3rd Annual Review – 2015

4 Feb

I’m late posting this… was mostly ready first week of Jan, but things got busy! Anyway, this is important for me to publicly acknowledge 2015 so late it may be but read on…

The Christmas decorations are being carted away, the kitchen is still strewn with the remnants of edible excess, and millions are making short-lived promises to improve their lives as January gets underway. It can mean only one thing – time for my 3rd ‘Annual Review’.

My first Annual Review on the blog came at a transitional moment in my life, after a particularly difficult couple of years. A year later and my mood had improved somewhat, though there were still clouds raining on my parade. How has this third consecutive year been for me? Relatively quiet in terms of the blog – I’ve been kept busy, and decided it was in my best interests not to publish content on many of the topics that were grating me. But the Annual Review is more about my professional life than my personal one – and I now see it as an exercise in mindfulness and positivity.

Once again, I don’t have resolutions for the new year, but I do have aspirations. A loose plan of what I’d like to achieve this year – remarkably I seem to have achieved most of my personal ambitions for 2015, so I’d like to ride that streak for another year.

It might be useful at this point to highlight the disappointments.

Its only now as the new year begins that I can properly move forward for plans with my publishing business. Work has been ongoing, but slowly and methodically. There’s some projects which have been lost with the delays, some plans changed, but we should be releasing again very soon. I’ve spent a lot of time on other people’s books at the expense of those I should have been writing myself – with any luck this year will see that change for the better of all involved.

I also enter the year once more as a singleton. I didn’t have so much as an exploratory coffee date in 2015, and in spite of my on-off relationship with dating websites I’m pretty much resigned now to spending the rest of my life as a quasi-40 year old virgin – living by myself with only movies and music for companionship. I’m still open to the idea of meeting someone I’m interested in that’s interested in me too, but after so long on my own, I’m not sure I’d even know how to conduct myself (not that I ever did). Still, that’s for another post.

Last year I vowed I would “push myself this year with various projects, embracing the creative streak which has remanifest itself this year. I’m going to look forward with more positivity and open-mindedness. I’m going to put myself out into the world more.” And I’m pleased to say, I exceeded my own expectations…

January saw me make my first challenge of the year – vowing to give up coffee for a couple of weeks after becoming increasingly concerned about the amount I was consuming. I’m sure it was playing with my blood pressure, my sleep patterns and irritability generally. After a lifetime this was no simple quitting, and I now have much more sympathy for those who give up things like cigarettes. I was spared the withdrawal symptoms others have reported – no chronic headaches, lethargy and so on, and my intake of herbal teas bloomed.

News of the attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo offices coloured much conversation for the next few weeks. Anyone who’s ever worked with satire, made a distasteful comment, or indeed works in publishing, couldn’t help but feel something.

New projects started coming in, and I continued contributing to the Banterflix Cinecast – a Northern Irish-based film review podcast series. Involvement with Banterflix would grow into something rather special before the end of the year. Its a diverse group of people, lots of talent and ambition. Between January and June I found myself inputting on a near weekly basis, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Managed to fit in a trip to the 360 Script Writing Festival at the BBC again at the end of January. I’d got quite a bit out of working at the fest in 2014, so able to commit to engaging fully in the workshops etc. this time was an opportunity to good to pass up. I did however nip out from the fest to record a short interview on the screen legacy of Sherlock Holmes for a package on BBC Radio Ulster’s Arts Show which went out the following week. As with so many of these things, much was cut, but my favourite consulting detective would demand more of my time in the months to come…

More BBC activity in February with a couple of Radio Ulster appearances including the first http://belfastfilmfestival.org/day-4-murder-by-decree-at-the-freemasons-hall-belfastin a run of semi-regular turns on Kerry McLean’s show, standing in for ubiquitous local critic and filmmaker Brian Henry Martin.

I also spent a few days working at the Beeb’s Make It Digital roadshow – promoting various technological advances and giving the public a snapshot insight into how their tv shows are made – with much of my time seemingly spent with the autocue demonstration. Make It Digital has done the rounds of the UK since then, and I’d recommend paying a visit if you get the chance.

