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Charles on… anything that comes along

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:03 pm

What I learnt and didn’t learn from reading The Celeb Diaries by Mark Frith, ex-editor of Heat

So the other day I finally finished reading The Celeb Diaries, which purports to be a sort-of week-by-week (except sometimes it’s day-by-day, and sometimes month-by-month) diary of Mark Frith’s time as editor of Heat magazine - from right back in the days when it was struggling to sell 70,000 copies per week, through to its triumphant days when in one glorious week it managed more than 700,000.

So here’s what I learnt:

  1. Posh Spice gave him an interview that effectively saved the magazine on its relaunch because it was exclusive, and newspapers picked it up.
  2. paparazzi send you lots of photos all the time and you have to choose between them. Some of them aren’t very nice really.
  3. Simon Cowell smokes Kool cigarettes.
  4. PR people sometimes are helpful in getting stories, but sometimes they block you, which can be annoying.
  5. Portakabin wrote a legal letter to Heat pointing out that the word “Portakabin” should be capitalised and only applied to its products. Other similar-functioning things should be called “portable toilets”. At Heat they found this letter amusing.
  6. Some celebs are very talkative. Others aren’t. Film stars are very untalkative and try to control publicity about themselves.
  7. Heat goes to press on Friday night and is printed on Saturdays, which can be a bother when Big Brother is on because people get evicted on Friday night.
  8. Big Brother was - is? - very popular with Heat’s readers.
  9. Sometimes celebrities tell bare-faced lies to you in interviews.
  10. He doesn’t drink, except when he has real problems or wins a really big prize.

Things I didn’t learn from Frith’s book:

  1. what effect the rise of the internet has had on celebrity magazines. By the end (finally, in spring 2008, after editing since 2000) he’s quietly mentioning that circulation has fallen from its peak. But although he does mention too that Heat set up a website (heatworld.com, apparently) and that it would post stories there, there’s no indication of how important the growth of celeb-spotting websites is to Heat. Has it taken circulation away? Become an important source of stories? What? Nary a mention.
  2. what the real commercial pressures were on him. While everything was going up, you’d expect that he could do no wrong. He does mention that Heat was constantly chasing after OK! - the Richard Desmond-owned magazine which kept doing celeb buyups (such as Ashley and Cheryl Cole’s wedding). How is it that OK! had so much more heft with the celebs?
  3. what he really, honestly thought of the whole celebrity culture thing. He mentions a couple of times that he would think of the celebs he featured as like playthings - it brings to mind a quote from Shakespeare about gods and wanton children - but the suggestion is that at the end (around new year of 2008) he suddenly got sick of it all, as Amy Whitehouse and Briney Spears imploded. (The two of them, and the paparazzi pictures, seem - from the book’s narrative - to have driven him to early retirement.)
  4. any idea of what he thinks of the people he had to deal with. Is Simon Cowell a wicked manipulator, who thought Gareth Gates would be the winner of Pop Idol (Will Young won, you’ll recall), or just someone who likes a fag and lunch from time to time?
  5. how he really viewed the difference between national newspapers - especially the tabloids - and what he was doing. Celeb exposes in the tabs are fodder to follow up; but there’s hardly ever a clear idea of whether he viewed Heat as a vehicle for finding stuff out before others, even though he had ex-journos from the Sun and the News of the World working there.
  6. why he didn’t elevate Heat’s complaint that some models were dangerously (for their health, for mimicking readers’ health) thin from a repeated trope into a full-blown campaign. Did he propose it and get knocked back at the executive level? Did the idea simply never occur (even though magazines all over the place try campaigns of one sort of another)? Did he shy away from the political necessity involved?
  7. whether he liked (or thought of) the idea of including readers’ mobile-phone-snapped photos of celebs out and about.
  8. what his special skills are. He must have some - you don’t take a magazine from the ground floor to the penthouse and keep it there without being especially brilliant at something. I guessed that it might be keeping on the right side of people (PR people, celebs, staff, managers) and always being engaging and listening to them. (Yes, yes, I’d love to have that trait too.) But I’m only guessing - there’s no way of knowing what he really brought to the table.

Actually the list - both lists - could go on and on. It’s a breathless stream; I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone could be so puppy-doggishly enthusiastic and unworried as Frith. As I read further and further in, and noted how he seemed to avoid those difficult judgements - about Cowell, for example, who surely deserves some commentary on how he used or dropped winners of Pop Idol and, subsequently, X Factor (followed by some reflection on Frith’s part about how he was effectively doing the same as Cowell to the graduates of the Big Brother house) - a suspicion began to grow:

He’s not judging them - in fact he’s holding back all but the foolish detail - because he doesn’t want to get into anyone’s bad books. These are people who he might need to give him a job in the future.

