Cycling was the reason writer and broadcaster, Trevor Ward moved to Auchmithie, in the north east of Scotland.
“I’ve always dreamed of having miles and miles of quiet country roads on my doorstep,” says the writer and broadcaster about his home, a former fishing village near Arbroath.
“When I lived in London or Manchester, you’d have to drive or get the train with your bike before you could start cycling on quiet roads, but here I get on my bike outside my front door and have seen barely any other traffic other than the odd tractor by the time I get back 30 or 40 miles later.”
Trevor is now somewhere over the Alps, preparing for the grueling final stage of the Tour de France bike race, Etape du Tour. By Monday 11th July, he hopes he will be smoking a Cuban cigar and drinking a bottle of Gigondas, having “cycled 109 km over three big brutes of mountains – the Telegraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. Altogether, I will have climbed more than 3,000 metres in temperatures nudging 30 degrees.”
His aim in taking on this challenge is to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. He also hopes the experience will give him material to write a book:
“As a means of motivation, I’m trying to turn it into a book, the story of a middle-aged, marginalised, unemployed victim of the recession trying to give his life some meaning by cycling a stage of the Tour de France.”
Why Trevor is unemployed and marginalised says much about how the industry he has worked in has changed, since he began as a presenter in the 1980’s with Network 7.
Network 7 was a love it or loathe it series from the 1980s, which revolutionised television. Launched in 1987, it aired on Sundays between 12 and 2pm, running for two series until 1988. There had been nothing like it then, but there have been plenty of copies since.
Devised by Janet Street-Porter and Jane Hewland, Network 7 gave a voice to British teenagers and twenty-somethings, sowed the seed of Reality TV, and put “yoof culture” at the heart of the TV schedules.
Strange to think now, but back then there was no youth TV, outside of the music shows Top of the Pops and The Tube.
Set in a ramshackle warehouse in London’s Limehouse, Network 7 changed all this by taking its audience seriously and offering feature items, news stories, music and interviews on issues that were topical, relevant and often ground-breaking: from exposes on bank card fraud, to Third World debt, AIDs, bulimia, bullying and gangs. Network 7 was also radical in that it was presented by “yoof”, and made stars of Sebastian Scott, Magenta Devine, Sankha Guha, Jaswinder Bancil and Trevor Ward.
They were all good, but Ward had an edge as was a maverick, who brought a steely journalistic edge to what was, in effect, a magazine show presented by bright young things.
“I was working for Mercury Press agency in Liverpool in 1987 under the brilliant and inspirational Roger Blyth when I was 26. Network 7 was a brand new Sunday morning show, like a thinking-man’s Tiswas. About halfway through their first series, they said they were looking for a reporter.
“The following week, they repeated their appeal, but this time they said the applicants had to be Northern. So I sent in my CV and was invited down to an interview on the set – a load of reconditioned caravans in the middle of a big warehouse in East London. Janet Street Porter and Jane Hewland gave me a merciless grilling and I drove home convinced I hadn’t got the job.
“The next day, a researcher rang me and said I was on the final short list of three, and that we would be expected to come down to London the next Sunday to do a live audition on that day’s show. The viewers would vote in a live telephone poll for who got the job.
“I thought it was a brilliant idea, even though there was a one in three chance it could end in nationally-televised humiliation for me.
“That week’s show was coming live from a Rock against Racism festival in Finsbury Park, and we each had to find a story during the programme’s two-hour running time to present to camera in under a couple of minutes about half an hour before the end.
“I thought it was pretty obvious that it would have to be a PTC rather than an interview if we were to successfully sell ourselves to the viewers in such a short timespan, so I harvested a load of juicy anecdotes from a bunch of bouncers and turned those into a script which ended with about six of them carrying me off camera. I was unaware of what the other two were up to, and later found out they’d chosen to interview people from worthy causes represented at the festival.
“Anyway, I got almost half the votes, so was declared the winner at the end of the show.”
Ward’s first live story on the programme was about the Death Penalty.
“Network 7 was brilliant for pioneering viewer interaction, and viewers were regularly asked to vote on a range of issues. That week it was the death penalty and whether a particular Death Row inmate –whom we had a live satellite link with – should die. I was handed the London, studio-end of things. It was incredibly nerve-racking. My first piece-to-camera – at the top of the two-hour programme – was a two—and-a-half-minute walking/talking shot – an eternity in TV time – referring to various modes of capital punishment – all without autocue.”
