Monday 5 May 2014

Media me (or, "It's life Jim, but not as we know it.")

I had some good news a few days back, which has the potential to turn into something really exciting - and immensely scary at the same time: I have been, I am told, short-listed for a British Science Association Media Fellowship. As I understand the process, my application has successfully past some sort of BSA filter and my details have now been forwarded to several national media organisations for their consideration. Will I make the team or, as in most of my school sports lessons, return to the sidelines? Time will tell. However, what did begin to bubble back to the surface on hearing this news was an idea for a post I had ages ago but haven't had the time to pull together until today. I have been 'in the media' before, just not in any way that would stand review by those with more serious intent in the area. In fact, I've been captured in some form of media or another, if that's a sensible term for it, as result of what I can only describe as a random walk
(a characteristic of much of my professional life - although I prefer the term used by one colleague who described me as a nomad) or perhaps a more accurate term would be a series of 'accidents'. I realise that this makes it all sound like an ill-advised midnight stroll through Tolkein's Dead Marshes, which is over-doing things a bit, but ...

My first serious encounter was during my PhD years, which really was a long time ago - decades in fact, when I agreed to be interviewed by someone from a local radio station about my job. (There's the first curio: my PhD as a job!) I was naive, the questions were far from being open and the editing was worse. This was an intensely unhappy experience that I have sought to expunge from my memory ever since, to no avail. However, we should learn from our mistakes as we move on; in my case this amounted to hiding in cupboards, metaphorically speaking, whenever anything remotely similar ever arose again in any sort of conversation. Thankfully, even for a slow learner like me, it's possible to get beyond such events. Having said that, I've never tried my hand at a radio interview since then - still less an interview for TV, although I did enjoy the media training course offered as part of staff development training. This will come as no surprise to those of you used to reading my long sentences, but the one bit of negative feedback I was given after my trial-run live interview in front of a camera related to my use of ... yes, long sentences. Apparently, one of these lasted 35 seconds. I was told that, in the hands of some editors, I could be made to say something quite different to what I actually said. Hmm, I think I've already met one of them. Time to speak in soundbites?

Moving swiftly on, we get to a request from my highly talented primary school teacher son. He was, at the time, running an after-school club focused on creating animated films (oh, how things have changed) and told me the kids wanted and 'old-sounding voice' to narrate the script they'd written. Such flattery, how could I refuse! Armed with their script and the MP3 recorder I use to record lectures for my students, and with the animation running on a laptop in front of me, I duly declaimed. It was a lot of fun; do I sound 'old' to you? My career as a voice-over artist didn't end there. In earlier posts I wrote about my delight at working with folk at the Turner Contemporary gallery; out of this relationship has come, amongst other less easily identified things, a couple of short films in which my voice-of-a-scientist crops up. The first of these, an animation, represents a project, sponsored under the Prosper banner of Canterbury Festival, which brought together scientists and artists to talk about their respective, complementary, reactions to an exhibition of sculptures by American minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. More recently, I wore my scientist's hat in conversation with a group of young people from the area who were being supported in the making of a film under the heading Life in Technicolour. Both of
these were more fun to do than I could sensibly describe - mostly coming from the opportunity to work with talented, creative and enthusiastic people.

We are told in Shakespeare's Twelve Night that some achieve greatness whilst others have it thrust upon them: my next immortalisation in media was of the latter kind. A student I taught, Andrew Payne, who was later to graduate with a great degree and then move to Oxford for a PhD, decided to cut snippets from my lecture audio recordings - a module on Matter as I recall - an dub them onto a piece of music. I only found out about it
after it had travelled, viral fashion, around the student body; I took it as a compliment, and still do. In order that you can enjoy this as well I've added one of my photographs so I can upload it to YouTube as a video: it benefits from volume and decent bass*. At this point I ought to confess that I have thrust media exposure of sorts onto others as well. As a result of one of those lunchtime conversations that sometimes emerge in the middle of an important but tiring meeting, I accepted the challenge of tracking down a recording of a song. It was written and used as the finale to a stage review presented each year by the staff at the Daresbury Laboratory's Synchrotron Radiation Source for their research community visitors at an annual conference. One thing led to another, and e-mail exchanges with one long-retired colleague who knew another who ..., until it was finally agreed that the song would be re-recorded by its author and oft-performer, Ken Lea. The Synchrotron Song, an echo of a seemingly long-lost past, is now preserved for the wonder/amusement of the current generation of synchrotron light source researchers.

These are all very minor examples of ways in which I have touched upon the fringes of media-life, which is a strange but curiously enjoyable form of existence. I could perhaps add to that innumerable numbers of audio recordings of my lectures and talks, an attempt at filming a talk in a local museum and so on, but that arguably adds nothing much to what I've already said. Instead, I'll end by pointing you towards the work of people I met during the Canterbury Festival/Prosper experiments mentioned earlier and who I have been able to stay in touch with ever since (with the help of Twitter). As a director and script writer I've come to admire the work of Sam Supple who, with skilled producer Debra McGee, founded and runs a locally-based film company, Viola Films. The thoughtful piece that first caught my eye was a short film, made using local talent, which is highly topical in this World War 1 centenary year: Time Bleeds. But I'd also point you towards another of their short films: this one an imagined look into the earlier life of Charles Dicken's character Abel Magwitch. Now, there's a life in media for you!

* The music is Tractor Beam by Eat Static, which is used with their kind permission; the image is of Bulkhead by Rick Kirby and this stands outside the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, UK.

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