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December, 2011

Review of my year – what was 2011 like for you?

Today seems the right day to review my year in all aspects of my life – it’s a cathartic experience and helps get things in perspective.

Reflecting on life during 2011.....

Professionally it’s been a good year. For Fiona the journalist – I’ve made several films covering subjects as diverse as dementia care, OCD, rising energy prices and the Welsh Assembly elections (now known as the Welsh Government). Many thanks to ITV Wales, the BBC and Available Light for all of those projects. Alongside this, I’ve written articles on numerous occasions, so I thank the Swindon Link, Wiltshire Life and the Swindon Advertiser.

From a Mellow Media point of view it’s been a year of promise with several one-off projects, others requiring discretion and others which can be shouted about. Many thanks to Footdown, Business Scene, Sarah Arrow of Birds on the Blog, the Symondsbury Estate, Tailored For You and some new names which will also emerge in 2012. All of these companies and their people have provided work, new friends, new experiences and personal development, so many, many thanks. For all the colleagues out there in the world of business, let’s hope 2012 is full of hope as well as hard work. Let’s hope that gloomy predictions are not as bad as we’re hearing from various voices.

On a personal front, I’ve seen a child go to secondary school, another child start school and another child become one of the bigger fish in her small primary school pond. I’ve discovered both of my daughters are very good singers and my son sings along too. Both my girls took part in a community radio programme and they achieved many, many things throughout the year. My step-daughter passed her driving test and turned 18. She also presented an eight-minute film for regional BBC programme about tuition fees. There have been many occasions when I’ve been a very proud mum. And I should mention here a husband who has been supportive and loving for another year – we celebrated 11 years married. He’s put up with me for 15 though!

As a family we had a fantastic holiday in Orlando spending two weeks doing the whole Disney and Universal Studio thing. To say the least, it was fantastic. It was all we expected and more. But my biggest tip for anyone considering such a holiday – hire a large villa for a fraction of the cost of onsite accommodation, you get more comfort, better food (you can buy it yourself and actually have a salad) and often get your own pool. Hire a car and pay the $15 parking fee per day to park at any of the attractions. Also if a ride says you’ll get wet – it means you’ll get absolutely soaked so take a change of clothes. And pay the extra for Fast Passes or Express routes (it’s well worth it).

On another personal note, 2011 has been a year of terrible sadness for our family. In December we lost our neighbour and friend Roger to cancer at the age of 53, very suddenly. To look at his widow and see her pain every day is awful. But it was something sadly familiar to us. A big shadow this year was the death of our brother-in-law Peter in April at the age of 49 from heart failure. Pete died very suddenly after collapsing at the gym. He left my sister and three children, the youngest just five months old. To see my lovely baby sister trying to put her best foot forward every day, week, month since his death – has been a humbling lesson in life. And his parents and sister in Australia grieving at a distance is something we feel but can do nothing about…

So it’s with a mix of emotions that I face 2012 – I’m excited and challenged but as my daughter said to me a few days ago ‘Mum I just hope we don’t lose anyone else we love’ and that’s the main thing for me. Whatever bad things happen, put that event into perspective – there is always always someone worse off than you!

On that note – HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

Review my review of Swindon’s pantomime Cinderella with Keith Chegwin.

Each year in Swindon we go to the pantomime as a family – often on Christmas Eve – and it’s become part of our Christmas experience.

This year it was Cinderella with Keith Chegwin as Buttons. It was extra special for me as I’d had the privilege of interviewing Keith months before for Wiltshire Life magazine and found out more about him than I’d known previously. He’s an astute businessman, family man, entertainer, presenter – a man of many facets.

For people of a certain age Keith means Swap Shop as Noel Edmunds‘ sidekick, an associate of Mr Blobby and other childish fads for today’s grown-up children. But, of course, he’s much more than that. He’s a committed musician with his own studio, who often works under a pseudonym.

Great entertainment to invoke the Christmas spirit.....

I think my favourite comment from him was that pantomime is not hard work and when he hears actors’ complaints about it, he reminds them that others work much harder for far less money. Keith has a perspective of life that’s real, he appreciates good fortune and understands that many don’t have it – at least not in terms of money.

So I came to the pantomime, excited to see it. And it was very, very entertaining. My measure for this is to look at my four-year-old and my ten-year-old to see how much they are joining in. They were mesmerised, shouting, waving those light stick thingies, and jumping up and down when required. When the Fairy Godmother (played by Alex Young) wanted us to do something rather too complex every time she came on stage, only a few got it every time and my daughter was one!

