Friday, 13 May 2016

REVIEW: How does Stevenage train station's new cycling parking measure up?

While Wiggins, Pendleton and Hoy have grabbed all the headlines, cycling's other big British success story of the last decade has been cycle-rail journeys, or trips involving bikes and trains. 

Numbers have sky-rocketed, up from 14 million cycle-rail journeys in 2009 to 39 million in just four years. Naturally, space is now at a premium at many train stations across the nation. Having to find room in the cycle rack to squeeze your bike into, before then having to find room in the train carriage for you to squeeze into, has been a regular joy for cycle-rail commuters. 

But help is at hand (for the former at least) with rail stations upgrading their cycle parking facilities, including at Stevenage rail station. 

The first block of spaces at that station have now, in April 2016, been updated and on the face of it appear to have increased capacity (though I confess I haven’t counted the number of spaces) which is certainly a good thing and will help alleviate the squeeze. 

ABOVE: The bike park before...                                                       ...and after

The new layout of the cycle racks has had another possibly unintended advantage: No longer are errant cyclists tempted to just lock their bike to the side of the rack and virtually block everyone else from getting to the rear half of the rack. This was more annoying that it sounded and once drove a pensioner to confess to me, while trying to negotiate the tight space, that she was sorely tempted to let down the tyres of such ‘blockers’. So that is a big tick in the box. 

The new bike park is a double decker affair, which does bring about a few challenges. If, like me, you have a relatively heavy and bulky bike then those neglected cyclist arm muscles will have a shock to the system when you lug your bike up to the top level – accessed by pulling the individual ‘trays’ out and down. 

The new bike park also means I’ve had to change my bike lock – I had been using a bulky Bordo Lock from ABUS, which doesn’t really work with the new stands, being better suited to a U lock or a less secure cable lock. Probably a chain would work too. Securing my bike helmet using the main lock is more cumbersome too – sticking the helmet out in the path of the neighbouring bike. Upright 'Dutch' style bikes like mine with sticky out handlebars may, perhaps ironically, struggle with the new stands.

So, in a nutshell, there are a few trifling niggles that you would expect with just about any change, but in the main, the new cycle parking spaces are a big step forward and a welcome investment, particularly if they really have given the station some much needed extra capacity for cycle parking. The bit about having to lift the bikes up to get to the less popular second level could prove a real issue, however – I couldn’t imagine hefting an e-bike up there and certainly anyone with a mildly heavy bike, or slightly short, would have trouble. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

In conversation with the boss of Brompton, the biggest bicycle manufacturer in Britain

"Other Bugger's Efforts" - that's what OBE stands for, according to Brompton Bicycles' managing director Will Butler-Adams. Jonathon Harker quizzes the newly minted OBE on UK manufacturing, why bike colours matter, on engineering's poor image and the challenges of recruiting women...

Read the full article here on BikeBiz. Or read it on Issuu here.

NOTE: This is an interview I did for BikeBiz back at the end of 2014. Will Butler-Adams is always good value and refreshingly candid for someone in such a prominent position in the global cycle trade. 

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Watching a TV show being filmed is fun. Would I Lie To You?

There’s an indisputable thrill in the air around a TV recording. You know this because the first instinct of the audience is to produce a respectable hush as if they were in a theatre, which is a shame as that’s the opposite of what the producer wants, but it keeps warm up men and women in business.

The other thing about TV recordings is they take quite a bit longer than you’d expect. I write this assuming you’ve not been to one. At the recording of this week’s episode of the BBC’s Would I Lie To You we were sat in there, way back in March, for a good few hours, all in order for the production team to get 30 minutes together for the broadcast. It’s jarring, when you’re used to the short and snappily edited version on the TV, but you do feel like you get your money’s worth. Not that you pay to go along and be in the audience for TV shows in the main, but you get the point...

It’s also pretty fascinating to see the process of recording. The retakes and the inevitable larking around make you feel like you’re in a special little club where you’re privy to off-camera shenanigans. The performers make a good fist of including you in that.

Speaking of which, it’s always exciting to see celebrities in the flesh, with all the inevitable “isn’t he taller/shorter/better looking than he appears on TV”.

And then there’s the worry about what you might look like on camera. There aren’t a lot of audience shots in Would I Lie To You, but I ‘look forward’ to the back of my thinning almost-bald spot being broadcast to the nation on Friday.

Hairstute-fears aside, if you haven’t gone along to see a TV Show recorded, I’d recommend it. Though if you’re going to see a long show like Strictly then you might want to take a particularly comfortable (yet covert) cushion.   

