1. Tips for lazy writers: the “Thought For The Day” pattern

    Posted May 9, 2013 in How-to  |  No Comments so far

    Thought For The Day is the short religious bit on Radio 4’s Today programme. Every day a different religious figure spends five minutes imparting a mini-sermon in the hope of providing listeners with some fleeting sense of spiritual enrichment.

    Like many things in life, Thought For The Day has a pattern. It goes something like this:

    1. Talk about a topical event
    2. Somehow link the topical event to religion
    3. Talk about religion
    4. Conclude by referencing the topical event once more

    Not everyone follows this pattern – Anne Atkins’ stream-of-consciousness scattergun of personal anecdotes consistently buck the trend – but by and large this is what you get when you listen to Thought For The Day. Here’s a recent-ish example from Canon Dr Alan Billings that allows us to see the pattern at work:

    1. Talk about a topical event:

    Over the weekend I looked at the new typology of social class that the BBC has just put on its website…

    This was a reference to the Great British Class Calculator which had been doing the rounds on the web at the time.

    2. Link the topical event to religion:

    For Christians, the question of social class was unavoidable from the start, because Christianity first emerged in a highly stratified society of rich and poor, powerful and powerless, slave and free…

    We could be diplomatic here and say that the segue into religious content is clearly signposted. Or we could not, and say instead that it has the subtlety of a reindeer.

    3. Talk about religion:

    Converts came from each of these groups…

    As you’d expect, this forms the bulk of the text and is usually the section where Thought For The Day contributors make their essential points. It’s also where I tend to tune out.

    4. Conclude by referencing the topical event once more:

    …a healthy society is one where people recognise that what they have in common – their need of God’s grace – is far more significant than any ordering of social class.

    Notice that it concludes with two words, “social class”, that appeared in the very first sentence – a classic top-and-tail technique that encloses the argument and gives the impression that it was actually pretty coherent and well-structured even if you did doze off for a while during the part about the Romans, Corinth and St Paul.

    Making it work for you

    It’s easy to mock this pattern, especially for those who are lazy secularists that see Thought For The Day as a loathsome combination of religiosity and getting up early in the morning. But before we rush to judgement it’s worth recognising its value for those who are also lazy writers.

    It’s a pattern that can be applied to any topic, so if you’re ever asked to write a blog post for your employer or an article for a specialist magazine, and are short on time or energy, why not try using it?

    To demonstrate its effectiveness I’ve set myself the challenge of using it to combine a recent current event, Sir Alex Ferguson’s resignation and the specialist topic of Eurozone monetary policy. I apologise for taking gross liberties with the facts in the passage below; I’m deeply ignorant about both of these subjects.

    Manchester United fans around the world were shocked to learn yesterday that Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager who has won their team countless trophies over the years, has resigned from the club. Many have voiced their concern that the glory days are over. Does Manchester United now face a crisis?

    The same question might be asked about the eurozone. Despite coming through the Greek and Cypriot crises relatively unscathed the ECB faces stormy times ahead… [imagine another 200 words about ECB monetary policy, the general theme being that Mario Draghi is the right person to sort out all the problems]

    …So as we can see there are many reasons to be optimistic. Mario Draghi may not be in the business of winning trophies, but unlike Sir Alex Ferguson we can count on him staying the course for the foreseeable future.

    It’s crude but I hope that the lazy writers among you can see how it can be used to eke out a viable article from the most crude of premises, and with a minimal amount of effort. So if no other inspiration strikes you in the hours ahead, let that be your… thought, for the day.

  2. The “pogrom” interpretation of Desert Island Discs

    Posted August 1, 2011 in ideas  |  No Comments so far

    When writing about Desert Island Noise the other day I wondered about how Desert Island Discs works. Are the castaways shipwrecked, or deliberately exiled to a desert island? This thought led to Desert Island Pogrom:

    Desert Island Pogrom

    I actually think this is a more likely scenario than someone being accidentally shipwrecked with six records and functioning audio equipment.

  3. Another Radio 4 proposition that they probably wouldn’t like – “Desert Island Noise”

    Posted July 30, 2011 in ideas  |  3 Comments so far

    When you think about it, the pretext of Desert Island Discs is pretty strange. I’ve never been able to figure out how it works.

    Is the idea that you’re on a ship that’s sunk and you’ve escaped with six records, a book, and some random luxury item? Or are you victim of a harsh but bizarrely genteel pogrom, summoned to Broadcasting House and processed by Kirsty Young before being handed your requested records and then forcibly, irreversibly deported from civilisation?

    Neither scenario strikes me as particularly credible, and this is probably why I often wonder about changes to the Desert Island Discs setup. Except the changes that come to mind always make it less feasible and more ridiculous.

    People that know me in real life have probably heard me pitching the idea of Desert Island Desert Island Discs, a show in which the budding castaway has to choose six episodes of Desert Island Discs to preserve their sanity in future exile. I don’t know which six I’d choose but among them would be Sir Digby Jones and his selection of motivational power ballads.

    Digby Jones

    Fun fact: this man, Gordon Ramsay, Michael Howard and Tessa Sanderson all chose Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" on Desert Island Discs

    But Desert Island Desert Island Discs has a flaw. A few years into its life a new controller would inevitably arrive at Radio 4 and say, “we need to go deeper”. Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Discs would be born. Not long afterwards the audience will demand another layer – Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Discs. And when would the madness end?

    No, Desert Island Desert Island Discs is a dangerous path to take. So instead I’ve got another proposition for Radio 4 – Desert Island Noise.