Ward was soon a star, part of the Network 7 gang who turned up Café de Paris and Groucho’s, but while it made him “feel famous”, he was well aware that it “didn’t mean the public necessarily liked you or thought you were any good at your job.”
Janet Street-Porter went onto to win a BAFTA for Network 7 and was then appointed head of “yoof” TV at the BBC, where she appointed ward as one of the main faces on her new series Reportage – the BBC’s version of Network 7.
“I got all the big gigs – hosting a live studio discussion between British and Russian teenagers from Moscow (this was 1988, time of Glasnost and Perestroika) and being sent to do stuff in Australia. She’d also given Sankha Guha and Magenta de Vine their big breaks on Rough Guides.
“At the end of the first series of Reportage, she offered me a job as the third presenter on Rough Guides, the idea being that I, as a gobby Scouser, would put the “rough” into the programme alongside the smoothness of Sankha and Mags.
“I thought about it and was quite excited, but in the end didn’t really fancy flying several times around the world economy class (that’s how they did it, with free or cheap flights blagged from airlines), so declined.”
Instead Trevor took a succession of freelance presenting jobs for the likes of Thames TV and TVS. By 1990 he decided television was:
“…the most over-rated medium going – a view I still hold – and decided to do VS0. In September 1991 I flew out to Guyana for a stint with a quasi-governmental agency giving out grants to worthy causes.”
It looked like the glittering career was over, but Ward’s life was about to shift back to journalism.
“In late 1992 or early 1993 I got a call out the blue from a complete stranger who claimed he was putting together a new type of men’s magazine. This was James Brown. A mutual friend had mentioned to him a saloon bar story of mine involving me travelling around Mexico alone, a one-night stand and a man-eating shark. James wanted a different type of travel writing in his mag, more Hunter S Thompson than Judith Chalmers, and I duly obliged with my story for his first issue.
“Thus was forged the start of a great relationship. I was living back up in Liverpool at the time, so just worked for Loaded on a freelance basis. I managed to persuade James to send me to all the places I’d wanted to go – including a return visit to Mexico where I became one of the first foreign journos to meet the Zapatista rebels. After a two-day solo hike through the jungle I got photos of a load of heavily armed, masked guerrillas reading copies of Loaded with Elle MacPherson on the cover, and a shark-diving trip off San Diego.”
Loaded was the “original lads’ mag”, with the tag line, “For men who should know better”. Under Brown’s editorship the magazine was a kick in the balls to the publishing industry in 1990s, reaching a circulation peak of 457,318 in 1998, and inspiring a host of lesser imitations.
But the lads’ mag wasn’t enough for Trevor, who was soon employed as a presenter and producer for Granada TV.
“I had much fun producing and presenting for Granada Tonight, the local nightly news programme for the North West of England under the auspices of the brilliant Head of Regionals Susan Woodward.
“Amongst other things, I devised, co-produced and presented a weekly, live half-hour studio based entertainment show called Something For The Weekend (which predated the C4 Denise Van Outen show of the same name by several years) which was great fun (of course it was, it was live). It included a weekly, three-minute soap opera called The Kiosk based around the mundane transactions at a tobacconists across the road from the Granada offices.
“I also turned around a half hour documentary about the economic and cultural rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool to coincide with the 1996 Liverpool v Man Utd FA Cup Final. From inception to broadcast was less than a week. I produced, directed and presented, including an overnight edit on the night of the Cup Final to get it broadcast the following afternoon. I was due to co—present with the legendary Tony Wilson, but he had to pull out at the last minute and I had to make do with some muppet from a local radio station. When the show was broadcast, I was at home trying to stay awake when my phone rang. It was the muppet. I thought he was ringing to congratulate me for a job well done. Instead he wanted to know why I had chopped 20 seconds off one of his pieces to camera. It’s c**ts like that who have contributed to my disillusionment and general disdain for TV as a medium.”
This disillusionment was capped after he worked with a well-known presenter who “personally and comprehensively introduced me to all the traits and characteristics that make Idi Amin or Pol Pot look positively sympathetic.”
“Part of my problem with mainstream media is personal. I don’t fit any known demographic. I’m not a woman or a parent, which makes most of the content of the Guardian, Daily Mail and daytime TV completely irrelevant to my life. I currently don’t have a job, I live relatively off the beaten track (physically and spiritually), so 90 per cent of what’s out there in newspapers, magazines or TV means nothing to me. I am marginalised. I have to resort to the nether regions of the internet to find content that stimulates me.
