Interviews

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Interview: music critic Mark Beech

 

For a man whose job is to stay one step ahead of the music industry, has celebrity anecdotes galore, and still attends the best gigs around, Mark Beech hasn’t let it go to his head. “I am a dinosaur” he assures me, as I run over a few pre-interview plans. This is a critic who is now one of the most read in the world, has just released his third book, and still dreams of that elusive interview with Bowie. If that’s what Beech calls being a dinosaur, then count me in. (more…)

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Buzzers, bonuses and backstage Paxo

Having been running now for 52 years, spanning 43 series and upwards of 1000 teams, it seems fair to say that University Challenge is almost as much of a national institution as the Tower of London. However, while we addicts of the series can end up spending a total of almost 14 hours watching it each year- what goes on behind the scenes remains, aside from a recent documentary detailing the selection process, somewhat mysterious. As the latest cohort of hopefuls begin to trickle onto our screens in pursuit of the much-coveted title, the OxStu has tracked down University Challenge competitors past and present to give you the lowdown on the backstage drama.

The first question likely to arise in relation to the show is inevitably to do with the infamous quizmaster himself, Jeremy Paxman. Having taken over from the original host Bamber Gascoigne at the show’s re-launch with the BBC in 1994, to become the UK’s longest serving quizmaster, he is famed for his snappy and often cutting responses to some answers given, making it somewhat surprising that he acknowledges never having been “good enough to get onto it”. The suggestion this entails that much of his onscreen behaviour is simply a factor that contributes to the entertainment value of the programme is supported by the experience of a current member of the St Peter’s college team, who went so far as to describe his relaxed, off-screen demeanour as “a bit underwhelming”. While contact between him and the contestants backstage is minimal, it is tempting to feel that a true fan of the programme couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed by anything other than an outright dismissal from the man described by The Guardian’s Johnny Dee as “famous for intimidating inquisitions, pricking pomposity [and] withering world-weariness”.

Paxman isn’t the only celebrity Somerville’s team have won over

Yet this sentiment was not shared with all of our interviewees. Sam Walker, a member of the Somerville team who were runners up to Trinity College Cambridge in last year’s final, found that despite being slightly “warmer”, Jeremy Paxman off camera was “very similar to Jeremy Paxman on camera!”  This could, however, be more a reflection of the more relaxed side to Paxman witnessed by audiences in last year’s quarter-final. When captain Michael Davies breezed through questions on Economics, Paxman joked: “Some people find these questions quite difficult to answer, you know.” Paxman isn’t the only celebrity Somerville’s team, and specifically its captain, have won over: Stephen Fry, himself a former contestant on the programme, tweeted after the quarter-final: “Somerville’s captain Davies is delightful.”

This surprisingly mellow attitude is apparently matched by the interaction between competing teams. Where both The Young Ones, and later, St Trinian’s, have depicted the potential for rivalry in similar competitions to provoke dramatic courses of action both during the competition and beforehand, current contestants maintain that the interaction necessitated by the lengthy waits before and after filming rendered other teams “pretty friendly and happy to talk”. Indeed, the producers’ decision to host all the teams in the same hotel suggests a level of faith in the competitors’ behaviour towards one another. Sam compares the difference between this and the tension onscreen to a boxing match, where “the two guys who’ve been throwing punches at each other stop to talk, hug and shake hands”.

Nobody looks particularly intimidating

However, the lack of fireworks sparked by meetings with other competitors doesn’t mean they didn’t, at times, amuse. A fair few “bizarre pre show talks” were witnessed to have taken place- the content of which remains mysterious, yet watching some of the more unusual tactics employed by others may serve to instil a greater feeling of normality for teams with less elaborate plans, especially if, as one correspondent confessed “nobody looks particularly intimidating” in the competition.

A degree of attention has been paid to Manchester University’s preparation tactics, having won 4 times since 2006, they are often considered to be one of the shows greatest success stories. While many may be tempted to put this down to the institution’s status as the UK’s largest single-site university, thus allowing them a greater pool of potential competitors, it may rather be that their librarian, a former contestant, puts the team through a rigorous training process including buzzers and past questions.

Even the best preparation can’t cover all eventualities

Yet emulating the conditions of the competition requires a great deal of hard work and resources not available to all teams- in the case of this year’s St.Peter’s team, losing the occasional pub quiz had to suffice. However, the experience of Somerville last year, when one contestant became ineligible during the competition and had to be replaced, suggests that even the best preparation can’t cover all eventualities, something suggested by the various controversies that have surfaced relating to the show. Most notably, certain bodies feel uncomfortable with the fact that both Oxford and Cambridge colleges are permitted to enter separately, thus representing a far small number of students than other universities.