Buttons (Keith Chegwin of course) talked to the children all of the time and they loved him. Parents were peripheral (though he did tell me my pathetic attempt at a star jump was well, pathetic) and the little people lapped it up. I did feel a bit sorry for him, as he’d clearly lost his voice and was struggling to sing. But this is pantomime,  where much can be forgiven. And he kept up a patter of jokes (much like he does on Twitter) so there was a stream of laughter all of the time.

The singing all round was exceptionally good this year – there was no sense of people who couldn’t deliver. Especially Cinderella and Prince Charming – played by Sasi Strallen & Adam King. Perhaps the slightly weaker singer was Jenny-Ann Topham who played the Wicked Step-mother but her acting more than made up for that. She was a fantastic baddie.

For me, the stars of the show were the Ugly Sisters Wendy & Gail – played wonderfully by David Ashley & Neal Wright. One about seven feet tall, one much, much smaller but both big in personality. When they first came on stage, for us adults, they commanded the audience, you just knew that every time they appeared it was going to be a scream. They were fantastic, funny and saucy – all that’s required of the pantomime dame. And their audience victim? The man they pick on throughout the show? My lovely husband Steve – who apparently was off to Old Town for a night out with them! He’d go too, if they were paying!…..

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda or M&S? Which one gets your vote at Christmas?

The fridge is full for Christmas - at last

Today we did a mega-shopping day visiting four supermarkets in a single day to get all the things on my ridiculous Christmas shopping list.

I think that puts me in a good position to assess the supermarkets’ readiness for December 23 – probably the busiest shopping day of the year – in Swindon at least.

First stop, by 9.30am was a town centre Marks & Spencer. Already very, very busy and (is it me?) full of people who think it’s okay to push you out of the way, tut in your ear and be generally grumpy. Nevertheless, the choice was reasonable, there was plenty of stock and we were able to buy the basketful of items we like the M&S way (pudding type things mainly, plus their version of Walnut Whips!).

Then on to Tesco – probably  my most hated supermarket in Swindon – as it seems to attract the most aggressive, anti-social shopper on earth. We just wanted a single item here – a prawn cocktail pot with a chilli flavour that they did about three years ago and which we have searched for ever since with no luck. Still, they did have a toilet so that made up for a lot! But no prawn cocktail, so a quick exit was in order.

Third Sainsbury’s – the venue for the main shop as we’d saved more than £100 in vouchers for the Christmas shop. However, I’ll think twice next year. We arrived here at about 11am, maybe a bit earlier, and the shelves were so empty it was almost unbelievable. I had the last few loose parsnips and carrots. We had to divide our efforts in the fruit & veg sections or we wouldn’t have been able to purchase anything. There were no sprouts (apart from those on a big stalk), no loose red onions, no Maris Pipers (my favourite for roasters). It was staggeringly busy with people in trolley jams all around but I couldn’t work out if it was phenomenal sales or really, really poor planning on the shop’s part. Around every corner as well as a zillion trolley-pushers, there were at least two large carts with frantic staff trying to fill up shelves.  I couldn’t get any dips like potato salad, humus or Waldorf salad – the kind of stuff I love on Boxing Day. And the only fresh herbs available were parsley, probably the only one I didn’t want!

Hence a quick trip to Asda – where there was so much food it was spilling out of the front door. No worries about sprouts here. In fact, I’d be worried about what’s going to be left as it was 5.30pm when we got there and there was stacks and stacks of food. I also picked up my herbs and nutmeg and was able to tick off the final things on my daft list.

I do now feel like I can relax – the food is in, the turkey is fresh and free range (ought to be gold-plated for what it cost) and the gammon looks like it could feed an army – but four kids should make light work of it!

Tomorrow it’s a pantomime of another kind – shorter, more entertaining and a lot cheaper – bring it on Keith Chegwin!

 

Could you be a stand-up comedian? Are you the next Billy Connelly?

Christmas is a really good time to review television programmes for a blogger like me as part of my celebrations involves seeking out interesting and offbeat programmes.

Last night I watched Imagine…the Art of Stand-Up (Part One) and I really enjoyed it. It was a montage of thoughts and feelings about what makes good stand-up involving a range of comedians. I even clicked the red button and watched more. It was one of those programmes that you didn’t want to end – and I’m so glad I’ll get to see the rest this evening.