“And as for the celebrity-obsessed era we live in, where the f**k did that come from? When did the messenger, i.e. Martin Clunes or Amanda Holden, become more important than the content?
“Even as recently as the 80s, when I got my first job in TV on Network 7, there was no such job description as “TV presenter”. The people you saw on the box were bone fide journalists like Alan Whicker, experts such as David Attenborough or seasoned entertainers like Michael Palin or Bruce Forsyth. They were all natural role models, not fame-hungry reality show contestants, sh*t actors, or WAGs with ideas above their station.”
The intelligence and skill that made Ward special as a presenter, a reporter and a producer, are no longer needed. Instead the TV world is cluttered with those who prefer the veneer of lifestyle than the shared experience of a life.
“My last job in TV was when a good friend of mine who has always admired my slightly maverick tendencies set up his own indie TV production company and employed me as his head of development. I tried to warn him that my ideas wouldn’t fit the templates of most of the idiots running mainstream TV, but he gave me the job anyway.
“During my year there, we got access all areas with Detroit Gang Squad and filmed a taster with them, but no-one was interested, despite it being the murder capital of the US and home to all sorts of universally-loved pop culture references ranging from Motown to Motor City.
“I also personally tracked down and secured access to all the (still-living) key protagonists from “the New York Subway Vigilante” shooting of 1984, including the vigilante Bernie Goetz himself. The 25th anniversary was imminent and the incident is still regarded as a significant milestone in the history of race relations in New York and the city’s transformation from most dangerous in the world to one of the safest.
“By the time it became clear that commissioning editors were only interested in us providing vehicles for their stables of celebrity presenters rather than original content – most indie production companies are glorified taxi providers – I decided I’d had enough. So I left, but not before I scored us our only commission, a one-off doco for BBC about Glasgow airport hero John Smeaton’s doomed attempt to stand as an MP in the Glasgow NE by-election in November 2009.”
Trevor Ward deserves better. He’s too intelligent, too good, and his loss from our screens says much about what is wrong with TV today. But that loss hasn’t stopped Ward from evolving.
Each time Trevor quit TV, he chose to work at something different, whether in VSO, as a postman, studying to become a qualified football referee, or training as a Cordon Bleu chef, as he did a decade ago, which led to “a couple of low level cheffing jobs.” Yet all through this, writing was still crucial to Ward and he turned his experiences into magazine articles.
Last Christmas Ward started training for the Tour de France, in a snow covered Auchmithie.
“Training was hampered by the snow. I didn’t have the luxury of an indoor turbo trainer and wasn’t able to get out on my bike for over a month, so I dusted off my 20-year-old Concept 2 rowing machine which is the most evil piece of fitness apparatus known to man.
“I had to stop myself becoming obsessed with target heart rates, basal metabolic rates, calorific intakes, etc. otherwise I’d have spent more time with a slide rule than on my bike.
“I’ve cycled all my life, since I was about five. This is the biggest cliché in the book, but nothing else gives you the sense of freedom.”
On the eve of his last day cycling the Tour de France, Ward posted the following on his Facebook page:
“Just drove the route and wish I hadn’t. The descents are scary as f**k, never mind the climbs. Some things are best left unknown.”
In Italy, for thirty odd years, the image has been controlled by one man. TV-magnate and Presidente Silvio Berlusconi has influenced the content of commercial television in a way never before done in Italy. His TV-channels, with their young skimpy-clad girls, are seen by many to mirror his own taste and personality.
In Videocracy, Italian-born director Erik Gandini portrays the consequences of a TV-experiment that Italians have been subjected to for 30 years. Gaining unique access to the most powerful media spheres, he unveils a remarkable story, born out of the scary reality of ”TV-Republic” Italy.
With thanks to Jai Bia
This British Pathe Newsreel from the 1960s is a delightful reminder why we should cherish The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.
The Bonzos (1962-1970) musical jesters of the swinging sixties, lasted as long as The Beatles, and were, in some areas as influential; for they were, in cultural terms, the evolutionary link between the Fab Four and ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. Indeed the Bonzo’s Neil Innes would go on to write the songs for, and star as Ron Nasty in Eric Idle’s classic mockumentary The Rutles.