After all, he was only 38 when he left Heat (to go where? Where has he turned up since? Answers in the comments please). There’s a lot more to do. Hell, I wouldn’t write a memoir telling all if I were in his position. But I might think, as I wrote, of how the landscape was changing, and perhaps even inject some of that into the book. (Update: he’s been appointed editor of Time Out - thanks Louise in the comments - as of Friday 24 July 2009 - just the time I was finishing off reading his book. Which reinforces all those suspicions, then.)

I find it hard to believe too that he really kept a contemporaneous diary of life on Heat. You have to be a severely organised person to do that; Piers Morgan’s alleged “diary” The Insider was demonstrably written well after the fact. (Morgan’s claim to have described Cherie Blair and her new-age guru as members of the “Axis of Evil” at a No.10 dinner before the phrase came into use is telling. Durr.) I think that Frith left the job and then had to slog back through the issues, and recall what things had happened when. If he did keep a diary, well, I’m impressed, amazed and even more surprised that it doesn’t have any sort of reflection. Most people are reflective in their diary. Also, most people when writing a diary don’t shift about between tenses within a sentence or paragraph in the way that Frith frequently does. Which to me is another clue that it’s a post-op job.

The one place where you really need Frith to have a bit of insight is in the days after the foolish and infamous “stickers” issue - the one which had giveaway stickers such as “I’m not on drugs, I’m bipolar” (an oblique - to me - reference to Kerry Katona, who denied repeatedly she was taking drugs while some, um, journalists on a tabloid got her bang to rights) and, calamitously, “Harvey wants to eat me” - referring to Jordan’s multiply disabled child.

Wow. The effects of that issue - which Frith, formerly of Smash Hits (and who brought pretty much that sensibility to Heat: have fun, take nobody seriously; except life isn’t like that) thought would just be a laugh - were nuclear. Suddenly the radio, TV and newspapers wanted to talk to him. The phone would ring. Reporters came to Emap to ask him questions. But he could get other people to answer the phone. He could get security to turn away the reporters. Even so, the pressure on him for a week or more was immense.

But in that time, he wasn’t pursued by paparazzi; he wasn’t doorstepped. Let’s crank it up: he didn’t have semi-professional photographers whose rent payments depend on selling a photo to magazines and websites around the world walking three steps in front of him taking pictures constantly and shouting his name - and swearwords - to try to get a photo of him. He didn’t have notes shoved through his letterbox. His relatives weren’t bothered. His partner didn’t get calls. Snatched shots of him walking to and from work weren’t posted with big circles pointing to his clothing mistakes.

In short, he never really found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of what he - well, created is the wrong word, but of the flames that Heat helped to fan. And so he never sits down and thinks “what the hell have I done to these people, if this is what it’s like for me?”

Instead it’s left to Amy and Britney, whose travails (and constant stream of papped photos showing Frith the underside of the world; he swears, for example, that he won’t feature anything about Kate Moss and Pete Doherty because he thinks they’re scuzzy) finally show him that it’s not fun any more. For him, that is. Obviously, for them the fun of ordinary living went out of it a long time back.

It’s a pity, because Frith could have given such a marvellous insider view: how you really turn a failing magazine around - including the extent to which better advertising and marketing play a part, and how much editorial budget makes a difference (for those celebrity buyups) - and then how you keep a small but dedicated staff going even while they’re constantly No.2.

But somehow the emptiness of the book is summed up, for me, by the jacket quote provided by Cowell. It’s the only such quote on the book - surprising, if Frith knew so many people and won so many favours; you’d think they’d be happy to be quoted. But no, Cowell’s sits alone.

And it is this: “Nobody knows celebrities like Mark Frith.”

Think about it for a moment. Why didn’t he say “Nobody knows celebrities as well as Mark Frith”? It doesn’t quite mean the same, what he said. There’s a subtle implication - if it’s indeed direct from Cowell - of “there are no celebrities who are like Mark Frith”. Or, equally, “Mark Frith knows celebrities, but not as anyone else does.” Which might include him, Cowell, who knows a few.

The more you untangle, the more tangled it gets. The more you look, the less there is. It’s entirely apposite for the book. You go looking for something but you find there’s nothing when you arrive. There’s no there, there.

A bit like modern celebrity, in fact.

Saturday 4 July 2009

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:22 pm

At Centre Court: seeing Federer, and what Murray got wrong against Roddick

(No, that isn’t Judy Murray in the seat in front.)
On Friday I was at Wimbledon, at the centre court, to see the men’s semifinals. Thank you, Electronic Arts, which invited me and a few other journalists (from the Sun, Sky, Comic Relief and a few others) along for a chat and also, of course, to see the two matches: Roger Federer v Tommy Haas, and Andy Murray v Andy Roddick.