Recording one of the Banterflix tv pilots. L to R: Robert JE Simpson, Richard Davis, Jim McClean.

Recording one of the Banterflix tv pilots. L to R: Robert JE Simpson, Richard Davis, Jim McClean.

The big project of the month was however the Banterflix Television Show which we were developing for local station NVTV. We ended up shooting two pilot episodes in their studio, translating the chat-based podcast to a visual medium. Kudos to NVTV for giving us the platform, and for indulging our experimentations, which have become increasingly bold. As the months have gone by we’ve moved from straightforward studio chat, to more segments, varied contributors, international segments, all fronted by Jim McClean. Bless, that man works too hard sometimes, but its very much his project.

I got involved with Banterflix in order to try new mediums, new groups, and keep in practice. Along the way I’ve picked up new skills, new colleagues and friends, and new projects have stemmed from the collective. I’m slightly envious of Jim because he’s doing the sort of thing I’d love to be doing, on his terms. But I knew that I wanted to work on more things were I wasn’t in charge – I wanted to ease the burden of responsibility – and its far more fun verbally sparring when you aren’t the one calling the shots. Over the last year, working with Jim and the rest of the team has been a lot of fun and has grown into other projects. I think our camaraderie is very evident now when we’re working together in studio and on location shoots (when I’m on screen, he’s filming and visa-versa).

The response to the show in March was a little muted at first, but its finding its way. Just last month I found myself being recognised from the show by an usher at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast – a z-list-celebrity experience which threw me a little (and as my companion for the evening keeps reminding me, I’m ‘Mr Banterflix’ – trying to overlook being remembered for someone else’s project rather than my own!). Its Northern Ireland’s first film review show on TV, and I’m proud of my involvement. NVTV have made all the episodes available to view online too, which has greatly helped build our audience.

I started working for Gigging NI as a photographer and reviewer. I photographed the excellent Ward Thomas gig as a trial run, and then caught the sublime Get The Blessing at the Brilliant Corners festival in Belfast – as enjoyable a first foray into writing about music as I could ever have wished for.

During my pre-screening chat for Murder By Decree I dragged a fan on stage to illustrate a point.... Photo by Belfast Film Festival.

During my pre-screening chat for Murder By Decree I dragged a fan on stage to illustrate a point…. Photo by Belfast Film Festival.

April proved to be a pivotal month. As with last year I was involved in the Belfast Film Festival, introducing the Sherlock Holmes film Murder By Decree at the Masonic Hall in Belfast’s Arthur Square, and a special screening of the excellent If… in the Great Hall at QUB. In among that was an overindulgence in films of all shades including the drama of a gala performance of the awful Shooting for Socrates at the Waterfront (my review of the latter later getting republished by Film Ireland, who I haven’t written for since they went web-only).

I spent the day before the Murder By Decree screening, in London visiting various Sherlock Holmes associated spots, including Baker Street itself. I hadn’t expected to be back quite so quickly (after visiting the previous October to participate in the British Library’s Gothic season) but managed to fill the short visit with socialising, research and theatre! Holmes was a bonus, I was really over to see the very first public performance of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror sequel, Shock Treatment, in its new musical theatre incarnation. I brought my dear friend Renee Glynne along as my date for the night, and for my part absolutely loved the show.

I was also deeply saddened to learn of the death of Sam Rohdie in April. Sam was my professor at QUB  during my undergrad film studies, and continues to be an inspiration to me and my engagement with film. I’ve been meaning to blog something about his passing (there are some comments on my Facebook page) but haven’t felt it quite right. I’ll be sure to post something soon.

Caught David O’Doherty again at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival at the end of April – a comedian I find constantly refreshing with his particular brand of light musical whimsy.

May was a whirl of activity. I popped along to the MCM ComicCon in Belfast with Jim – my first time at one of these events on home turf, and a little odd after having worked shows in England for a number of years.