The Bonzos mixed jazz, comedy, Music Hall, and rock pastiche into aural delectations. Here they perform ‘Music for the Head Ballet’ and ‘Equestrian Statue’ (the latter inspired by Innes reading of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Nausea‘), from their 1967 debut album ‘Gorilla‘, shown here together with two clips from ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set‘: ‘Love is a Cylindrical Piano’ (accompanied by Eric Idle) and ‘Metaphorically Speaking’.
‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’ was a children’s TV comedy series, which starred Eric idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, David Jason and Denise Coffey, and was a favourite of my childhood’s TV schedule (along with ‘Batman’ and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.).
If there is any truth in St Francis Xavier‘s saying, ‘Give me the child for the first seven years of his life and I will make you the man’, I wonder what affect ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set‘ had on my adulthood? I loved the show with its mix of comedy sketches from Idle, Palin, Jones & co. and musical interludes from The Bonzos. As a 5-year-old, it was the funniest, most bizarre and dangerous TV show I had ever seen -and this less to do with the embryonic Pythons, more to do with the benign madness of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Under the guidance of Vivian Stanshall, the Bonzos (Neil Inness, Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and ‘Legs’ Larry Smith) offered a moment of indulgent childish joy, where anything was possible – one week a dastardly rendition of ‘Sound of Music‘ the next a classic pop hit.
Whatever the effect on my adulthood, I know the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band made my childhood happier, funnier, and more exciting. ‘Nuff said?
The hit success of the internet comedy series, ‘Svengali’ asks big questions about the future of TV.
‘Svengali’ is heralding a mini-revolution in self-financed, programme-making and has managed to attract the talents of Martin Freeman, Roger Evans, Sally Phillips, Alan Mcgee, Sean Harris, Jodie Whittaker, Jordan Long and Colin Tierney.
Add to this a supporting cast like a DJ’s guest list: Carl Barat, Maggot, Michelle Gomez, Bonehead, Ciaran Griffiths, and Boy George, ‘Svengali’ has proved what talent and ambition can achieve outside of the Box.
What hasn’t been said about Laurel & Hardy? Not much, for they were the greatest comedy double act ever, and still hold sway over millions of fans. Here is rare peek at the men behind that superb comedy act from a 1954 edition of the TV series ‘This Is Your Life’. look out too for a young Benard Delfont, the legendary British theatre impresario.
And here from 1943, is Laurel & Hardy’s only appearance on colour film – a one reeler made for the promotion of wood products.
After ‘Monty Pyhon’s Flying Circus‘, Eric Idle went on to write and star in one of TV’s lost comedy classics, ‘Rutland Weekend Television‘. The series co-starred Neil Innes, Henry Woolf, Gwen Taylor and David Battley, and ran for two series over 1975 and 1976. ‘RWT’ was required viewing for a generation of impressionable youngsters, myself included, who had arrived late to ‘Python’ and were just at the right age to enjoy the brilliance of Idle, Innes et al.
For me, ‘Rutland Weekend Television‘ was better than ‘Python‘, as it was edgier, closer to Spike Milligan‘s ‘Q‘ series and all the better for being mainly one man’s vision. Now ‘RWT‘ is best known for unleashing The Rutles: Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry, the original Prefab Four, who first appeared in a comic musical homage to The Beatles’ ‘Hard Day’s Night’ and then later in 1977, through Idle’s and Innes’ genius collaboration with ‘Saturday Night Live’ producer, Lorne Michaels, in the brilliant mockumentary ‘All You Need Is Cash‘.
Now, over 30 years later, The Rutles return with ‘Lunch‘, one fan’s brilliant musical celebration of Idle’s and Innes’ original concept. ‘Lunch‘ owes much to the Cirque du Soleil’s show ‘Love‘, which was based on a cycle of Beatle songs, and even claims to be a collaboration bewteen Rutle Stig O’Hara and Circle of Hay’s founder, Captain Liberty.
Have a listen and hear how Rutlemania brought joy and laughter to the world, and made The Prefab Four wider than Elvis and taller than The Beatles. Enjoy.
Listen here: The Rutles – Lunch
The Rutles – ‘With A Girl Like You’ (from ‘All You Need is Cash’) This was released as The Rutles first single
The Rutles – ‘Piggy in the ~Middle’ (from ‘All You Need is Cash’)
The Rutles – ‘Cheese and Onion’ (from ‘All You Need is Cash’)
If investigative journalist Mark Ebner had three wishes, his first would be for a paid-off beach shack in his home-state of Rhode Island.