Fancy testing your dedication to the programme? Check out how Uni-C savvy you are with our quiz.

PHOTO/BBC

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Investigation: Oxford students speak out about porn habits

At the beginning of 2014, Pornhub, one of the world’s largest porn websites, released statistics that revealed the most popular search terms countries and cities within the United Kingdom.

These search terms reflect what users actively search for, giving the general population an insight into the porn habits of the country as a whole, as well as the habits of inhabitants of specific English cities.

Within England, the most popular search terms were “British”, “Lisa Ann” (an American pornstar particularly renowned for her role as Sarah Palin in the porn film ‘Who’s Nailin’ Palin?’), “lesbian”, “MILF” (informal, stands for ‘Mother I’d Like to F**k) and “Indian”.

As compared to the majority of cities in England, “MILF” was more popular than “lesbian”, while “British” and “Lisa Ann” remained among the top search terms. Interestingly, Oxford was the only place in England where “casting”, a type of porn depicting an audition for an adult film, was in the top searched-for terms.

The Preview Show decided to conduct a survey of Oxford students, in order to see how many students say that they watch porn, but more specifically to investigate the popularity of Oxford’s top five search terms amongst the student population.

In our survey of 248 Oxford students, conducted via ‘Survey Monkey’, 71.8% of all students said that they watched porn. Broken down, this amounted to 90.2% of male self-identifying students saying they did so, against 51.2% of female self-identifying students.

Rank Pornhub’s Oxford Stats Oxford Students (Overall) Male-identifying Female-identifying
1 British Lesbian (56.8%) Lesbian (59%) Lesbian (52%)
2 Lisa Ann MILF (32%) MILF (43%) MILF (9%)
3 MILF British (26.4%) British (36%) British (7%)
4 Lesbian Lisa Ann (13.6%) Lisa Ann (18%) Casting (7%)
5 Casting Casting (12.8%) Casting (16%) Lisa Ann (4%)

–        Note: the percentages refer to the amount of porn-watching students who said they had searched for each term specifically and individually

“Lesbian” was the most popular search term amongst both genders individually, in contrast with its 4th place position within the city. However, this term was overwhelmingly popular with females when compared to the other search terms – almost 6 times as many of our participants had searched for “lesbian” compared to “MILF”.

Similar percentages of students had searched for “lesbian” –a 7% difference – between genders, yet this was not the case for the rest of the search terms.

“MILF” was more frequently searched by the student population than by the city as a whole, with the city’s most popular term “British” coming third in student searches.

“Lisa Ann” was also less popular, but “casting” remained, with Oxford students, the least searched of the five most popular Pornhub terms.

Students also searched for other specific terms – 47.6% of females said that they search for topics outside the top five, as did 50.6% of males. Further investigation into these searches would, possibly, reveal the top five search terms for the University as a whole, as its apparent that terms such as “Lisa Ann” and “casting” are less popular with the student body than with the city.

The Preview Show decided to do a documentary on these findings. Here is the link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LqfJA8AQ6Q

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Producing the most popular series of all time

Frank Doelger, executive producer of Game of Thrones begins by explaining that “I am always asked the same questions: who is John Snow’s mother? And why did you kill Ned Stark? So I will save time and answer those questions. I don’t know who John Snow’s mother is because George Martin hasn’t told us yet. I think he knows but I’m not certain. And we killed Ned Stark because George did.”

Basics over, Doelger tries to explain what his job actually entails. “For Game of Thrones we have 10 episodes per season for which we hire four to six directors.” This makes television production almost the opposite to film production. In the latter the directors are the one with the creative vision, in the former it is the producers that have all the control: “They [the directors] come in and direct using the actors we chose ad the places we’ve chosen to shoot. Months before the series airs their job is done.” “You don’t want to give them control of a programme like Game of Thrones. Last series we had a director who wanted to film an entire episode by hand – we shot like that for two days and then fired him.”

It is the producers of a show like Game of Thrones then that are responsible for exactly how it comes across. Two of the most challenging aspects of this brief is how to get the “question of fantasy versus reality” right and “in a show that went from world to world and could be incredibly confusing how [to] come up with something visual that immediately indicated to our audience where they were”. When the original script was written and the first pilot shot they felt that it was a 60/40 balance between fantasy and reality. “We realized we couldn’t sustain the fantasy.” They went back and re-shot the episode and now “the characters are real and the fantasy is an overlay”. The second issue was also solved quite successfully. “In each season there would be four or five worlds.” The solution to this was “to imagine that everything the characters wear, eat, build with comes from a 50 mile square radius from where they live”. Once this happens, “you should be able to put a character against a blank backdrop and be able to tell what world they’re from – from what their hair looks like, what they eat with, what the fabrics they use and wear are like.”