I’m not always a fan of this series as sometimes it’s really self-indulgent and catering for those who immerse themselves daily in art and is not aimed at ordinary mortals. This programme was an exception as it embraced some great stand-up comedians alongside those who are at the dawn of their careers. I’m thinking particularly of  Billy Connelly, Frank Skinner, Jack Dee or Omid Djalili – all comedians I’d pay good money to see live.

It also involved comedians who just aren’t my cup of tea like Jim Davidson – who I have seen live and, for me, is very dated. There was also some younger, newer talent including Simon Amstell, who frankly, would drive me crazy within about ten seconds, as he came across as so intense and introverted. For goodness sake, lighten up Sir!

This morning I’ve read a review in a daily newspaper which said the programme was frustrating, that it tried to cover too much and the suggestion is that it failed to do so. Reviewer, you’ve missed the point and have been led into a long, and boring, justification of your views.

This was not a programme designed to give all of the answers in a structured analytical exercise – it’s an interesting flavour of what comedians think of their art. How it makes them feel when on stage, what they think of hecklers, how their own lives and observations feed into their performances etc etc. For me, that’s enough. I find people interesting and I don’t always need to have a finite beginning, middle and end. So to this particular reviewer (she knows who she is) ‘baa humbug!’

There were also some other elements which, as a programme-maker, I loved. Although I’ve never produced a programme with this kind of budget, it’s not rocket science, you can easily see how it was shot and enjoy the dynamic of that process.

For example, there were many shots showing the cameras and the set-up of interviews, sprinkled with random shots of the interviewer, Alan Yentob prior to interview, Alan Yentob attending a couple of events (and a few necessary cutaways during the interviews). I love that style of involving a presenter, where they play a more subliminal but important role. No need for endless pieces-to-camera or voice over. I also loved the simple way that different subjects were introduced with a few simple words at the bottom right of screen. This suggests to me that there was no rigid structure to the interviews, that they flowed and ebbed quite naturally (even though I know that the BBC style is often very structured).

The locations were also interesting to me. A lot of the interviews were done, I think, in the same location as much of the film The King’s Speech was shot, especially with the less well known comedians. I surmise, though clearly I don’t know, that the most famous comedians were visited personally by the crew (wherever they live) and the less well known were asked to attend a shoot at a single location. That way the budget was carefully used to include the best stand-up comedians and those seen as rising stars. But there was also an element of young comedians ‘trying out’ new material – which I found really interesting. Simon Amstell testing his new material on a small audience, writing notes, ticking off lines that worked and did not. He may not be the kind of comedian I like yet – but I admire his tenacity and his commitment to his art.

Could you do stand-up comedy! I know I wouldn't have the bottle.....

Needless to say I’m looking forward to the second instalment tonight on BBC2 – somehow I was not expecting Imagine to be near the top of my Christmas tv list this year…..

School SATS results – are you pleased?

It’s the last day of term today and a day of analysis. The Key Stage 2 test results for Primary Schools are printed and I’ve found myself pouring anxiously over the fine details regarding my children’s school in a way that’s horribly competitive.

It’s daft really because I know that they are at a good school and one that’s well regarded locally.

All three are doing well in their years and are likely to get above average results when they take the tests themselves. But it’s the psyche that’s been set up. The schools are ranked and ours isn’t in the top ten when it has been in previous years.

Now, I know in my sensible head, that that this doesn’t reflect on the children or the school particularly. Most pupils passed level 4, the required standard at this age group, and quite a lot, passed level 5. If I analyse the special needs figures then our school has more children that fit this category than others. Although such a mix hasn’t affected how well my children learn in the classroom when it comes to SATS results, it makes a difference to the figures.

The school with the best academic results in the country had just 6 pupils in its Year 6 group and they all achieved level 5, the above average rating. City schools in Bristol range from 60 – 120 pupils per year. It is quite a different proposition to get them all achieving at level 5.

When SATS were first proposed I thought it a good idea as I assumed that it would enable parents, as well as teachers, to have a clear indication of the standard of their school. To a certain extent it does, and reveals schools that give parents cause for concern where pupils aren’t reaching the required standard for their age. But surely there is more to education that this.

I know I shouldn’t be feeling disappointed that our school is lower down the list than last year. However, if they’d been in the top five I doubt I’d be writing this.