For the record, Ebner is the best investigative journalist since Hunter S Thompson. If you visit his web page, ‘Hollywood Interrupted‘ you’ll see the long list of his accomplishments. An award winning investigative journalist, Mark Ebner has covered all aspects of celebrity and crime culture for ‘Spy’, ‘Rolling Stone’, ‘Maxim’, ‘Details’, ‘Los Angeles’, ‘Premiere’, ‘Salon’, ‘Spin’, ‘Radar’ and ‘New Times’.
If that isn’t enough, then please note that for his journalism Ebner has put himself at some considerable risk, when investigating subjects as diverse as Scientology, Pit Bull fighting, the Ku Klux Klan, celebrity stalkers, drug dealers, missing porn stars, sports groupies, college suicides and Hepatitis C in Hollywood.
Now add to that his best-selling books – the now classic ‘Hollywood Interrupted’ (co-written with Andrew Breitbart) and ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton’.
Okay, if you’re still not impressed, let’s briefly mention his TV work as host and writer on the ‘Tru TV’ show and working with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the Emmy nominated episode of ‘South Park’, ‘Trapped in the Closet’.
With such blue chip credentials, you begin to appreciate the talent that is Mark Ebner.
Born in Rhode Island in 1959, Mark’s earliest memories are of his mother, Eleanor, bathing him in a stainless steel sink. She died at the age of 28.
One of Ebner’s literary favourites is the Demon Dog of American crime fiction, James Ellroy. There is a connection here between these two distinctive and talented writers. Firstly, both lost their mothers at impressionable ages: Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was 11, and her slaying has been an obsession and a focus for his writing since.
Unlike Ellroy, Ebner has kept quiet on his loss, and one can only wonder at the effect it has had on him.
Secondly, both had ambitions kicked started by television series. Ellroy was given a book ‘The Badge’, a compendium of true-life crime tales, which included the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, written by ‘Dragnet’ star Jack Webb.
While Ebner’s ambitions to become a newsman were rooted in his childhood liking for the old b&w ‘Superman’ TV series. But unlike most kids of that age, Mark was more impressed by geeky newshound Clark Kent than his alter ego, the man in tights.
Ebner went on to attend the liberal-arts Bard College, whose notable alumni include the director Todd Haynes, actor Larry Hagman and Hollywood screenwriter Howard Koch, winner of the Academy Award for ‘Casablanca’, and lofty ambitions are reflected its motto ‘Dabo tibi coronam vitae’ (‘I shall give you the crown of life’). It was here that Mark first fulfilled his Clark Kent ambitions, as editor of the ‘Bard Times’.
After Bard, Ebner spent: “everything possible to avoid my calling until I got my first paid magazine gig at 25, for 25 cents-a-word. I could only fool myself into thinking I could write marketable screenplays for so long.”
He came up old school in his bid to start his career as an investigative reporter. The long hours putting together a “clip file” of published work, which he often did for free, then sending it on to editors with original story ideas. Okay, he received a lot of knock-backs and rejection letters, but ultimately, his nose for a good story won out.
And it was his dogged determination for a good story that paid off in 1996, when his now legendary undercover story on Scientology appeared in ‘Spy’ magazine. From its opening lines to its obvious that a maverick talent had arrived.
“I am an ex-drug addict who has solicited prostitutes in my day. I’ve also masturbated and inhaled at the same time, and I have been arrested more than once in my life. I dropped out of high school, and I’ve been under psychiatric care. Oh yeah, and I owe the IRS roughly six thousand dollars that they are well aware of.”
To steal a line from what a critic once wrote about John Lennon‘s first post-Beatles’ album, ‘The Plastic Ono Band’, Ebner had put his balls on the railway track and the train had stopped out of respect.
But there was method in his words, as he explained:
“In the language of Scientologists, the above information reflects what they include in their “Dead Agent Packs”-dossiers of all the dirt they dig up on people critical of their “religion.” Often they disseminate damaging information like this to the friends, family, landlords, and employers of anyone who dares speak of–or worse, publish anything derogatory about the “church.” So what I’m doing here is Dead Agenting myself before we begin, beating them to the punch.”
When he wrote this article most people didn’t know much about Scientology or that they were an organisation you didn’t f–k with. I asked Mark was he concerned about the consequences of investigating such a cult?