All this costs a lot of money; how much exactly? “I can’t actually tell you because it’s confidential but it is the most expensive show ever produced for television [...] but it’s also the most popular, airing in 163 countries.” Did they realize this was going to be the case when they begun? “We didn’t have a clue; we thought it might be one season with a small audience. I’d never read anything in the genre, never even heard of George Martin when I started producing the show.” What is it about it that makes it just so popular then? “Visually its so spectacular and surprising. It stands out for that.”

But when people think of Game of Thrones, there are other things that stand out quite obviously. A marked presence of incest, for instance. Danielle Henderson, writing for the Guardian recently expressed how ‘the misogyny of Game of Thrones has always seemed so gratuitous as to pull me out of the story. For every woman with authority, there are five more being disparaged, and most women come to their power through physical and emotional humiliation (Daenerys) or a cool detachment from reality (Cersei)’. How do the producers deal with the social taboos that are brought up in the show? “Well we actually just embrace them. There’s nothing we’ve done that isn’t historically accurate. We lose audience because of that – there’s certainly some people who think we go too far. But we never think it’s gratuitous. We just try and be as true to the story as possible.”

So the television series vision remains close to the writers’ vision? “The vision of the show as articulated in the beginning was very much shaped with the writers: they keep building on that, we keep refining it season by season but I think the world we’ve created is very true to what the writers wanted.”

One thing we have noticed change slightly in the later episodes is the plot being made very explicit; Game of Thrones can be a very confusing show, is your primary concern to be clear? “ It’s really tough for people to follow and there has been a little tendency to over-explain…what to spell out and what not to is a question we ask each other every episode and it’s a thing you can kind of never quite get right.”

Part of the confusion in Game of Thrones might arise from the fact that often when plot is being explained, we see prostitutes having sex in the background; what is the point of all the sex? “It is an instinct of the writers…they wanted this to be a sexually charged world.” That, it certainly is…

How many writers does Game of Thrones have? “For most series we’ll have four or five writers. Good writers will always be on the set, the script is never really signed off, it’s a very dynamic environment.” And how much control does George R. Martin have on the script and/or anything else to do with the production? “He has approval of nothing. He isn’t involved in that sense. However because of his talent, because of his position in the industry we do everything we can to do what he would approve of. He’s very smart, he realizes that you can’t go directly from the books to the screen. But then again whatever we change we do so very cautiously. We want his approval, we don’t want him to think that we’re not doing good things with his work.” And in its current status as the most popular TV series of all time, it would seem that they are!

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The highs and lows of the most exciting job you can do

Anna Thorne talks to Anushka Asthana, Sky News’ Chief Political Correspondent, about her career

‘Journalism is probably the most exciting thing you can do’ begins Asthana, ‘you’ll get to do so much more than your friends who go into banking or law[...]I’ve interviewed Nick Clegg and gone to Perth on an overnight trip with David Cameron (no, nothing dodgy)’. During a short time working at The Washington Post, ‘I even got asked to interview an up and coming senator: Barack Obama’.

But Asthana’s job is more diverse than simply interviewing politicians and ‘there are highs and lows’. Early on in her career she was asked to cover two honour killings in Yorkshire – one case of a girl having been shot by her father on holiday and one of a bride stabbed while still in her wedding dress – knocking on the families’ doors; ‘you have to justify it to yourself and that can be difficult’. Later on, she spent hours in the cold and rain outside the house of Kenneth Bigley, a British hostage beheaded in Iraq in 2004, getting nowhere. ‘It was definitely a low’. But she was then saved by the music editor asking her to fly to Peurter Rico to report on a hip-hop festival out there. This was one of the highs. In a similar vein, Asthama has worked as an undercover drinker, speed dater and waitress among other things; things like this ‘move you onto much bigger, more exciting things’. And then ‘when you get splashes, it really is the biggest buzz you get’.

Making breaks can be a struggle though. ‘In my twenties I travelled to the Congo and Afghanistan. The first time I went to Afghanistan I couldn’t cope with the heat; watching a parade I was meant to be reporting on, the next thing I know I was in the arms of a soldier having collapsed. It was so embarrassing. Here were soldiers in a warzone and I couldn’t even cope with heat’.

