Saturday, April 13, 2013

Tattoos, Simon Cowell and Having My Day in Court with Judge Alex

The first time I was in a courtroom was as a witness for the police in the UK, when they had decided my complaint against a taxi driver warranted a case for "rude and aggressive behaviour".

The Appeals Court (he didn't turn up for the first trial - ok, a tad melodramatic, I admit) put the problem down to there not being "enough charisma" between us. How much charisma do you need to go from Wardour Street to Brewer Street (less than a mile) behind a pane of glass, I asked the dumbfounded police afterwards.

The second time was in LA in 2011, when I successfully sued my landlady for non-return of a huge chunk of my deposit. Everything I put into practice I learned from watching just one TV show: Judge Alex (follow @judgealexferrer on Twitter). And so, today, I found myself in court for the third time: not in the handcuffs (alas) I fantasised about when I first saw the TV show, and not, thankfully, with my being sued for being his stalker.

I was there as a member of the audience, and not since I saw Simon Cowell's enormous Winnebago (no, that is not a euphemism) on the set of American Idol a few years back, have I been so excited.

In fact, so excited have I been about knowing both men, I nearly got their names tattooed - one on each shoulder - when I was in Venice Beach a few weeks back.

Alcohol had been consumed. Sobriety had been resumed when I settled for an engraved ingot with WWSD (What Would Simon Do) on it (sorry, Judge, even semi-stalkers have their pecking order).

So, here I am on the set and I am asked where I would like to sit - on or off camera. Anyone who knows me would know they could have just plonked me on the Judge's bench at the outset and downgraded me from there.

In fact, anyone who knows me will be surprised to learn that I was not fully robed, gavel in hand, shouting "Action!" with the poor Judge locked in a cupboard elsewhere on the studio lot.

So, I am seated second from the left in the front row, and the first person to talk to me is an actor. So is the second. And the third. And the . . . You get my drift. They join lists that provide audiences for studio shows such as Judge Alex and get paid by the day. I suggest a sum and am told that yes, I am fairly accurate for days like this. When I arrive, the team is already on show five, and there are three more to go. They record 130 shows in a little over three months and the five blocks of three day taping are clearly the most intense.

"They get paid more than we do," says RAN 1 (the Resentful Actor Number 1 on my left, who has been to every show today), nodding towards the hallowed ground beyond the wooden barrier where he is penned. "When I was a litigator . . . " he begins. I decide not to point out that he has never been, will never be, a litigator. I also hesitate to point out that he will never be an actor, either, but hold my tongue. (When I returned to see my second show, he was shunted off to "Standing room". Quite right).

Behind me sits RAN 2. She's a nurse. Not a real one, of course. She has been a "background actor" in several hospital dramas, but is ready to move centre stage.

"Do a monologue - NOW!" shouts RAN 1, a little frighteningly. She stumbles. I think of reciting Henry V's speech from the Battle of Agincourt, but in the millisecond I take for breath, RAN 1 is already off. "I'm a Shakespearean actor really . . . "

There is a very handsome younger man behind him who has played a detective (albeit a "background detective"). He has the kind of look that gives me the feeling that he might just make it, and he comes to these shows to network. He claims they have been very useful.

Oh, Hollywood, I love you. The hope.

The tension is building and the courtroom bailiff Mason is on the set. Very cute. Great smile. Great presence. And his gun is in my eye line. I don't known what it is about men in uniforms and outfits, but take Judge Alex Ferrer . . . Ex-pilot, cop, judge - oh, your honour, please avoid the medical profession; a white coat might prove the final, fatal straw. Even as I write that sentence, I am fantasising about your stethoscope.

The studio, on Bronson in Hollywood, is all very relaxed ("Remember my name!" whispers RAN 1) until the announcement of "The Honorable (US spelling!) Judge Alex Ferrer", which, unlike when you watch on TV, has a slight air of "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host. . ." about it.

Then he's there. And everything changes. It's like the Second Coming, albeit one a lot more clean-shaven than the first. The cliches of tall, dark and handsome are even more apparent under the studio lights, and from my seat I get a great view.

At least, I did, until the second case, when a very wide defendant blocked my view of Judge Alex completely. Talk about a total eclipse of the Son (geddit? Oh, go back few sentences). I so wanted her to lose. She did.

The third case even had a star guest in singer Freda Payne (most famous for the 1970 hit Band of Gold), which was very exciting. I thought the Judge got a little too overwhelmed at her presence, but by then I was backstage with the producers and out of striking distance of my love rival.