“When my first-person Scientology expose dropped in Spy magazine in 1996, I wasn’t worried about the cult as much as I was concerned about my ability to navigate Hollywood circles. You see, in this town of hypocrites and back-stabbers, most of the powerful bunch were still blindly siding with cash cows like Travolta and Cruise. These people would pat me on the back for a job well down on the side, and then run from me at dinner parties. F–k them. I told them so, didn’t I? Scientology did threaten to sue me on publication, and Spy magazine wound up paying a good deal on 1st Amendment lawyers, but my attitude was, “You’re going to sue me? Bring it on, because I have a subpoena in my back pocket for all of your celebrity adherents, and I’ll serve them myself.” In the States you have to prove damages to succeed in such a lawsuit. I made it clear that I would open the books on everyone in that cult if I had to, and they knew to back off when they realized I was serious.”
Undercover work is a tough and lonely business, and Ebner has kept only a few close friends who know the man behind the hard-nosed journalist. It is to these friends that Mark gives his second wish of “Health, wealth, prosperity and joy for my handful of true friends.”
One friend is former film actor and now writer Douglas Steindorff, who describes Ebner as “incorruptible,” and “The unwitting voice of reason and truth. Despite himself he champions the weak and disenfranchised. He is what good cop wishes to be and a bad cop lives his life in fear of. A journalist, the kind of writer Mencken would like.”
Ebner lives in Los Angeles, a city that seems to be always reinventing itself, yet generally remains the same. A city of transience, whose oldest buildings are hotels, and a cultural inheritance inspired by Hollywood and its palaces of dreams.
H. L. Mencken was the ‘Sage of Baltimore’, who exposed frauds, ignorance and intolerance. In 2004, Ebner co-wrote a book with Andrew Breitbart, that did something similar with a now classic study of Tinsel Town.
‘Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon – the case against celebrity’ is possibly the best analysis of the crass stupidity of modern Hollywood written, examining the excess and folly of Robert Downey jnr, Courtney Love, Michael Ovitz, Robert Evans, John Travolta, Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder, Barbara Streisand and Heidi Fleiss amongst other. Of course, some of these tales are now infamous, but it was Ebner and Bretbart who put them in print first. The books beginnings came from an online correspondence between the two writers.
“Hollywood, Interrupted started writing itself via AOL Instant Messenger. Breitbart and I were so awestruck by Barbara Walters allowing Ann Heche to literally break down, jabbering in an alien language on national television, that we decided to define ‘celebrity’ as a disease and prescribe the antidote for it.
“Breitbart handled the moral outrage end of the book, and I shoveled in some investigative chestnuts. We kept filing chapters until our editor told us to stop. There is, was and always will be a grudging respect between me and Breitbart. He is one of the funniest, generous men I know.”
The book launched Ebner and Breitbart into their own celebrity, with appearances on network television and a nationwide book tour. While Bretbert went onto forge his own ambitious and controversial career with Breitbart.com, Ebner returned to his first loves – writing and reporting.
After the success of ‘Hollywood Interrupted’ some may have been tempted to opt for the easy option as guest pundit on the ubiquitous day-time chat shows. Not Mark, he stuck to his own rules, his own personal code that makes him exceptional, and brings together the style and nature of his life and work
“My life experience is my style, and my vision. I sacrificed every alternate ideal (white-picket and otherwise) to do what I do as a way of life.”
Returning to investigative reporting Ebner turned up another trump card with his next book ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton‘.
“I had written a story for ‘Radar’ magazine about a break-in at Girls Gone Wild goon Joe Francis’ home in Bel Air. Once the dildo-wielding perpetrator Darnell Riley had settled into prison life alongside Charlie Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, I started writing him letters – knowing there was more to the story. Darnell agreed to tell me everything, “and then some.” The “then some” became ‘Six Degrees of Paris Hilton’.”
The book reads like a factual account of James Ellroy’s fiction, exposing the connection between low-life criminals and high-end celebrities.
A typical work day for Ebner involves endless phone calls, a lot of door-knocking, and waiting. And waiting… He still keeps a reporter pad to hand, and has only recently upgraded to a digital tape recorder. His life is his work – period. Something that becomes obvious when you realise over 85% of his most successful story ideas have been self-generated.
“My research is old school, gumshoe-style reporting. I hit the ground running, and immerse myself in the scenarios of my subject matter. Crime writing has its hazards, but I have good survival instincts, and I treat all my interview subjects with respect and transparency – unless of course I’m undercover.”