Asthana also describes a recent incident this winter when reporting live she’d grabbed a pair of gloves, only to find she had lost one of them. ‘I did the story live, forgetting I only had one on. I went back to the office and everyone burst out laughing. Apparently at one point, I’d even said “on the one hand…and on the other” using my hands to gesture. That incident was so bad that one viewer anonymously sent me a pair of gloves.’
Often being a journalist is more glamorous than this; ‘you get experiences you couldn’t have dreamt of…sometimes you can’t believe how important it is, what’s being said in the room you’re in. During the Ukraine crisis I had daily meetings with David Cameron’ and what he was saying in those meetings were crucial. Entering this world of the political lobby wasn’t without its challenges though; ‘The Lobby seemed like a weird old boys club to me. David Cameron was all chummy with his mates at The DailyMail and The Sun. In many ways you’re outside of this boy’s club but you can break through’. Is House of Cards at all accurate in its representations of the relationships between politicians and journalists then? ‘Well, I’m definitely not sleeping with any politicians. And I definitely can’t see Nick Clegg pushing me under a train….but the relationship between politicians and journalists is an important one. It’s very difficult – you build a relationship with them and sometimes you find yourself getting quite matey and then you both have to act professionally when you screw each other over’.

And for all its excitement and laughs, journalism is a very tough world. For a start, ‘it’s absolutely male dominated’. In the House of Commons ‘my friend sat down in a corridor in the hall and guys opposite started shouting “knickers” at her. In what other place does that happen?! But it happens in the House of Commons.’ ‘A hell of a lot still needs to be done’ about the gender imbalance.

Journalism is also excessively high pressured. ‘In newspapers there is huge pressure to get exclusives. If you don’t get exclusives, get stories in the paper, your boss thinks you haven’t done any work’. It is for this reason, perhaps, that it is such a cut-throat industry. ‘Everybody acts differently as a journalist. Maybe I’m too nice, but I try and establish trust with my sources. Personally, I think its all about trust and building relationships. Sometimes this means you lose a story but I’d rather do that than be a nasty piece of work’. After examples like Rebecca Brookes this isn’t particularly surprising. Phone hacking though is ‘more of a tabloid issue. I think it’s good that it’s happened though – it stops people writing stories through these means and makes us question whether we’re too close to our sources.’

How to stop things like phone hacking occurring has been the source of much debate. ‘The problem with the Leveson Inquiry though is that if you’re going to clamp down hard on print journalism but leave blogs to carry on as before then it does make it virtually impossible for newspapers to keep going’. ‘I find it a hard thing to square. These blogs are being written outside the law – once it’s out there, it’s out there. We believe things need to be checked’.

And questions of bias need to be raised too. How hard is it, for example, to keep personal bias out of reporting? ‘Every newspaper has its bias and you have to work within that framework. The Washington Post is obsessed with being unbiased. I think you have to be realistic. You have to try your hardest to be unbiased. But The Washington Post’s ideal is unrealistic.’ And indeed often they cannot live up to their own standards; ‘they claim they’re unbiased but they have failed to hold the American government responsible for the Iraq war. There’s a deference for the White House that we just don’t have. I think it’s a good thing that the British lobby doesn’t behave itself though. We’re free to ask the Prime Minister whatever we like…I recently had to stick my hand up in an internal press conference and ask about Nigella Lawson. It was very embarrassing. But I do think it’s a good thing that we can ask the Prime Minister about issues that the nation actually think and care about’.

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Snooping through the hallowed halls of the House

Located on St Aldates, Christ Church is hard to miss: its towering spires and Romanesque buildings encircle Tom Quad, the largest in Oxford, and its impressive architecture stands peacefully next to a sprawling meadow. Some of us might know it as former home to academics such as John Locke, Albert Einstein, and Lewis Carroll. Most of us know it as the College where many scenes of the famous Harry Potter films take place. We also know that it is not always so easy to saunter up to the gates and stroll in, especially when there is an intimidating custodian standing there with a “Closed to Visitors” sign. I, for one, am guilty of sneaking onto the grounds at night to peer up the grand staircase, wander amongst the cloisters, and pretend that I actually go to Hogwarts.

Of course, not everyone has to be so sneaky. Every year, thousands and thousands of tourists enter the College. During certain designated hours and for an entrance fee, visitors are let in by the custodians to similarly experience a bit of this Harry Potter magic, a bit of that Alice in Wonderland charm. As the days lengthen and the warmer weather invites more visitors from all over the world, I decided gather my courage and approach one of the custodians to ask about his experience guarding the famous College.