The producers were loving it. I've seen a lot of shows and know a lot of crews and I have never seen one as united and enjoying their work as this one. They laughed, they shared comments, they even clapped when the audience clapped. And they cared. They absolutely cared.

"I really hope she wins," said one, turning to his co-workers. And I could tell he wanted her to. It's drama, after all, and we care about the ending (she did, by the way, and the cheering backstage was heartfelt).

The cases come from all over the US, and Judge Alex (unlike other TV courtroom judges) conducts considerable research into each state's individual laws. With stringers in around 25 states trawling court records, the team also has to weed out people just looking for a free trip to Hollywood. At the studio, the rest room door jammed my finger twice. I told Supervising Producer James that I might sue. He jokingly suggested I could be a case on the final run of taping; even be "the last show".

Oh, James, you really don't know me, do you? I am already shopping for my outfit.

It is not just the research or the good looks (did I mention those?) that make this show easily the best of the US courtroom reality shows - and one of the best shows on TV. The Judge's intelligence, charisma and brilliant lateral thinking are second to none. It comes across on TV, but even more so in the studio where, of the 40 or so minutes taped, by the time you add promos, ads, et al, roughly just 14 will make it to screen. And, having seen the live show, I cannot heap enough praise on the seamless, incredible job they do in the editing suite.

Judge Alex doesn't so much listen to the evidence, it's as if he's breathing it in, and you can see from the initial slight smile, the information being gathered, formulated, and finally delivered in one-liners that are as funny as those from any comedian. I swear I have never laughed aloud so much at anyone on TV. Ever.

And this from a woman who has been watching and reviewing the genre for about 90 hours a week for three decades.

Judge Alex's years as a cop, lawyer and judge seem to be embedded in his DNA and, having had some of the worst criminals before him (the forthcoming movie Pain and Gain is based on one of his most famous cases - the Judge was asked to appear in it but would not renege on a school engagement to which he was already committed), he has seen the lot.

Now, he's clearly having fun, but his ability to combine the minutiae of law with such immense humour is truly breathtaking - as is his incredible energy in being able to perform so eloquently and brilliantly for so many hours under those lights.

And then there are those hands: long, elegant fingers that seem to massage the arguments as the Judge declares “Here’s where we’re at”, before delivering his verdict. Alex Scissorhands.

You'll be hearing more about the show and the Judge when I post the interview I conducted recently with him in Miami, but just in case you're hoping for that Jane Eyre happy ending, I'll put you out of your misery now.

Reader, I didn't marry him.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Storage

Half my life has been in storage for 17 months. The US part of my life that, on April 1st 2009, I put into motion when I moved to Los Angeles.
True, during the latter part of my stay before relocating to the UK in November 2011, I had been travelling a lot between the two countries; but I thought that 17 months being back in my homeland would be enough to make me realise that LA had been but a Hollywood dream – my Hollybubble - that would eventually burst and make me see sense.
It didn’t help that on the first New Year’s Day I was back in my house in Cardiff, I was burgled – when I was there at 4am. The robbery had, and continues to have, a devastating effect. I am far more nervous than I once was, both in and outside the home; I trust few people; I am paranoid about leaving my belongings out of my sight (and when I did so, in Miami earlier this year, guess what – someone nicked my bag, complete with iPad).
But tonight I went to the LA storage unit, where my stuff has been languishing, and I felt incredibly moved – not upset, just very emotional. All the things I chose so carefully when I transported them from Wales to LA, four years ago: the collection of D.H. Lawrence letters that were the first books I packed when I left (Delia Smith’s Cookery Course shares the same box); the IKEA cupboards that were my pride and joy when I moved to Paris just after 9/11 (the devastating event that made me do the thing I knew I would always regret never having done if I knew death was imminent); the identical Maskreys furniture I have in my house in Cardiff that also made the move from Paris.
I open each of the LA storage units and feel as if I am greeting long lost relatives. So much cardboard and cellophane. A life in limbo, wrapped up, ready to be opened once more. The mattress, squashed and bent double in the smaller unit, is a wide smile of fabric as I push past it to rescue the airbed I must sleep on until I move everything out. When I get the airbed back to my new apartment, I discover it has a puncture, and I repair it with the glue and patches I have carefully kept, as I do every instruction booklet and button that is an accessory to each new thing I buy.
Monday will be Christmas morning in West Hollywood, when the wrappings are  is ripped off and I experience, as if for the first time, the things from which I have been parted for so long.
The pasta dishes I bought in Williams Sonoma – a store that, when I moved here, made me realise how much I needed that previously I never knew existed, let alone wanted (I wonder which box that Pumpkin Carving Kit is in?); the dozens of herbal teas from Wholefoods that seemed like such a good idea at the time; the thousands of vitamin supplements (two shelves down from the herbal teas) that will rattle their way up my new stairs.
People always ask me why I move so much and why I don’t “settle”. It is, of course, a question I ask myself. But while being someone who is resistant to most change, when it comes to environment, I relish the new.
That first wiping down of the cupboards before I re-stock with spices I will never use; the first shower that gives me second degree burns because I don’t understand the new dial; the new people in bars and restaurants that I will quickly come to loathe because they eat their crisps too loudly.
It’s the same every time – only different.
I was reminded of that phrase today – it was something that Blake Snyder, the writer who first encouraged me to come to LA and who sadly died in August 2009, said that people in the industry demanded from screenplays: give me the same – only different.
As I survey the two rooms of cardboard, cellophane and slices of history, both new and old, I realise why I feel so moved. It is the same. Only different. 