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

In praise of: Holby City

Waiting times are low, they are doing ground breaking (Hertzig-based) surgery and the staff are exceedingly attractive...what's not to like about Holby City?

...No, of course I mean Holby City the TV drama, not the fictional hospital itself. That would be silly.

When a TV drama has been around as long as Holby, then there is a danger of being a tad overlooked.

In fact it's fair to say that Holby has somehow slipped between the cracks a bit. Compared with soaps like 'Corrie, 'Enders and Emmerdale, it struggles to get the cover of TV Quick or even get a sniff during awards season. Yet it is plugging away, 52 weeks a year with a happily high standard of quality drama.

Not as arty as Broadchurch, not as gory as The Walking Dead (though sometimes it runs pretty close) it's dependably good TV drama that deserves more of a shout out than it currently gets, frankly. So here's a registrar heckling, prepping for theatre, big issue-dealing doff of the surgeon's cap to Holby City.

Friday, 23 January 2015

I'm the reason why Ripper Street was cancelled

There's no use pretending: I can be a bit slow on the uptake, so it's no real surprise that I've only just begun to watch Ripper Street, which was first broadcast at the tail end of 2012.

Frankly, I'm hooked and looking forward to digging into the rest of the series.

All of this means that I'm part of the problem for broadcasters who scour the ratings for clues on a series' popularity. Your sure-fire cast-iron hits are often the types that have massive overnight ratings, where popularity is not in doubt, like British Bake Off, Broadchurch, Downton, etc. The ones where you can get an old school 'water cooler moment' with your co-workers "did you see Carson launch a punch at Lord Grantham last night?"

When you move away from those massive TV hits it all gets a bit more more tricky, almost entirely because our viewing habits are getting ever more fragmented. Video recorders may have given us chance to record what was going on over on the other channel while we were watching Corrie, but the advent of Sky+, iPlayer and all the rest has given the viewer so much choice as to how and when they watch telly that it's hard to work out just how popular a programme is.

Doctor Who, for instance has an immensely loyal fan base but the iPlayer audience appears to be getting more and more important for it, often picking up in the region of a couple of million ratings after the show has first been broadcast. Numbers that it used to get in overnights instead.

When you include viewers watching on DVD box sets or Netflix/Amazon Prime/Now TV/et al, it's more tricky still.

As IT Crowd and Count Arthur Strong creator Graham Linehan noted in a recent interview with The Telegraph: "It’s so difficult to get people in front of the television these days – ratings are astonishingly low. I remember a time when it was normal for people to sit down at six o’clock and not move all night. In the past few years people have started to shake themselves out of that mindset."

Taking Ripper Street again, the first episode was broadcast by the BBC at the end of 2012 and here I am watching it three years late on DVD. The BBC took the decision to end Ripper Street following the second series, after ratings didn't hit the highs of the first series. Now I don't have any inkling if quality slid or if it felt like it was on its last legs (or if it was down to a new time slot against I'm a Celeb) as I've not watched them all yet, but in any event after an online petition Amazon Prime took Ripper Street on in a co-production with the beeb for series three.

So how can a broadcaster judge the popularity of a series? Aside from ratings or reviews, they are a bit stuck. Watching Twitter for what is trending is similarly limited too.

You can't blame broadcasters. Precisely because there is so much choice for viewers now, they surely feel that they can't afford to continue to back a show with dwindling ratings, for fear of losing viewers to competitors.

A chart combining original ratings with DVD views and online views would be hugely useful for a true measure of the popularity of a series, though it sounds like a logistical nightmare so will likely never happen.  

There's an honourably long list of films that have found a strong second life on video/DVD where they failed at their first crack at the cinema, the Shawshank Redemption among them. But the ramifications are different for film and TV. A slow burning audience for a film simply means that more income will be generated over the years through DVD sales, but an audience slow to love a TV drama can mean cancellation.

In conclusion, yes I am part of the problem. Those powerful types who commission and cancel TV drama can't possibly know if a series, like Ripper Street, is going to pick up in popularity over the years despite increasingly middling ratings. Like many things in life, luck appears to have a big role to play in the world of TV drama. Will your drama catch on quick? You better hope so.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Utopia Series 2 hits the screens tonight

Twisty-turning consipiracy thriller Utopia is back for a second series, starting tonight on Channel 4.

In a typical convention-defying move, the first episode of the new series takes us back to before the first series took place, starring one Rose Leslie taking on the Milner role, four decades earlier.