It was an uncharacteristically bright Sunday morning when I walked to the main entrance of Christ Church. The sky was a pristine blue, church bells were tolling, and custodian Dick Evans was standing next to the familiar “Closed to Visitors” sign in the middle of the gate. He was wearing a crisp bowler hat and a smart black overcoat. Although I entered the gate with some uncertainty, I realized I had nothing to fear when Evans said, “G’morning! You all right?”

During the next half an hour, he spoke cheerfully about how he became a custodian and what it was like to work at Christ Church.

According to Evans, there are about thirteen custodians who work at the College, and they all come from “all walks of life.” Although most are English, one custodian is Hungarian and another is Spanish. Evans, a Welshman himself, had previously worked as a policeman and investigator. He became a part-time custodian at Christ Church after he retired, and seems to enjoy talking to both students and visitors.

“It’s lovely! You can make it as hard or as easy as you’d like. If you stand in the middle of the day and don’t talk to anybody, it gets very boring and time goes very slowly. But if you talk to everybody, they get to know you, you get to know the students.”

With a background in public safety, Evans doesn’t feel threatened by the constant flow of people. In fact, he doesn’t have much reason to: “We have radios. Panic button’s in the box. And the students here are lovely students. I’ve never met a bad student. I would say 99.9% of the students would speak to me if I were to say hello.”

However: “A lot would go in with their headphones,” he adds with a laugh.

When it comes to differentiating between tourists and students, Evans seems confident. “It comes with experience. If you’re a visitor to Oxford, you come in…it’s a bit like being star-struck, isn’t it? You look in and you go, ‘Wow! What is all that? What is all – How wonderful that is…’ But if you’re a student, you can normally tell they’re confident, not interested in their surroundings, as they come in straight in, you say hello, and you do get to know them, but if you’re a visitor or a stranger, they just don’t know where they’re going.” At that moment, a young man walked in with a messenger bag.

“G’morning!” Evans said. The young man responded with a quick nod and Evans let him in without another word.

A typical day for Evans involves alternating between the quad, the stairs, the hall, and the different gates that lead into and out of the College, including Tom Gate, Canterbury Gate, and Meadow Gate.

Custodians are also responsible for leading the “Behind the Scenes” tours, and they learn their facts from informational booklets that they are given when they first arrive on the job. They also learn about the College from each other. “It’s surprising what you pick up from custodians, the other people in the college who’ve been here longer than me. There’s so many portraits in the hall, if you did a history of the portraits, you could do a day’s tour on just the portraits!”

According to Evans, the College earns about 2.5 million pounds a year in tourism alone. However, the best-kept secret of Christ Church is off-limits to both tourists and students: the rabbit hole.

“The rabbit hole was some sort of secret fox door on the left hand corner of the Great Hall. It disappears down to the spiral staircase – lovely spiral staircase – to the Senior Common Room. And that’s where Alice’s father would’ve had his glass of port or wine before he left to eat at the table.”

Now, it is closed. Only those lucky enough to dine at the High Table use it to enter the Great Hall for formal dinners.

Beyond the typical tourist attractions, Evans is privy to other strange sights in College. “You see some of the students: they’re in their pajamas all day. And you see them walking around the quad. In the evenings, some of them even go in for formal hall, formal dinner…in their pajamas! I saw a gentleman last week, he was just going out. That was the first time I saw him wearing [normal] clothes!”

Evans’ only real complaint, really, seems to be the money. “Minimum wage!” he exclaims. “But,” he adds quickly, “you still get nice meals on duty.” In fact, he is particularly enthusiastic about the meals: “On Saturdays and Sundays they give us brunch, which is a late breakfast. The rest of the week – there’s a little sort of canteen off the great hall. The food is very nice – three course meal. Last week, I had skate wing. Roast beef this week.”

“Skate wing is very expensive, you know,” he informs me.

After our conversation, I left Christ Church to wander around the meadows. I went to stand next to a young woman who was admiring the flying buttresses and the intricate designs of College buildings. We both stood in silence for a while before we started talking. Her name was Kathleen, and she was a Brazilian studying Archeology for the year in Barcelona.

Eventually, I asked, “What brings you to Christ Church?”

“Of course, Harry Potter,” Kathleen admits. “I come here, and I see it’s just like the movies.” But then she adds, “I like also history. It’s beautiful…it’s big, beautiful; it makes me time travel to the past. If I stay here, I dunno, I feel like I’m in the 13th century or whatever. With the music of the bells, the sounds, yes, it’s like a dream.”

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