And as for the future?
“I am currently finishing up a non-fiction book for Berkley Books/Penguin on a high-profile kidnapping, developing a documentary television series called ‘Kill File’, and working on an unusually sexy drug trafficking story emanating out of Buenos Aires, Argentina.”
It’s seems a hard and often thankless occupation, but one that delivers books, articles and stories of such quality and insight, that we should all be thankful for Mark Ebner.
The dedication that he has to his talent and craft, is perhaps captured in a small life changing moment form his childhood, when he watched his father bring a dead tropical fish back to life with a heart massage. It was a great, if not perplexing moment for him, one that made him realise the fragility of life and that every moment is a life-changer.
Mark’s third and final wish is a wish for all of us: that we may have freedom from debt and financial insecurity. It says something of the man that he thinks of others before he thinks of himself.
In 2001, Channel 4 television, in the UK, broadcast a 20-part sci-fi short animation series called ‘Workgroup Alpha’. It starred Ed Bishop and dealt with a team of inter-dimensional consultants, lost on an intergalactic space mission. Bishop, with his association as Commander Straker from Gerry Anderson’s cult TV hit ‘UFO’, was ideally cast as Aquarius, the Enterprise Class Visionary, who with his fellow travellers explored “a whole new dimension in universal solutions”.
Though there is the passing hint of Frederick Pohl’s satirical sci-fi classic ‘The Space Merchants’, which imagined a world run by ad agencies, ‘Workgroup Alpha’ offered an intelligent and witty critique of the growing cultural obsession with corporate speak, focus groups, PR consultants, and all those other anemic constructs that have depersonalized our world.
The end credit to the series was attributed to the Butler Brothers, the name by which John and Paul Butler operate. Paul is the co-producer, writer and conceptual consultant. John is writer, designer, animator, composer, co-producer, and director.
I first heard about the Butler Brothers through friends, though it was always John Butler who attracted the most attention. His name was mentioned with that hushed reverential tone and nodding head of respect that said we had touched on some sacred matter. It made Butler seem almost mythical – a great creative artist who lived somewhere (no one seemed quite sure where, or if they did, didn’t say), a garret most likely, where he created, with help from his brother, these incredible digital animations, of such intelligence and imagination.
I thought at the time, this is how the locals of Montmartre and Montparnasse must have behaved, when they whispered to each other about the artists creating works of art in their Parisian, attic studios, at the turn of the last century.
When I speak with John, the analogy chimes closely, as he states his ambition is “To paint a picture of the world.” And then adds his fear is, “Running out of paint.”
It’s a statement that best sums Butler up – he’s artistic, ambitious, intense, honest, imaginative, genuine, creative and witty. He’s a real talent, which in these cloned days is a rare and precious thing – something John is aware.
“As an artist, I suppose my philosophy is composed of what interests me. I’m interested in what happens in the world and why. I’m not really interested in making art from or about art.
“I’m interested in human utility in the drone age. Human redundancy in the unmanned economy. I’m interested in the war between Finance and Humans.
“I’m interested in the Universal Transaction Space we all now inhabit.”
Hearing these clipped, bold, statements, it comes as no surprise that John’s favoured tomes are J. K. Galbraith’s ‘New Industrial State’ and Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle – that brutal novel of life in the meat packing industry.
John also has a penchant for French Literature and Michael Hudson, the economic historian, who he regards as: “one of the best guides to the way things are” while from the French, he claims, Balzac “tells you how much it costs.”
The Butler Brothers’ work is speculative science fiction that deals with the here and now. It is like a video of the horrors of Guantanamo Bay filmed in a shopping mall.
“Speculative fiction is important because the future seems to be behind us, and nothing lies ahead. We’re just waiting for the next upgrade.
“That is the essence of contemporary culture. It’s designed to disable the imagination.”
He describes himself as an “electronic artist” – someone who makes sound and vision using computers. Butler is like the John Carpenter of the Digital Animation World – writing, producing, directing, designing, animating, and composing the music for all of the Brothers’ computer graphic videos.
“I do these things all at once, as I tend to feel my way through a project. This is a typical writer / painter mode of working. I only figure out where it’s going half way through. This approach is not much use if you are commanding resources and directing people, so I prefer to do it myself.
“The advantage is that doing the wrong thing leads to discovery.”
