Not Fast & Furious

  • I spend a great deal of time online and much of that time is spent moving large audio files around; either uploading to online storage or my e-commerce site, transferring effects and music to the various theatres that I work for and downloading material from other sources. I don't do much in the way of streaming audio and video, so an integrated phone, television and internet service is not for me. All I want, and all I've wanted for some time now, is a fast, reliable service that gives me a decent download speed and, more importantly, a fast upload speed. I signed up many years ago with a small ISP service called Be, which offered and generally delivered, a service twice as fast as I was getting from my then provider, British Telecom. I stayed with Be and the service remained excellent, even when they were swallowed up by the multi-national Telefónica, trading as 02 in the UK, but earlier this year, Telefónica sold its fixed-line broadband service to Sky, which brought about changes in the services being offered that were not to my liking, so I started to look elsewhere.
  • British Telecom's Infinity Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) service was rolling out in my area and I checked to see when it would be available to me. Despite the presence of one of the new big green FTTC boxes within spitting distance of our flat, I couldn't get any information about when I might be able to connect, until finally, after months of probing, I got an email telling me that the kerb-side cabinet to which my phone line is connected was just too small and therefore not economically viable for BT's systems-engineering off-shoot BT Openreach to convert to FTTC. Ever. Could I get my line re-routed to that tantalising green box just up the road? No. How about if I got a new phone number? Then could I get Infinity? No.
  • So, my only other fibre option was from Virgin Media. Not quite so enticing, as the upload speeds were lower and despite the statement of unlimited downloads, speed throttling is used to regulate users who download or upload large amounts of data, which of course is exactly what I do, all the time. But it's my only option and the nice people at Virgin have been shoving leaflets through our letterbox, urging us to sign up and stating that we could be online in just seven days. So I bit the bullet and signed up on-line. I got an installation date: OK, it was two weeks away, but that was fine. Two days before the installation date I got a text, telling me to get ready for the lightning fast service. Then I got a phone call telling me that the pipework through which they had to run the cable was blocked and they'd take some time to clear it, so I got a new installation date: OK, it was now a month after I'd joined up, but that was sort-of fine.
  • Two days before the due installation date, I got another phone call, saying that they'd found another little problem, but not to worry, they'd have it sorted in a couple of days.
  • Weeks went by and nothing happened. I called Virgin Media and by dint of confusing their automatic voice-activated menuing system, I actually got to speak to a person, who eventually transferred me to another person who told me that the matter was with the engineering department who couldn't give me a date when the work might be done. Could they give me a vague idea? No. Just some sort of time frame? Weeks? Months? Years? No.
  • More weeks went by: the deadline for signing up with Sky or losing my internet connection loomed. I called again: same rigmarole, same response. We can't tell you anything.
  • Eventually, I used Twitter to vent my frustration: a Virgin Media Tweet-responder implored me to fill in an online form, which I duly did. It failed to submit, due to an unspecified error. I tried again, same result. Back to Twitter to express my frustration again, and again I was urged to fill in an online form, which again I did, with exactly the same result. My next rather angrier tweet was met with a response that suggested I should submit my problem via an email, which I promptly did. And I got an email response and, eventually, a phone call: a Virgin Media person told me that he had "taken ownership" of my problem and that he would sort things out. Within hours, he called back to tell me that the problem had been solved and I should now be able to get online. I pointed out that I don't have the cable installed yet, let alone the Super Hub, so connecting's going to a bit tricky. He says he'll get back to me, which he does, via email this time, to tell me that sorry, there's been a bit of mistake and that it's not my problem that's been solved, but someone else's. He'll check out my problem and get back to me. That was two weeks ago and I've heard nothing since then.
  • So between BT's indifference and Virgin Media's incompetence, I'm screwed as far as a fibre connection is concerned. The UK is currently 18th in the connection speed league tables of countries with internet connectivity, behind Latvia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Belgium, amongst other, and this despite vast subsidies being paid to BT to ensure roll-out of fibre-based systems country-wide. MPs are concerned at the slow pace and patchy nature of the high-speed roll-out and the government worries that we're falling behind in the technology stakes. Is it any wonder with a level of service this poor from two of the major suppliers?
  • Eventually, in response to this blog and to a Twitter campaign, I finally got a call telling me that all would be well and that there was a new date for connection. I came home the same day to see a Virgin Media van outside the flat and tapped on the window to ask the hap inside if he’d been surveying the site for the installation and he said he had. I invited him in so that he could make notes as to where I wanted the modem to be and we checked the outside of the flat. He discovered that there was already a cable to the outside of the flat from a defunct cable TV installation many years ago and that the three month delay had been entirely unnecessary. Had there been a home visit from an installation engineer, then I might well have been a bit less fed up.
  • All is now up and running, although the installation engineer arrived four hours early with the wrong information, but despite having to dash home from work and placate my wife who’d been in the bath when he turned up, I was just so grateful to have a working system again.