Shopping in cities – it’s the parking, stupid!

Sometimes it takes an expert to state the obvious to get those in power to take notice.

This morning retail guru Mary Portas did just that by mentioning parking charges as one of the main reasons why many of us no longer use the high street. It’s something that most of us already know and could certainly have told the government without the need for a costly review. But, of course, had it come from the general public, the idea would have been dismissed without consideration.

Take Bristol’s much revamped city centre with its Cabot Circus development. The range of shops on offer is now exponentially better than it was in the previous decade. Then, the delights of Bath, Cheltenham, Swindon and London were infinitely preferable to the paltry range of shops on offer in Bristol. The development of the out of town retail centre at Cribbs Causeway brought positive changes and then came the city centre redevelopment. Finally, Bristol has a high street worthy of its status as the largest city in the South West.

However, something unexpected has happened. Instead of making me change my shopping pattern and use these lovely new facilities in the city centre, I went twice and then went back to shopping at the out of town retail centre.

This decision wasn’t based on the shops. It was due to the parking charges. And no other reason than that.

My eldest daughter came home from school a couple of months ago asking why she was the only person in her class who had never been to Cabot Circus. It made me reflect – surely I had taken my children shopping in the city centre at some time? Obviously not! So, vowing to put this right, we set out for a girls shopping trip last weekend.

The first battle was finding a parking space. In the few cheaper car parks all the parking spaces had gone and only the expensive car parks were left. I entered one to find that the charges were £6.00 for two hours and if you went one minute over the two hours, £12.00.

That is a serious amount of money to pay before you even begin shopping. It’s like an extra tax for the privilege of using the shops.

Instead of a leisurely time surveying the vast range of retail opportunities on offer, interspersed with a cafe stop, my girls speed-shopped and instant decisions were forced. There was certainly no opportunity for indecisiveness on this trip. I would have liked to sit in a cafe with them (spending more money on the high street) but with the prospect of paying an extra £6.00 parking if I delayed, we didn’t. Instead my pre-teens were route-marched, super quick, back to the car park. The whole trip took one hour and 56 minutes.

There is something self-defeating about this. I feel I’ve done my bit and shown them what the town centre has to offer, but next time we go to Cribbs Causeway, where there are no time restrictions or parking charges.

Maybe now that there’s official recognition that parking charges are a deterrent, councils and car park owners will get together and find a reasonable solution.

Who has the most expensive charges for parking in their city centre? Can you beat Bristol’s charges? We’d like to know.

Are we less festive this Christmas? What do you think?

This week, I’ve really cracked on with the Christmas shopping – but I have noticed a real difference with the atmosphere around shopping this year. Or is it my imagination?

As usual I’ve bought loads online – but have also had my credit card fleeced of £1,000 over the weekend which shows me that thieves are about. It’s the second time this year I’ve been caught out as it appears some Christmas presents have been stolen from us too. A gang has been operating outside a large toy store in the town and grabbing bags the moment your back is turned. I think we’ve become victims this year, though we still have to visit the toy store to ensure that we weren’t stupid enough to leave items there.

So for me, this already feels like a Christmas where there is a greater possibility of petty crime. I suppose it’s inevitable with the economy under such pressure, people losing their jobs and everyone feeling the pinch.

Out shopping today, there’s a quietness around, less hustle and bustle, less excitement even where there are many, many bargains to be had. There’s a quietness about Swindon that surprises me and I’ve lived and worked in the town for 20 years.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be far fewer Christmas lights up on people’s homes this time around. From my own street to across the whole town. Is it because of high energy prices I wonder? People feel less ready to spend the money. Or has it been a slow build-up over the last couple of years that I’m just beginning to notice?

Lights indoors but what's happened to the outdoor decorations?

Inside our home we’ve got the lights and the tree and it’s all very pretty but outside it’s not as festive. I thought it was just me until a friend said the same on Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and throw myself into it regardless of how much money I have or have not got as it’s about family, meeting up and having fun together. But I’d be really interested to see if you agree – is there less shopping, and less lighting where you live?

Do you have a website? Save your cookies? You MUST take action!

How many times have you seen the word ‘cookie’ in relation to computers, websites and the internet and just don’t have a clue what it means – in fact, don’t even care?

It’s just one of those terms which us technophobes skim over and ignore, accepting that it’s something technical and we don’t need to think about.