Because, moving it out of its dark warren on Monday, it faces a new start: new light and new angles in a new place. 

Doubtless new shadows, too. 

But there are few punctures that can’t be mended, given the right tools.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Great Twitter Cull

How do you politely dispense with the people you have invited into your life in our social networking age? It’s a tough one.
At the start of every New Year, I worry not about resolutions, but about whether I will survive the Simon Cowell MPC (Mobile Phone Cull). At the start of January, my friend of 15 years’ standing changes his number, and every year I wait to see whether I have won a SIFTA (Simon Internet & Fone Telecommunications Award). Apparently, it is as difficult a judging process as anything you would ever see on the X Factor, and I live in terror of being dumped.
Did I send too many texts? Did I offer too much advice? Was I too critical? Does he still like me? Did he ever like me? Did he just want good reviews? Oh, dear, lord, just let me know if I have made the final.
 I cracked open a bottle of champagne when the text came through. “This is my new number XXXXXXXXXXX. Simon”. I know dozens of Simons, but in the first week of January, there is only one that matters.
 “Simon Cowell is now following you on Twitter”. That was the next step. All my New Years rolled into one. I cannot tell you how absurdly excited I was about this (well, not since Stephen Fry followed me on Twitter, and that’s a whole other glorious story). It was like Jesus choosing to oil the feet of Mary whose humble house he visited (well, okay – a bit OTT, but you get my drift). 

This is a man who has changed the face not only of British entertainment, but British television, and I have been a fan and supported him in print and as a friend since day one. He has also cracked it in America – no mean feat. He has also been one of the kindest people not only to me but my family and friends – and all off camera. Not a lot of people know that.
   This week, I had some very nasty Tweets after what was, to me the Follow of All Follows. And I decided to cull the people I follow on Twitter. Not because any of them have done anything particularly wrong, but because for me, there is a danger of Twitter is becoming a bullying playground, and the whole point of social networking was, and is, to be social. That means nice.
But setting about my cull was difficult. I have over 3500 followers but was also following close on 3000. That meant that at least half my working day was spent on Twitter, catching up with people whom I would never meet, never wanted to meet and (incredibly! I know - I find it hard to believe, too) never wanted to meet me.
The mystery was how I came to be following some of them in the first place. At what point did I think that Asian weddings were worth a follow? Or gay men’s style magazines?
I decided to dispense with most of the actors, apart from a few friends. Most of them only ever Tweeted about getting drunk, anyway, and the best actors aren’t even on there (Sir Ian, you survived – it might not even be you, but I wasn’t going to take the risk).
Most of the social networking companies who are rivals to my own (SoShall Network Ltd, should you be interested) were out, too.
And, I am afraid, so was anyone who said they were, first and foremost, a mother/father/brother/sister/pet lover. Great. Good for you. Then bugger off and do your family stuff and leave Twitter to those of us who are trying to get work.
Illness was a tough one. I have followed lots of people who have asked for Retweets about loved ones in need of support. Would I feel guilty about culling them? These went into my virtual “pending” file.
For me, social networking is much more than social now: it is a means by which I make connections that might enable me to get work and in which I might enable others to further their careers. I don’t have time to join virtual cafes or Mafia clans, such as we were all so keen (well, some of us) to do in the early days of Facebook.
 I want to follow people who have thousands of followers, not three people in the butcher’s shop and pub in Rhyl. And I want someone with well over 6 million followers like Simon Cowell to follow me. 

Call me shallow, if you like. 

I call it social networking growing up and coming of age.