I brought my friend Danny along for the ‘Night At the Orpheus’ walking tour of the old Art College building in York Street, Belfast. As I write the building has been demolished, and this was a last chance to experience the interior of the former dance hall. Particularly moving for me as I took a couple of photography modules as part of my undergrad that were hosted here. Never in the best of shape, its a shame that a refurb was declined as a possibility, but that’s a recurring theme. There’s an album of pics to follow.

Robert JE Simpson wandering the old Orpheus dancehall for the last time.  Pic by Danny Meegan.

Robert JE Simpson wandering the old Orpheus dancehall for the last time.
Pic by Danny Meegan.

Gigwise I sat down to an excellent last minute show (and frankly under-attended) from The Correspondents at The Black Box. I’ve been listening to them for  couple of years, and the sheer physicality of Mr Bruce’s whirligig dancing is something to experience. From that chaos I caught Jon Ronson at the Belfast Book Festival – my second Ronson experience in as many years. This time I drummed up the courage to thank him for The Psychopath Test, a book that resonated all too uncomfortably!

I’m never that far away from film and overloaded on Orson Welles this year. The centenary celebrations had me introduce screenings at QFT, a Banterflix special, and a live panel discussion with Rachael Kelly and Conor Smyth. 1st June saw Arrow release Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles on Blu-Ray/DVD including sleeve notes by me! A real thrill to see them in physical form this time, and my first Arrow commission.

Keeping things Hammer I was invited to talk at an international conference on Hammer in Paris, presenting a paper on the origins of the company focussing on founder Will Hammer’s other businesses. During lunch on the second day we learned that legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee had passed away, casting a long shadow over proceedings for many of us. That evening I broadcast live for Arts Extra on BBC Radio Ulster sharing my thoughts on his passing – a surreal experience.

Paris was great – I promised myself last year that I’d visit and timing couldn’t have been better. I extended the trip as a treat, embracing the warm weather, walking round the city and spending time watching Frank Sinatra films in the Cinematheque (and thinking about Sam Rohdie, who loved that place). This was my first solo international trip and mostly enjoyable, with the exception of being pick-pocketed on the Metro. A horrible experience, but I refused to let it get me down and after a day of talking to the police and Visa, got back onto the Metro and carried on my holiday. I also spent an unforgettable evening in a dive Parisian cinema watching a French shadow-cast take on The Rocky Horror Picture Showquite simply my favourite cinema experience ever.

The Who came to Belfast at the end of the month and thanks to my work for GiggingNI I finally got to tick them off my bucket list. And then within days I was at the Lyric reviewing Yer Granny! and meeting another favourite actor – Gregor Fisher.

July and August seems to have been filled with radio spots, including several weeks reviewing tv for Kerry McLean’s show and gabbing about Sapphire and Steele on Arts Extra. That, and a couple of costume fittings which started something else. I’ve been trying to get back into performance work for a while – I originally went to uni to study drama and become an actor, something that got sidelined. So getting called in for a fitting was something rather exciting – albeit also humiliating. Getting a costume to fit proved incredibly difficult with my ever-expanding girth and was cemented on set a few weeks later when we struggled to squeeze me into anything. That dual humiliation spurred me into beginning to get my body into shape again. By the end of the year I’d lost a significant chunk of weight and its still coming off. More on that at a later date.

Most importantly my divorce was finalised on 3rd August. The arrival of the paperwork the next day signified an absolute end to things which should never have begun, and allowed me to step back into my own skin completely. I took some close friends out for drinks a couple of weeks later to mark the occasion. A gathering of chums rather than a celebration, but something that was important to mark all the same.

Over the summer I also shot a short film project with Rachael Kelly – an experimental piece that should make its way to audiences in 2016. The first in a series of film projects we’ve got lined up.

September saw new me introduce The Godfather at The Strand Arts Centre in my beloved East Belfast. We returned to NVTV with Banterflix series 2 and I turned up on Radio Ulster again, this time in an early morning live slot on Good Morning Ulster talking about the letters of Stan Laurel. We also filmed a segment for Banterflix over the summer about Laurel and Hardy’s visit to Belfast, a version of which eventually aired.