“I make computer graphic videos rather than animations. They are narrative but are more like Power Point writ large than CGI films. I’m trying to make something like the Chamber of Commerce propaganda cartoons John Sutherland made in the fifties. It’s about pushing CGI sideways rather than forward.”
John originally studied drawing and painting at Art College, but he always wanted to move into something that could include music and, later on, narrative. It seemed inevitable that he would move towards animation.
The subject of his college thesis was Edgard Varèse, the pioneering composer who used a tape recorder as a compositional tool. He also made what was probably the first multimedia installation, the ‘Poem Electronique’ in 1958, the seminal collaboration with Le Corbusier and Philips Electric (they supplied the 225 loudspeakers).
This idea of synthesis between form and medium is key to Butler’s work, something he was introduced to in childhood. His father was an industrial cameraman and film-maker for Ferranti, the electrical engineering and avionics firm that had factories in Edinburgh and Manchester.
Through his father, John had access to magazines such as ‘Aviation Week’, ‘Space Technology’ and ‘American Cinematographer’, which has given him a language that has seeped into his work. It is akin to J. G. Ballard’s “invisible literature” – those scientific and medical journals that informed Ballard’s writing, or the way Thomas Pynchon wrote manuals for the BOMARC anti-aircraft missile that later shaped ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’.
More recently, Butler has used the language of commerce and economics, in particular ‘Forbes Magazine’. He cites a recent example:
“Delcath’s chief executive, Eamonn Hobbs, and chief medical officer, Krishna Kandarpa, said in an interview that the study was designed around a written agreement with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of New Drugs, and that the lack of a survival benefit occurred because patients who failed in the control group got Delcath’s therapy.”
“I like the term ‘lack of a survival benefit’. It means they died.”
“Can you really believe there’s a company called Delcath? It’s pure Philip K. Dick.
“It’s those euphemisms that create the secret language of business, which I like so much. That’s why my dialogue is so stylised, I’m not trying to show how people really talk, I’m trying to channel the argot of commerce through them.
“I think that in about twenty years, we will all talk presentational English.”
His other childhood influences include Don Lawrence’s illustrations for Mike Butterworth’s ‘Trigan Empire’, which he read when it was first serialized in Look and Learn’ – the weekly educational magazine for kids. And understandably, for someone growing up in the sixties, the early Dr. Who, Star Trek and all of Gerry Anderson’s work, from ‘Stingray’ via ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet’ through to ‘UFO’. It was as much the originality of these programmes as their subject matter that appealed, “There was no such thing as remakes or postmodernism. It was all brand new.”
However, it was a more recent work of science fiction that had an epihanic effect on Butler, namely Ed Neumeier’s work with Paul Verhoeven on the films ‘Robocop’ and the ‘Starship Troopers’.
“‘Robocop’ showed me that art could include everything. Politics, humour, experiment, excitement, beauty. That’s where the Butler Brothers brand comes from, they were a games company in that film.”
John works with seven computers on two desks in the spare room of his West End flat.
“It’s more of a render allotment than render farm,” he says.
“I always thought that was the point of having personal computer systems and home studios. You can create your own work independently rather than seek authorization to command resources. You can also improvise and explore freely.
“The disadvantage is that you’ll never achieve the production values that are so important today, but I’m happy to do without.
“I’ve never really been one to draw up a detailed plan / storyboard and then execute it exactly, though I do script things like motion capture and voice recording sessions.
“I don’t use live video at all, which I would compare to sampling. I prefer 3D, which I think of as synthesis.”
The Butler Brothers’ most recent work is a sequel to their excellent, yet disturbing, ‘Darkness Seed’. Called ‘Children of the Null’ it limns uncanny parallels between our current obsessions with technology and social networks, and their hidden costs on individual freedom. In the Butler Brothers’ world our modern technology has a more sinister purpose, it is used to “reaggregate” children as food for an alien parasite.
John describes the outcome as “quite horrific”, but though his view may be dystopian, he thinks it a fair assessment of our world.
“I was thinking of the way that, after 30 years of desocialisation, social media is reaggregating us into a more useful form via Facebook and its ilk. I’m convinced social media has been designed to kill off the peer to peer movement.”
For John the need to critically examine the world we live in is a given, and it is one way to tell the truth of what is really going on.
It was the same for those artists of Montmartre and Montparnasse, for once they had shown the world ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, it would never be the same. Similarly, once you have watched a Butler Brothers film, you will never view the world in the same way again.
Images copyright © Butler Brothers 2010, used with kind permission