It’s been a long time since I was at Wimbledon. I attended every single day between 1985 to 1992 inclusive, and that included the Monday final of the doubles in 1992 when McEnroe won with Michael Stich. (Goes away to check. Yup. Correct. Memory doesn’t fail there.) I’d also attended the second week of every French Open in that period. In 1991 I went and reported on every Grand Slam event - Australian, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open. The 1991 US event was particularly notable for Jimmy Connors’s amazing run to the semifinals, where his strange flat shots befuddled player after player used to topspin madness. “Does Connors have the perfect game to play guys like you?” I asked Paul Haarhuis, whom Connors had beaten. The slightly testy reply: “If he did, everyone would play like that, wouldn’t they?”

But by then I’d got kind of bored with the game: it didn’t seem to have the zing and excitement I’d liked in the early years. So I just gave it up, pretty much cold turkey, and didn’t go back. But that was after six years of seeing every Wimbledon final from the press seats, which are slightly above and behind the Royal Box. A great place to be: saw Pat Cash climb up the roof to celebrate his 1987 win, for example.

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago. I still wasn’t interested in tennis, which seemed to me to reach a nadir beneath words with Pete Sampras’s ascent: he turned it into a serve, volley, go home game. And he had the personality of a plank.

Then I read a piece by Martina Navratilova about some guy called Roger Federer. Specifically, this:

I was lucky enough to play mixed doubles with him in Hong Kong at an exhibition in January this year. When they asked me if I wanted to play doubles with Roger, I asked, “great, how much do I have to pay you?”. It was a real treat because he was simply a joy to be on the court with. Then he asked me to practise with him and I got to hit for 45 minutes just one on one, which was phenomenal because I really got to feel how he hits the ball.

When Martina says things like that, everyone should listen. If she wants to be on the court with someone, that’s someone worth paying a lot of attention to. When I was covering the circuit she and Steffi Graf were the only two women whose press conferences were consistently interesting, because they were. So - why the fuss about Federer, Martina?

When he hits his forehand he can hook it so that he can go cross-court or down the line, tailing away from you because of all the topspin. He can hit a forehand cross-court so that it jumps at your body, which is effective on any surface but particularly on grass because it’s almost as though he’s inducing a bad bounce because he makes the ball jump differently and that’s what his kick-serve does as well.

He’s got spin on everything, he’s got a heavy slice that stays low, he can float the ball so that it stays low and just dies on the court so you have to create all the pace, or he can knife it so that it skids through. On his groundstrokes he can hit it harder or can hit a cross-court ball that looks like it’s going to be no problem until it suddenly takes off in the other direction after it bounces.

Well, that was good enough for me. So I started watching again. And indeed, Federer is the magic that she said.

But until Friday I hadn’t seen that magic live, and the difference between live and on TV is huge, let me tell you.

Centre Court, of course, is its own special place: far more intimate than you realise from the TV. And indeed, when Federer plays, the magic is there. I was sitting at a place diagonally off one corner, quite high up (so you can confirm the line calls easily), which means it’s hard to see whether the court is open for a pass (that you can see far better when you’re directly behind the court).

With Federer playing Tommy Haas (who always sounds to me like he should be the lead singer of a German heavy metal band), the principal difference between them was the noise when Federer really smacked his forehand. It was a whipcrack, and zinged across the court. Haas gave a good account of himself - as with most pro matches, the difference was only in a few points here and there.

But it’s what the TV doesn’t show you that’s interesting. Such as how between points, if he’s receiving serve, Federer will get any ball down his end from the ballgirl/boy and slice it up the court, lazily floating along with the combined langour and intention of a cruise missile.

Then there’s the way Federer looks slightly grumpily at the court where he was when he lost a point, as though it’s somehow the court’s fault he mishit that forehand. Well, it might have been. But it’s more like a habit.

And boy, do the players have habits. I’d forgotten how they love to do the same things over and over again. Wimbledon could be retitled The Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Challenge. Towel between points: Andy Murray is the champion here. He was wiping his face with the towel even though he had two sweatbands on his wrists. (Pity the ballboys and girls who had to run out to him between every point with the towel outstretched. In their future lives, they’ll make great parents for needy children.)

Which brings us to Murray against Roddick. The expectation was that Murray could win this, since he had a 6-2 record against Roddick, and had previously beaten him handily in three sets at Wimbledon a year or two back.

(Let me just point out to those who might wonder if I know anything about this game these two posts from this blog:

First, in Sept 2007:

Plus Murray has the potential to be one of the top three players in the world if he can get past this year’s injury.

