Friday, 10 August 2007

Flour Power

Murphy’s Law – or ‘Sod’s Law’ to common people – is a global philosophy which states that if there is potential for something to go wrong, it will. It is a law which suggests many variations on this theme such as The other queue is always moving faster, The other man's grass is always greener and, as in my case, The other writer’s script is always better. One thing I am proud of, though, is that I am perhaps the only struggling writer alive today who has been involved in a serious scientific study to prove or disprove the existence of Murphy’s Law.

I recall my very first production assignment in BBC television way back in the early 1990s when I was a mere temporary secretary covering for people on holiday and sick leave. Having just left an isolated office in North Acton where I’d spent three days stuffing fact sheets into envelopes, I received a phone call informing me that my next assignment would be on the science documentary series, QED. Unfortunately, I arrived to discover that the Producer was expecting a highly experienced female Production Assistant but, due to a breakdown in communication, ended up with a hideously inexperienced male Secretary. This in itself proved the existence of Murphy’s Law: that if one had no production experience, one would be assigned to a job where production experience was a key necessity.

Before I’d even had a chance to confess, the Producer told me that his documentary would involve a scientific test of Murphy’s Law, involving expenses-paid filming trips to Newcastle and the United States of America. On hearing this, any thoughts I’d had about revealing my true identity dissolved, and I set about on a covert training mission with the aid of a book called How to Survive as a Production Assistant. Murphy’s Law was conceived by three people in the United States Air Force in 1949 whilst conducting experiments into G-force using rocket-propelled ‘sleds’, so the logic of our trip to the USA made sense. The logic of our trip to Newcastle, however, did not. My Producer assured me that it was where the best world experts on Murphy’s Law could be found and we would be going there to film an experiment to deduce whether bread really does fall butter-side down. I subsequently found out that Newcastle was also where he had a very old drinking companion who, by a staggering coincidence, was also the presenter of our documentary.

On arriving in Newcastle, my Producer gave me instructions to purchase 60 loaves of bread and 20 packets of butter and so I felt it safer to order these in advance by telephone. The supermarket manager I spoke to became very suspicious when I told her my plans for the bread and butter, and even more so when I revealed I was operating on behalf of the BBC, but eventually she agreed to the order. As our hire car had gone to Durham by mistake, and my Producer had gone on a pub crawl with his drinking companion, I had to take the Newcastle Metro into town to collect my loaves, which I found waiting for me in the warehouse, all neatly wrapped in white plastic bags. With no way to carry them back to the hotel, I had to bribe a taxi driver to help me who continuously stated that he’d had some passengers in his time but this really took the biscuit. Assuming that I spoke in Cockney rhyming slang because I was from London, he also kept making jokes about how I should’ve used my ‘loaf’ a bit more, and if I wasn’t careful I’d end up ‘brown bread’ from exhaustion. I found the taxi driver to be neither clever nor funny, and his driving wasn’t that great either.

The following day, we recruited ten enthusiastic students from Newcastle University to come with us to an isolated golf club where we forced them to engage in bread-buttering activities in front of our film camera. The idea was that they buttered a slice of bread, threw it in the air, analysed which side it landed on, and logged the result on a piece of paper. No-one except me seemed to recognise that people at the breakfast table don’t actually hurl their buttered toast four feet into the air, but generally knock it off the side of their plate, but I felt it safer not to comment. Meanwhile, the summer heat reached a scorching 92 degrees and all my butter melted. My only option was to speak kindly to the resident chef who rather reluctantly cleared out his entire stock of margarine so that the vital scientific experiment could continue. He demanded a credit on the finished programme. I lied and said he would get one.

With our bread-tossing statistics safely in the bag, we headed off for the USA the following week to interview the airforce trio involved in founding The Law. After losing our bag of film stock at LAX airport, and subsequently finding it again at the hire car centre where it had caused a security alert, we headed to Pasadena to film our first interview which was, thankfully, uneventful. Two days later we flew to El Paso, New Mexico, and spent an hour looking for the correct road to take us to Alamogordo. My Producer claimed that this was because the map had been printed back to front, but I eventually managed to prove him wrong and found a dirt track which, according to the map, would takes us to our destination. An hour later, driving through the middle of the desert, I was disturbed to find that we were on the perimeter of a missile range and there was no sign of civilisation, but eventually I was relieved to see Alamogordo on the horizon and we soon arrived at our hotel.

At breakfast the next morning, my Producer began to panic when there was no sign of our freelance camera crew. They were, in fact, sitting at the next table, and ten minutes later we all huddled into their van which looked like the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo. The cameraman’s name was Arthur, but he liked to be called ‘Spanky’. I felt it safer not to ask why, particularly as he kept saying ‘We’re going to have some fun today’ at every available moment. Unaware that the subject of our next interview, a retired army colonel, had changed the location of the shoot from his living room to the Holloman Air Force Base without telling anyone, Hank (the sound recordist) hadn’t brought any batteries for his tape recorder as he was expecting to plug it into a wall socket. This naturally lead to a two hour delay while ‘Spanky’ drove us around Alamogordo in the Mystery Machine looking for the correct batteries.

After a completely futile hunt, we reverted back to the original plan and ended up at the colonel’s house where Don (the camera assistant) suddenly remembered that he had a dental appointment and disappeared. ‘Spanky’ set up the lights, but then a mysterious electrical hum invaded the tape recorder and he started hitting it with the back of his sandal. Two hours later, Hank realised it was dirty tape heads and, after cleaning them with some of the colonel’s Jack Daniels, we eventually got the full story of Murphy’s Law in the can.

The following Monday, I arrived back in the office to find a note from my Producer asking me to conduct an investigation into how cinema latecomers always decide to sit in the middle of a row, thus causing the most chaos when they arrive after the start of the film. I was proud to see the results of my experiment displayed as an animated graphic on the screen when the documentary was finally transmitted. Except I have a bit of a confession to make; a secret I’ve kept for all these years. I didn’t conduct the experiment at all. I faked the results on multiple photocopies of the National Film Theatre’s seating plan which I faxed to my Producer. A terrible thing to do, perhaps, when you think that I tricked the viewing public. But then I felt better after considering that all that had happened was that I’d unintentionally proved Murphy’s Law does exist without anyone knowing it. Because one aspect of The Law specifically states that whoever holds the gold makes the rules. Or, in this case, if the results of a Murphy’s Law experiment can be faked, they will be.

1 comment:

Emon said...

Great story, Matt! Learned a new phrase 'took the biscuit.' Here's to Spanky having 'fun' to this day.http