"As a really big fan of the first season, I thought it was a brilliant idea," said Leslie. "It basically takes us back to the 1970s and shows us where it all began. We get to see Milner as a young woman, and we get to see why she turns into this ruthless killer. And we see what happens to Carvel as well, and how Jessica and Arby come to be. I was completely hooked by the concept. It’s really a stand-alone episode, and a real treat for the fans."

"What’s terrifying is, playing her for a full month, you can see the reasoning, you can see where she’s coming from. They’re doing it for the greater good. They’re doing it for the longevity of our species, giving it the chance to thrive. You can totally get swept up in that. But then you see the lines start to blur, you see what she has to do to make things happen. They can’t afford to have friends, they can’t trust anyone, they have to commit the most terrible acts. That makes you step back and think. But that’s the beauty of Dennis Kelly – he writes it in such a beautiful way, you’re able to see both sides of the argument."

Adeel Akhtar will be returning as the excellently named Wilson Wilson. He said of Utopia's return: "The things which you liked about it in the first series are all there again. All the themes it was exploring are back again. The characters are taken further along their overall arc. It’s really interesting to see where each of the characters goes in this series. It really is pretty unexpected. It stays a few steps ahead of the audience in that sense.

"The journey that Wilson has to go on in the second series is a real challenge. There was a familiarity to it, but just because there’s a familiarity doesn’t make something easier. From an acting viewpoint, this series was a real challenge. But yeah, it was nice to be back with other cast members, and to be back with Marc [Munden, the director].

Utopia series 2 is split over six episodes.

Friday, 27 June 2014

5 films that could follow in Fargo's footsteps and be transferred to TV

Turning a 18 year old crime film into a TV series may initially have seemed an odd decision, but the results proved it was a canny choice after all - the recently concluded Fargo received plenty of plaudits for wittily combining dense plotting, interesting characters and fine acting, with a generous helping of violence.

But are there any UK crime films of yesteryear ripe for the TV series treatment? Here are our pick of five British films that are prime pickings for the TV market:


Skyfall was the UK's biggest ever film and plenty of fun to watch, so simply following it up with another Bond film feels like a wasted opportunity, frankly. A TV series of Bond has plenty of potential, though it would have to work hard to avoid becoming a Jack Bauer knock off. And then there's the problem of casting - would you really expect Daniel Craig to sign up for a TV series too? In a nutshell, no. So why not a series centred on Q? Or another relatively minor character in the Bond set up, with Bond making a few fleeting appearances – like Nick Fury in Marvel's Agents of Shield?

Get Carter

The grim crime classic from 1971 sees Michael Caine go up to Newcastle to investigate and then avenge his brother's death. There's episodic potential in uncovering the seedy crime world of his home town, but in many ways it feels like Happy Valley might have pipped it to the post in its unflinching violence and crime up north centred on a strong family concept. In fact it wouldn't take that big a leap of imagination to see Sarah Lancashire take on the Michael Caine role in Get Carter following the critically lauded Happy Valley. And then there's the fact that a TV version of Get Carter would help banish the Sylvester Stallone starring film remake from our heads.

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels 
Admittedly, following some research, it turns out this has already been done - back in 2000, a mere two years after the film was released - a six episode series was broadcast on Channel Four. And what do you know, one Martin Freeman starred in two episodes. Would returning to the concept another 14 years on be worth a thought? Or maybe a series out of the likes of Snatch? Maybe Fargo will reinvigorate the appetite for such a series.

Brighton Rock
Graham Greene's crime novel has been translated into film twice, the first famed for Richard Attenborough's portrayal of Pinkie and - for fellow geeks - for William Hartnell playing his right hand man. The story has moral complexity as Pinkie manipulates a witness to his evil deeds into a potential spouse and there's room to expand on the unpleasant deeds that make Pinkie so fearsome. And there's a period setting, the likes of which the BBC pulls off regularly to great effect in dramas like Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street. But would it be likely to be more adaptation than inspiration a la Fargo?

Sexy Beast
Sun, swearing, crime, Ray Winstone in budgie smugglers and a terrifying performance from Sir Ben Kingsley… Sexy Beast is the kind of film that endures in the memory, but would it make a good series? Using the film as a spring board, as the Fargo series does- rather than slavishly follow the same plot line - there's plenty of potential for stories based around a criminal going straight, or trying to, with a persuasive former associate dragging them back, virtually kicking and screaming, to perform another job.

How about Italian Job? Layer Cake? Or maybe Croupier?