Second, July 2005:

Murray is going to be top 50 within a year, top 10 - likely five - the next one. Talent will out. He made Johansson look quite ordinary for a while at Queen’s.

But Roddick, who has lost a stone recently (so I’m told), wasn’t interested in the past. He came out slamming his serve down.

It’s when you’re up against a big server that your mental strength is really tested, because you have to keep waiting for the little chance to pop up that will let you win the point, break point, game, set.

Roddick was thudding the ball in. But here’s the contrast between Federer and Murray. Haas was bombing his serve too: 126mph or so. OK, so Roddick had about another 10mph on that. But Federer was returning the serve on the baseline. Murray was about three yards back from the baseline.

What you love, if you’re a big server, is a lot of space to aim into. It gives you a feeling of freedom: you can relax. You know where the other person’s going to be, so you can pick your spot and aim for it.

That was Murray’s first big mistake. He didn’t vary where he stood. Even if he had sometimes stood on the baseline - even if it was going to be hopeless - that would have made Roddick think a little bit. If he had stood further back sometimes, so he’d have more of a chance to run at the ball, that would have made a difference. As it was, he remained in the same two places - one for first serve, one for second serve - through the match, and that didn’t help him. It didn’t put any doubt in Roddick’s mind. By contrast, in 1991 I saw McEnroe beat Becker at the Australian Open by basically standing on or even inside the baseline to return serve - bang it back and rush the net. An amazing strategy, and it worked.

Murray’s second big mistake: he wasn’t forcing the rallies. Once the points had gone beyond serve-return, Roddick was typically standing about a yard behind the baseline, driving the ball, being aggressive so that he could dictate the points. Murray, by contrast, was a couple of yards behind the baseline - and it seemed to me that quite a few of the attempted passes that landed in the net failed because he hit them just that bit further back: the ball had begun dropping. Sure, that ignores all the great shots he hit, but tennis at this level is a matter of inches (even less: the Hawkeye call in the fourth-set tiebreaker that would have given Murray a mini-break-back was perhaps half a centimetre out), and you can’t afford to give free shots.

So both those mistakes are essentially the same thing: not

The umpire’s warning in the fourth set for “audible obscenity” was daft - Murray had tried a crosscourt backhand pass, missed it wide, and yelled “No, go for the pass!” (He was down my end, my side, facing away from the umpire.) It was ridiculous; Murray was right to complain, but he held it down well. McEnroe of course would have had the referee on the court in an eyeblink. Times past.

Things you don’t see on TV: when Murray is serving, he takes three balls, and always knocks the extra back to the ballboy/girl with his racket between his legs. Always. (Why do pros take three balls? Because they want the two least fluffy ones. They pick the two least fluffy of the three.)

And then we have Murray’s third mistake, which isn’t so much of a mistake as a failing: his second serve, specifically on the ad (15-0) side. Too much of the time it was too slow, and Roddick could wait for it - expecting it on the backhand, where it would come again and again - and whack it down. From the moment that the first serve plonked into the net (because Murray wasn’t tossing the ball quite high enough) Roddick controlled the point. Too infrequently did Murray mix it up with second serves down the centre, or into the body. (Can’t find a page with that sort of analysis anywhere that would show where the serves landed and so on. Let me know in the comments if it exists.)

Oh yeah, and let’s go back to all the mindless rubbish that was written ahead of the game about Roddick’s tactics:

They last clashed in Doha in January, when Murray easily came out on top 6-4 6-2.

The memory of that defeat led [Larry] Stefanki [Roddick’s coach, and a long time ago John McEnroe’s coach) to suggest on Wednesday that Roddick could try less aggressive tactics this time in a bid to upset the Scot’s rhythm.

Complete rubbish, and utter mind games intended to lead Murray and his team astray: Murray may say he doesn’t read the papers, but it’s a bet that someone there does and that they might make a mention to him in some roundabout way. At least Jeff Tarango - a former player - does himself say that’s rubbish advice, but there’s plenty of papers that just repeated it. Perhaps the nationals need to hire a few people who’ve actually played the game to analyse this stuff.

Anyway, all of this leads us to the final, where we get Mr Five Times Already against Mr Been There Twice But No Titles Yet. It’s hard to see any simple way to pick anyone but Federer here. They’ve played many times, and Federer has the winning habit. The last time Roddick won was in March 08, when I think Federer may have been still recovering from glandular fever.

I think Federer will not make the mistakes that Murray did: he will try to break up Roddick’s rhythm, he won’t give him a consistent place to serve at, and his ground game is awesome to behold.

Anyhow, I’ll be tweeting it at @pokpokclap. Follow me if you’d like.

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