I had my third Rocky Horror experience of the year when I went to see the live broadcast of the new incarnation of the stage show at the local cinema.

October and November flitted mostly between filming (this costume mostly fit!) and teaching a photography workshop for older people down in Glebe House near Strangford. Keeping up with the performing, I was invited to join the cast of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters in a Belfast production by the Bart Players. I hadn’t trod a stage in some years, and to be able to take part in a play by someone I admired was a thrill I couldn’t turn down. I ended up in several short parts including my twist on the iconic Death.

I clocked another one off my bucket list with Weird Al, and chatted zombies with the Banterflix guys at a live event in the Beanbag cinema, and I caught The Proclaimers live in Belfast.

In October the Save Bray Studios campaign essentially came to an end after five years of protest led by me and others. Permission was granted to convert the historic studios into housing. I was interviewed by BBC Radio Berkshire and local press, and for once had to let vent my full frustration.

L to R: Robert JE Simpson, Aaron Hunter, Rachael Kelly, Conor Smyth at the Takover Film panel on Harold and Maude.

L to R: Robert JE Simpson, Aaron Hunter, Rachael Kelly, Conor Smyth at the Takover Film panel on Harold and Maude.

December was full pelt. More filming. And I was extensively involved in Takeover Film’s events tying in with the BFI’s Love season. I introduced Amelie and following on from an earlier workshop, a screening of Harold and Maude which included a live panel discussion. This seemed well received and there’s hope that we’ll be doing these semi-regularly in the near future.

I popped over to Liverpool for the first time in a rapid and filled trip. After many years of distant collaboration, David Rattigan and I met in the flesh to talk over past glories and new ideas. He proved an excellent tour guide as we made our way through pubs, eateries, docks, churches and the first night of the new Hammer play The Haunting of Hill House. Most humbling, I visited the dock where my great-great grandfather had drowned on his first ever visit to Liverpool some 70 years before. I was touched to have such a good friend with me for the moment.

As the year end I crammed in another review for Gigging NI – a Stephen Sondheim musical at the Lyric Theatre, and then there was my now traditional Christmas week outings – this time to see David C Clements, and Gary Lightbody in two excellent gigs (and with David also supporting the Lightbody event), and a Terri Hooley set at the Goat’s Toe in Bangor!

My last act of 2015 was to audition for a part in another play down in Lisburn – a new farce – and get cast.

Looking back over the year I can’t help but be happy with the outcome. I’ve achieved a fair bit. Started travelling a little again, dabbled in academia, more radio and television work. I’ve directed, acted and broadcast. My performance experience is on the up and I hope to build on this in 2016. Ideally I want to move further towards professional work, but its getting someone to take a chance first.

The workshop activity was a pleasant addition, and I really enjoyed talking about photography again. I didn’t get to talk in quite as many places this year as I’d have liked with film-related events, but look forward to building on that next year too.

On a personal level I’ve done a lot of healing this year, and I know that has helped with everything else too. I spent the year talking to a therapist most weeks, and that journey has been vital to my development. There’s still some things unresolved, but I’m leaps and bounds beyond where I was when I started. My personal life and creativity has surged as a result.

On that note, I should also mention I started drawing again towards the end of the year. Just small sketches, but its the first time I’ve done anything like that in years, and sharing via social media helped encourage me to do more. As this was happening I also got an offer to host my first ever solo exhibition, which will be happening in May 2016, and I’m over the moon about that.

This has been the best year since I started the blog without a doubt. I enter 2016 a much happier man. After achieving last year’s goals (I got to Paris after all!) I need to aim higher this year. I want to finish a couple of book projects. More travel – if at all possible I want to head to the US in the next year, possibly Las Vegas / LA. I’d like to start painting again. And complete some more films. I’m still eeking out a perilous freelance existence, so always looking for new opportunities to work and collaborate – I’m casting my eyes across Ireland and the UK this year. Whatever the future has in store, I’m ready to embrace it.


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