R.I.P Steve Brown - July 7th 2013

It seems that I’m only blogging bad stuff - sorry, I’ll try and lighten the mood next time, but this one’s also important, because someone who was an old friend has gone far too soon and at the height of his powers.

My friend and colleague Steven Brown died yesterday at the ridiculously young age of - well, to tell the truth, I have no idea how old he was as he never seemed to age and I always think of him as being ageless. Perhaps it was his can-do attitude to projects that inspired him, perhaps it was his boundless energy in promoting and disseminating theatre sound design and sound art generally, not only to his immediate circle, but to the world in general with a singleness of purpose that saw sound being included in the World Stage Design conferences, thanks largely to his efforts.

We met properly on a not-too-happy production, where one actor in particular was being difficult about anything technical and who never lost an opportunity to snipe when things didn't go right first time. I was the sound designer on the show and I wanted to throttle this person: Steve was my operator who, inevitable cigarette in mouth, calmly got on with sorting out the problems and talked me down from a probable charge of grievous bodily harm. The actor concerned has long faded into obscurity, but Steve's dedication and tenacity - his determination to beat my almost certainly far-too-complex sound design into submission - struck a major chord with me and we remained friends and working colleagues for the next thirty or so years.

I saw him last a couple of weeks ago, just before I left for a short visit to the USA: Steve was ensconced in his tiny apartment in Brighton, a stone's throw from the sea, but pretty much confined to quarters as the pain from the spreading cancer grew. He didn't want to admit that he was ill; he hated going to the doctor and he hated the attendant fuss that inevitably surrounds someone with a serious illness, so he maintained his usual routine of commenting, tweeting and emailing with only a slight slackening of pace and reassurances to all and sundry that he'd soon be back on his feet and in the thick of things again. With Sean Crowley and Ian Evans at The Welsh College Of Music & Drama, he was deeply involved with the sound design content of the World Stage Design 2013 expo almost up until the day he passed away and, aside from his day job as Head of Sound for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, he was Head of The Sound Design Working Group for Organisation Internationale des Scénographes, Techniciens et Architectes de Théâtre (OISTAT), Sound Design Curator for the 2011 Prague Quadrennial and designed and curated the sound design section of Collaborators: Design for Performance exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. In 2007 he was lead for all the Sound Design projects for the Scenofest section of the Prague Quadrennial.

Steve was also a great believer in people over machines: he hated the gradual erosion of the sound operator's role into that of button-pusher and maintained that a decent operator was worth any amount of fancy gadgets or automation. He trained and maintained an excellent team in his department at Manchester and was briefly furious when many of them were poached by the Royal Shakespeare Company for the re-opening of The Festival Theatre in Stratford. But being Steve, he found and encouraged a new bunch of talented staff who will no doubt carry on his work there.

He wasn't always easy going: his strong left-leaning political views often brought him into conflict with those around him and his forthright manner in expressing those and other strongly-held beliefs could make him unpopular with some, especially on-line. I remember a tweet (Steve was a whole-hearted embracer of the social network) where he wrote something like "Every time I tweet about Macs or religion, I lose followers." It's in his Twitter archive somewhere, along with almost six and a half thousand wise comments, controversial statements, angry complaints, rails against injustice, great links, fascinating sounds and exhortations to do something creative.

I think he sometimes saw himself as something of an outsider, an autodidact in an industry that seems increasingly to be obsessed with academic achievement at the expense of practical experience and I know he was immensely proud when he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in recognition of his teaching and mentoring of students there, but regardless of any academic achievement, his influence on the way theatre sound design is considered world-wide has been huge and his eclectic and esoteric tastes in music and sound, and his bold and innovative working methods have lead many of those with whom he came into contact down pathways that they would never otherwise have explored.

A traditionalist in many ways, with a healthy respect for the pioneers of the industry in which he worked, and an iconoclast in many other ways, with an equally healthy disregard for those who he saw as slavish followers of fashion, he was by turns engaging, inspiring, infuriating and argumentative, but never, ever boring or predictable. He was my good friend, wise colleague, occasional sparring partner and a naturally brilliant and insightful artist. I shall miss him.

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R.I.P. Nigel Gibbons

I don’t normally remember dreams, neither do I believe in the supernatural, but this morning I woke up after a particularly vivid and very odd dream: I’d been in a rehearsal room somewhere, a typically nondescript old-fashioned hall, wooden floor, brown and cream gloss paint and the faint smell of boiled cabbage. Nothing odd about that, of course; we’ve all been there on numerous occasions, but what was odd was that I was talking to Keith Moon, the late lamented drummer with The Who and I’d just asked him about the man who’d given me my first job in theatre sound, Nigel Gibbons. Nigel had left The Bristol Old Vic shortly after I became his assistant and had gone off to London to seek fame and fortune, ending up touring with The Who in the early 1970s, so it was perfectly natural for me, even in a dream, to ask Keith if he remembered Nigel and how it would be good to see him again. Keith’s reply “You’re too late dear boy, Nigel died a year ago” broke the dream and woke me early in the morning. I got up, went into the studio, switched on the computer and started an internet search for Nigel, tracing him eventually to a company that he ran in France called SORI Rigging. Modifying my search to include those words, I finally came across a stark announcement on the site that Nigel had indeed died almost exactly a year ago. No other details, other than from his then partner Katia, that he was buried near his house in the French district of Nievre.