COOKIES! COOKIES! COOKIES! From January 1 2012, if you’ve got a website, for business or personal use, and it uses cookies for gathering data – YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THIS.

Cookies are not only lovely biscuits which are often horribly addictive – they are also pieces of code which attach themselves to your computer when you click on certain websites. I think that’s a good way to describe it. Please feel free to comment and provide a better description.

These cookies can gather data about you, how you navigate a website, where your interests lie – all of which is useful data for a company which is trying to effectively market to consumers or where a company or individual wants to know great detail about the amount of traffic coming to their site.

A new EU law comes into force on January 1 which means all  websites using cookies in this way in Europe MUST give a warning about their use PRIOR TO THE WEBSITE LOADING. If you don’t have this facility, you will be breaking the law and you risk a fine.

Think of it this way. When you use your mobile to ring an 08000 number or a similar number, you often get that message which says ‘if you continue with this call, it will cost 7p a minute so hang up if you don’t want to pay’ etc. I always hang up and switch to a landline.

This is a similar warning – which must be visually  displayed before cookies are downloaded, which happens very quickly once you’ve clicked on a website of interest. The aim is to provide further safeguards around privacy on the web.

Personally I don’t mind that some sites use cookies to find out general things about me – maybe I’m naive. But I guess there are many people out there who do mind and don’t’ want websites to know who you are the next time you visit etc. Oh and by the way, WordPress blogs like this do use cookies – so we here at Mellow Media need to take note alongside everyone else.

This law actually came into force in other European countries in May but the UK government delayed it here because it felt that it had not been widely publicised. I think the Government was right in that assumption. For most of us, we’ve never even heard of this EU cookie law and potentially we’re all walking into a trap.

But we can offer a solution which will not cost loadsa money. Is this a bit of shameless marketing? Yes, it is – let’s be upfront. One of our clients, Sarah Arrow, founder of Birds On The Blog, has designed a legal WordPress plug-in to do the job for you.

The key issue is that the message MUST BE DISPLAYED before a website loads – so be aware of products which give a warning too late – apparently that’s the difficult bit for technical designers to get right.

Does your website use cookies? You will probably be needing to read this blog then!.....

We don’t often recommend something unless it’s something we truly think is useful. This new EU law (which the UK government could in the fullness of time and when it’s got its head round more pressing matters, find a way around), has the potential to cost small business people a lot of money.

Sarah has a cheaper solution which gets around this problem, and we are more than happy to help her publicise it . A WordPress plug-in  – for details visit the pithily titled website (!) www.eucookielawwpplugin.co.uk

Yesterday’s strike – a message that mattered?

We’ve just had the biggest public strike in Britain in years. I was expecting some intelligent debate about it in the media but no, what everyone wants to talk about are the comments from that reliable rent-a-gob, Jeremy Clarkson.

Jeremy, to anyone who doesn’t yet know, suggested that all strikers should be shot in front of their own families. It was an opinion made in jest, spur of the moment and very typical Clarkson, tongue in cheek, but has provided plenty of fodder for the tabloid press and radio phone-ins today.

I’ve run many a discussion show over the years and am fully aware that it is important to book someone who you are secretly hoping will be terribly opinionated and indiscreet. There is indeed a certain cynicism that creeps in when you’ve been doing the job for a while where it is tempting to deliver the most entertaining speaker to the audience rather than the argument. Jeremy is a dream guest in that respect and I’m sure part of the reason that he was booked on The One Show last night was because they knew he would say something outrageous about the strike.

Having the words come from the mouth of someone earning a telephone number salary just adds to the controversy.

If public sector workers have a good argument to make, it’s about time they made it clear. The Mail was definitely out to discredit public sector workers as it sent journalists and photographers to shopping malls yesterday to interview strikers. Bad publicity all round but few would be concerned about how they spent their time on strike if it seemed like there was a good case.

It seems to me that public sector workers are becoming demonised for daring to strike.

There is real anger about the cutbacks we are all facing but I’m not sure many people want to live in a divided society of them and us. Those of us in the private sector have struggled with employment and pay rates since 2008 and have learnt that we need to be more adaptable. While we are arguing about public sector versus private sector pay, nothing has changed at the top of society. There is still a huge disparity between the income of the super-rich and the rest of us. The banking crisis hasn’t changed this.

Unless public sector workers present a better case for their industrial action, the politics of envy will take over and the government won’t have any ‘wiggle room’ to offer a compromise.

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