, as if the advertising people are assuming that the audience are idiots. One has to assume by the size of the audiences that most of those watching probably are idiots. I find it amazing that people still complain about the BBC licence fee. Every argument against it has people moaning about having to pay it when they don’t watch it. Firstly, I don’t believe that they never watch it, and secondly, if you object to paying less that £3 a week for an advert free station, including radio, a world service, BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the red button, you are probably mad.

I know it is another era and before the time of most of you, but one thinks back to 1981 when Granada serialised Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, with a magnificent cast. It was interrupted briefly twice. Practically the whole country stayed in to watch it, every week. It is unthinkable now that any commercial station would attempt such a thing. The nearest we have had is the recent run of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V on the BBC. They were appreciated and discussed online, but I suspect it was a very small audience.

Advertising for the new products (phones, laptops, iPads, flat screen TVs) seems to concentrate on their coolness, with dozens of happy but vacant teenagers desperate to replace what they bought six months ago. The ads are beautifully put together but absolutely empty. The same goes for cosmetics and car ads: empty cool; either that or half-wits being persuaded to bet or enjoying their TVs exploding or shooting at them. One after another they are stultifying. I dread to think of the American mind, where they have been subjected to this for much longer with less choice. Last year it was said that the average American was exposed to 3000 adverts per day. I think it is impossible to say; it depends on the individual, but for the incautious viewer or internet user, it is certainly a lot. This country is not far behind.

I would like to think that I have been subjected to no advertising today. Nothing when I get up because I don’t watch anything until I get to work. Since then I have glanced at Facebook but did not look at the ads down the side; I have bought some food but I’m pretty sure that I did not look at any of the many Greggs ads plastered all around the restaurant; I did not register whatever ads my email providers tried to tempt me with; when I get home I may watch some TV but it is very doubtful that it will be a commercial station, if it is I will probably record it and edit the adverts out; I will be subjected to the BBC advertising its own programmes (far too much); their many links are unnecessary and must be exorbitantly expensive. But that’s about it. My dislike of advertising is such that when I do watch something like Homeland, I have to turn the sound down and even turn away or leave the room during the breaks – I can’t even stand to see the images. They are horrible: disgusting, sentimental, unrealistic, very clever garbage. I have become immune and allergic to advertising.

I am off to Cuba this Christmas. Whatever else you might say about Cuba, they do not allow advertising – five channels with no adverts – ever. How long they can hold out I don’t know, but more power to them. And thank God, thank Buddha, thank everyone for DVD players that can edit. I may have to buy a few of them for the future. I’m sure the Americans will ban them some day.

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Writing Heroes – William Shakespeare

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

My first experience of Shakespeare was a performance of The Tempest on a school trip; I hated it. Three years later I was given a copy of Macbeth as one of my ‘O’ Level books: I loved it. I read it and studied it and wrote about it. I achieved a good grade. After that, until I reached middle-age, I had very little to do with Shakespeare; I don’t enjoy the theatre much and found his plays difficult to follow. I went to see Roman Polanski’s Macbeth at the cinema in the 70s and loved that (it is still the best version), but It was only when I began helping students with their English that I started to appreciate him, and, only then, through the filmed versions.

Since then, having studied him on and off for a few years, I have discovered that I like Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and A Winter’s Tale; I love Macbeth but baulk at the walking wood. I don’t like Hamlet or King Lear. I do like Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and Coriolanus, all rarely performed, although Coriolanus does seem to be having a revival, partly due to its supposed similarities with today’s society.

wsquote-001All of the Henry plays are good but particularly Henry VIII, one of the least performed. I like Richard II and love Richard III, even though it is a complete fiction (Tudor propaganda); I like Much Ado About Nothing but don’t yet understand The Tempest; Anthony and Cleopatra is marvellous; I enjoyed bits of Cymbeline, but the version I watched had a young Helen Mirren dressed as a boy (impossible to believe). I don’t like Pericles or The Taming of the Shrew. I am indifferent to Love’s Labour’s Lost, Twelfth Night and All’s Well that Ends Well. I know nothing about the Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Comedy of Errors, The Merry Wives of Windsor or King John.

I think that just about covers them all; forgive me if I have forgotten anything. I enjoy watching Hamlet even though I don’t like him. Such a fuss is made about his tortuous journey and his suffering and tragic death, but I just find him a terrible whinger and get fed up with him very quickly. He is responsible for the deaths of Polonius (harmless old fool), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (to be fair they would have had him killed otherwise, but only because of his awful behaviour), his mother and Ophelia, the one true innocent in the play. I found Ophelia the only sane person in the play and she is destroyed by Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh’s four hour film is quite entertaining but the best I’ve seen so far is Zeffirelli’s version with Mel Gibson.

hamlet-001King Lear and Hamlet are two of the most popular plays today. It is easy to obtain copies of performances and there are many films of both; I have seen quite a lot of them (the best King Lear is a Russian version by Grigori Kozintsev). As I said, I enjoy watching performances of Hamlet but have no sympathy at all with the play’s theme, which to me is: spoilt, self obsessed brat prattling on endlessly about his problems and dealing with them far too late, thereby causing the deaths of many. I suppose I get fed up with critics taking Hamlet (the character) so seriously (I grant his language is wonderful) when I find him very unlikeable.

King Lear is a play often performed and analysed. I hope I’m wrong, and one day might be convinced otherwise, but I find the whole thing ridiculous. I know it is about a foolish old man mistaking flattery for love and not recognising true love, of not understanding that the giving away of territory would change everything – of not understanding anything until it is too late; but it is told in such convoluted fashion, with too many characters and too many ridiculous scenes. I cannot watch the scene on the beach near the end without laughing.

I find Macbeth one of the most watchable of plays, partly because it is so short (the shortest). Its theme is simple: overarching ambition and female manipulation. There are one or two parts where I have to suspend disbelief: the walking wood, Lady Macbeth collapses into madness too quickly, but it is a marvellously entertaining example of what Shakespeare was best at: taking basic human emotions and dramatising them; of course all drama should do this but only Shakespeare did it so well.

One thing that stands out in all the plays though, is the language; there is wonderful language in all the plays. I’ll make a ridiculous understatement and say that Shakespeare had a way with words. Like no other before him or since, he could encapsulate the most profound thoughts and feelings in what is, when studied, beautifully simple language. His best plays are a joy throughout – I can watch them once or twice a year. The recent BBC series of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V was superb.

The way I found access to Shakespeare was through film. Watching his plays in the theatre I find that, unless one knows the play by heart (difficult), the language is lost – while thinking about one line, it is quickly followed by another and another and so much is lost, simply because it is impossible to keep up. With film, and today almost everything has subtitles, it is possible to pause and think, to absorb and understand and thereby find a way in to the plays.

This has been only a brief and haphazard introduction into my thoughts on Shakespeare. I have already written a rather self-indulgent review of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s film version of Macbeth. But bear with me. I would like occasionally to share my thoughts on Shakespeare, particularly the ridiculous authorship controversy, in the future. How do other writers feel about this – any other Shakespeare lovers out there? Or am I merely wallowing in my own enjoyment of him?

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