I have no idea why I should have dreamt about someone who I hadn’t seen for almost forty years, or why it should have been the shade of Keith Moon who broke the news that he had passed, but whatever strange chain of events led up to it, I think that Nigel needs more than a couple of lines on a roadies’ web-site to commemorate his passing, so here’s my bit.

I met Nigel while I was doing my year’s training at The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and he came up from the theatre every so often to teach us about sound. He wasn’t a conventional teacher and lessons tended to be based around things that he’d discovered or problems that he was trying to solve: we experimented with phasing, using a couple of Ferrograph tape recorders and a Garrard 301 record deck that had a varispeed control; we made interesting electronic sounds by cranking up the mic input gains on said recorders and feeding the resultant system hiss back through the recording chain from the replay head. We had tape editing competitions, created our own sound effects and made simple radio dramas, all the while learning about gain structure, microphone polar patterns and a host of other little details that have stayed with me ever since. Nigel wasn’t a didactic teacher, just immensely enthusiastic and was able to transmit that enthusiasm to those of us who were interested.

After I left the school, I eventually ended up at The Bristol Old Vic as a stage technician and after six months of nagging, Nigel finally invited me to become his assistant. I learned a huge amount from him in the short period that we worked together: I learned that you worked until you got it right, regardless of whether you’d had any sleep; I learned that there were no rules about theatre sound design and that anything was possible providing that you didn’t blow up the equipment and, on one memorable occasion, that it’s OK to cry when things beyond your control on an opening night, ruin weeks of careful preparation. He introduced me to Edward Williams, one of the pioneers of blending acoustic and electronic music and an early adopter of EMS synthesisers; he introduced me to Neumann microphones, to Tannoy speakers, to custom building of kit when what you wanted wasn’t available any other way and to a whole range of weird and wonderful music that I’d never heard before and most importantly, he was very much a pioneer sound designer in the days before the term had been invented. Very few provincial theatre companies had a sound department, let alone one that boasted a highly motivated, creative and energetic designer like Nigel. Many of the tricks and techniques that I took for granted, having learnt them from him, I later discovered were considered to be way ahead of their time in other theatres around the country. I remember sending a tape to a major theatrical institution for a show that we were transferring and getting a call from the then head of sound that started with the words “So what’s all this stereo stuff then?” And of course, he persuaded the theatre’s artistic director to give me my first major sound design in the autumn of 1972.

Not long after, problems in his personal life mounted and one fine morning he appeared in the theatre and announced that he was leaving. “When?” I asked. “Now” came the reply. He gathered up a few things of his, wished me well with the department and left, returning shortly afterwards to borrow a few pounds to pay off a parking fine he’d forgotten about and which a court official was waiting outside for him to pay. (Nigel owned a Fiat 600 with very rudimentary - and illegal in the UK - cruise control, into which the two of us, both over six foot tall, barely fitted, and that summer we drove up to London to attend the APRS trade show, most of the 120 miles on the motorway at about 60 mph with the cruise control on and our feet on the dashboard, whilst we listened to James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and “Blood, Sweat & Tears” on the eight-track that he’d installed. ) He decamped to London, spent some time working for John E. Moore, the RSC’s sound consultant, and then became part of the mad world of rock and roll lighting, working with The Strawbs, The Rolling Stones and The Who, amongst others.

During his time with The Who he came back to the theatre for a visit and we went for a drink at the Bunch Of Grapes in King Street. In between regaling me with stories of the band members’ fist-fights during rehearsals and having his hotel room trashed on a regular basis by Keith Moon, Nigel drank the best part of a bottle of brandy with no apparent ill effects whilst I nursed a couple of pints of Guinness and felt very provincial. I saw him a few times after that and helped him build a couple of immense, fan-assisted, dry-ice machines that were so efficient that they filled the under-stage area of the theatre in about ten seconds and, when finally deployed at a gig with some internationally famous band, effectively obscured the stage and the band for quite a while.

And then we lost touch: I moved up to London and he continued to tour the world, finally settling in France and becoming a rigging Mr. Fixit for bands touring in Europe and running the Paris office of Steve Tuck’s Blackout drapes and rigging company for a time in the early 1990s. We exchanged emails about twenty years ago over some matter that I thought he could help with, but that was all, until last night’s dream.

I’ll always be grateful to him and I’m sad that we couldn’t meet up for one last time, but such is the nature of this industry, where our friends and colleagues ebb and flow. I hope he had a peaceful passing and I’m sure that he’s remembered fondly and with humour by those who knew and lived and worked with him.

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