    The setup for Desert Island Noise is quite simple. You are being banished to a desert island (shipwreck or pogrom, whichever floats your boat). You have been given a digital music player and some speakers. The music player has a single audio file on it. That audio file is precisely one second long. That is all you have to listen to, for the rest of your life, on this island. Hence the name, Desert Island Noise.

    It’s harsh and unfair, like a gameshow designed by a psychopathic computer, but it would be interesting, don’t you think? Maybe Sir Digby Jones would take a 1-second wav of someone saying his name approvingly (“Digby!”). Maybe Andy McNab would have a burst of gunfire or the last shriek of a vanquished adversary. And god only knows what Benny Hill would have chosen. Well, I’d want to find out anyway.

    Should Desert Island Noise be made? And if it was, and you were on it, what noise would you choose?

  4. Reimagining Radio 4’s “The Moral Maze” as a computer game

    Posted July 27, 2011 in ideas  |  6 Comments so far

    The Moral Maze is a Radio 4 discussion programme where the week’s big news stories are pondered and pontificated upon by a panel of self-righteous pundits. Michael Buerk hosts, with Michael Portillo and Melanie Phillips as the principal guests, so it’s fair to say that it’s not exactly a home for left-leaning socially-liberal views.

    Although it’s not among my favourite programmes, The Moral Maze provokes the same horrified fascination for me as Any Answers (a topic for another blog post). I won’t go out of my way to listen to it, but if it comes on while I’m washing up it usually sucks me in. It’s smug, overweening, and bursting with a sense of its own preponderance. I guess that’s why it’s so hard for me to turn it off.

    Unfortunately not everyone feels as I do about The Moral Maze. That’s fair enough – Radio 4 discussion shows can be sleep-inducing at the best of times. So I’ve been thinking, how could The Moral Maze broaden its appeal? How could its matronly agonising be introduced to a younger, hipper audience?

    Yes, you’ve guessed it. By turning it into a computer game.

    The Moral Maze – The Game

    Title screen from the Moral Maze

    Title screen from the Moral Maze

    So it’s a one or two player game in which you can play as either Phillips or Portillo. Buerk is kind of like the Dungeon Master, looking down from above while you explore the now physically tangible Moral Maze encountering the various moral tropes that listeners will find very familiar indeed:

    • Single mothers
    • Women wearing burkas
    • Unemployed people
    • Drunkards
    • Libyan rebels
    • Nurses
    • People who are on strike

    …you get the general idea. These are the lost souls of The Moral Maze, staggering about in limbo until you emerge from the darkness wielding the sword of middle-class righteousness, ready to end their misery with your well-enunciated diatribe. Here’s how it works.

    People in glass houses

    Each time you come across one of these moral tropes you have three options: Embrace, Spurn or Equivocate. Here’s Melanie Phillips encountering a single mother.

    Melanie Phillips encounters a single mum

    Melanie Phillips encounters a single mum. What do you think she will choose?

    As you’d expect, we’re going to choose Spurn here.

    Judgement is given

    Judgement is given. The single mother has been Spurned

    Each choice changes your hit points and rectitude. Seems easy, doesn’t it? And at first, it is. The moral tropes are pretty straightforward and it’s simple to decide whether to Embrace or Spurn them.

    But as you proceed through The Moral Maze – The Game things get a bit more tricky. You started out condemning Muslims and embracing policemen; but what will you say about a Muslim policeman? You didn’t like people going on strike, and you didn’t like gay people; but here’s a gay Thatcherite, sticking it to the unions! What now?

    No prizes for hand-wringing in The Moral Maze

    Each judgement contributes to an increasingly complex moral framework of your own construction, leaving you at greater risk of contradicting one of your earlier judgements. This affects your hit points and rectitude, and too many mistakes will lead to defeat.

    Someone in a burka waves a Women's Institute flag

    Someone in a burka waves a Women’s Institute flag. What to do?

    When things get tricky you have a weapon up your sleeve – Equivocation. Often encountered on the radio show, equivocation is a tactic used by Moral Maze panel members who either can’t form an opinion or don’t feel brave enough to voice their views on air. A couple of minutes of intelligent-sounding but ultimately wooly waffle, and you’re done. But you can’t use it too often in the game – it weakens your character considerably.

    End game, and bonus levels

    So let’s say you’ve battled your way through the Moral Maze, casting judgements on its hapless stereotypes in an impressively consistent manner. The dope-smoking, lesbian, Muslim small business owner who didn’t support the Iraq war but wants Top Gear taken off air? You didn’t break a sweat. The slutwalking Catholic nurse who lets her children play violent video games but campaigns against pornography and votes for the Green Party? A cinch. But now comes the hard part – the end of game boss.

    The end of game boss

    The end of game boss – Michael Buerk

    An enraged Michael Buerk descends from his lofty throne to do battle with you. To defeat him you have to… well, I haven’t worked that bit out yet. I guess there would be a fighting mode with shuriken stars and nunchuks and so on, with lots of blood. It’d be pretty spectacular anyway.

    If you win against Buerk you beat the game, and see a completion sequence in which all the previous panellists of the Moral Maze, along with the hapless tropes you embraced along the way, parade past a giant effigy of whichever character you were playing. A bonus level is unlocked in which you can navigate the Moral Maze as Michael Buerk. What a twist!

    My final pitch

    The Moral Maze – The Game would bring the nation’s top radio discussion programme to a wider audience, especially if it was released on iPhone, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. But it would also encourage the nation’s youth to ponder the moral dilemmas that plague our confusing modern world and bring about a more judgemental society.

    And I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s just what we all need.