Lindsay Lohan - and Why Rehab Doesn't Work

How long will Lindsay Lohan last in rehab?

It’s the question on everybody’s lips, as the actress prepares to enter rehab for 90 days as part of her plea bargain for allegedly lying about driving a car when drunk.

My guess is she won’t make it.

And for one simple reason.

Rehab doesn’t work.

How many times do people have to re-enter it to get that message? It’s like going to confession: once you absolve yourself of your “sins”, you are free to go out and do the same all over again with a clean slate.

Of course, it is important that people with any kind of addiction that threatens to ruin their own lives and those close to them, get help; of course, it takes courage, and those who choose the path of recovery rather than self-destruction, are to be admired; of course, ultimately, there is greater happiness in being healthy, sober and drug free.

But the problem with rehab is that it is based on the AA 12 Steps programme that hasn’t changed since its inception in 1939. While science, medicine and technology – heck, human beings, too - have come a long way since the war, the AA solution is one of 12 steps set in stone.

Ninety five per cent of people who attend AA leave within the first year. Five per cent of people suffering from any disease recover spontaneously; so it could be said that those who claim AA has worked for them (and they do claim to have a “disease”) might well have recovered anyway. That would give AA a zero success rate.

The 12 Step programme has, at its core, the belief that a human being is powerless and in need of reliance upon a “higher power” to get by. That power is invariably God – go to a group sometime and watch the beatific smiles as individuals praise Jesus’s part in their lives. Personally, I’m not sure about asking for help with alcohol addiction from a guy whose party trick was turning water into wine, but it obviously works for some people.

The organisation gets around this (it’s a new tack they’ve taken in the light of the growth of atheism) by saying that the higher power might be within yourself - in which case, change the clause. But they won’t. Because it is a programme based upon fear.

AA does not take into account the enormous amount of research that has been carried out into the nature of addiction since 1939. Nor does it take into account human psychology and a rapidly changing society. It lumps everyone together into one homogenous group – everyone is equal. That might help some, but it doesn’t help everyone. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

In the AA groups I researched, I sat listening to people who, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, had taken to speeding cars and tried to run down their relatives. I heard stories of terrible attacks on loved ones. I was told to try to find common ground, but there just wasn’t any. But the belief is that once you are on the slippery slope (the common ground), this is where you will end up; such stories are therefore not just sharing moments, they are meant to serve as a warning. For me, it was like being at an evangelical prayer meeting and not believing in God.

I made no secret of the fact, some years ago, that I cut down on drinking, and I would be a liar if I said that I have not, on occasion since, drunk more than I know is good for me. I never said I was going to give up completely, and nor would I want to; but in exploring ways that helped me change my drinking habits, I found many other possibilities out there that just don’t get talked about because of our society’s continued reliance on AA as the Be all and End all solution to all addiction problems.

Finding out why and when you are most at risk of drinking (I have no idea about other drugs) too much is the key - and spotting those triggers and learning how not to respond to them. It’s not always easy, because these things are embedded in our DNA and catch us unawares. I recently attended an event at which I knew just one person and all the feelings of insecurity and rejection flooded back from when I first moved to London and downing the free drinks helped me through the night. Suddenly, I was 23 again. This time, though, I didn’t use alcohol to get by – there is nothing like Californian wine, free or not, to send you to the water tray.

I also used to drink because I was bored, and I have never been someone who deals well with boredom or bores (of which there are many drunken ones). I also drank because I was lonely. Sometimes, I still am. But now, I go for a run or phone a friend and, I have to say, social networking has been a godsend in helping me – and many others – feel less isolated in the world.

There are many books now that offer ideas about how to control drinking. I have never been someone who drinks to get drunk (that just happened to be a bi-product) and if there is no decent wine in the house, I am not someone who hits the cooking sherry. I have three cupboards full of spirits and have never had a drop of any one of them. It’s not the alcohol I like; I like wine and the people I share it with. But, like many others, I keep an eye on my units.

In addition to some great books on the market, there are many other recovery programmes - SMART (Self Management and Recovery Training) is terrific and a real alternative to AA. I just wish that it had the same publicity. Without the inherent guilt trip and feelings of powerlessness that AA tends to induce, it focuses on the strength of the individual, and what one’s “self” can do in the healing process.

I really hope that Lindsay Lohan gets her act together, because the way things are going, this play has just one ending, and it isn’t a happy one.

But rehab hasn’t worked for her before and I very much doubt it will this time.

Twelve steps?

The first one should be finding an alternative.

One that actually works.