Thinking back, I’m pretty sure this all started with John Hurt.
Picture the scene. It’s early January, 2011. My other half and I have put the children to bed and have got out the mulled wine, seasonal chocolates and what remains of the Christmas nuts. We are perched on the sofa, watching an ageing academic visit a haunted hotel. He is plagued by mysterious noises, sentient bedsheets, and – in the final reel – the spirit of his Alzheimers-afflicted wife. There is a banging outside the bedroom door and a statue seemingly with a mind of its own. And that was my introduction to Whistle and I’ll Come To You.
It is, I’m reassured, not a patch on the original, but we didn’t care: it was quietly terrifying, and neither of us slept well. Ghost stories are always at their most effective at the darkest times of the year, when there is little daylight to stave off what may be hiding in the shadows: and perhaps it was this sense of general unease that gave Emily the idea. “You could do something with this,” she said. “You could combine it with that episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em where Frank and Betty visit a hotel and destroy it.”
By ‘eck, I thought. She’s right. And so I did. I embed it here with some trepidation because it is – like the hotel in which John Parkin embeds himself – rather old and creaky and a bit rough around the edges. A remastered version (shorter, punchier and with the technical problems fixed) played inside my head before I finally got round to doing it. Still, the original is silly and decently structured and carries the joke to a logical conclusion. And more to the point, it gave me a new hobby.
A few years ago the Independent published a very interesting article about the practice of mashing. It is worth reading in its entirety (the comments, alas, are long gone) but it’s Cassetteboy who provides perhaps the best explanation of why we do it, and why people enjoy watching them. “We’ve learned that if you can edit video to make a celebrity say something smutty, then people are going to watch it,” he says. “But there’s an art to it. It’s a challenge to make a well-constructed joke out of other people’s words.”
It is a challenge, and there are times it feels like cheating. There are many people who refuse to accept it as real art. I can see why. Back in the spring Emily and I took the boys to the Tate Modern. Some of it was breathtaking. Some of it made me squint – “It’s just blobs of black paint flung against a wall!” I remember saying to the eldest. But I have never understood the point of, say, conceptual art, or the idea that sticking a urinal in a glass case grants it some kind of elevated stature. It’s supposed to be a thing you wee into, and now you can’t even do that. So it is with editing. You are (to a certain extent, anyway) pilfering the fruits of someone else’s hard-worn labour and calling it your own. Simultaneously there’s a joy in changing something so that people see it in a new way or find something funny that wasn’t there before. It’s group discussion in video form, and that’s a function it fulfils quite well.
I do two kinds of videos: mashups and montages. The montages are the most straightforward to describe: they’re music videos, sequenced to songs I particularly like (if you’re going to listen to the same beats, chords and fills of something over and over again for hours on end, you make damned sure it’s something you don’t object to hearing ad nauseum). For each, I’m trying to get an emotional reaction: when assembling a sequence of Tenth Doctor moments accompanied by Andrew Gold’s Thank You For Being A Friend (with which, rather like the Tenth Doctor, I have an immensely complicated love-hate relationship) the prevailing mood was cheesy happiness, like the end of Fear Her (which is referenced liberally). The yin to that one’s yang is the sequence of partings and farewells that I scored to Abba’s The Day Before You Came just a few months ago. It is thoroughly miserable. Mostly it’s a question of balance – something I think I achieved just once, in a Nu Who retrospective posted the day before the programme’s fiftieth birthday, as a celebration of where we were. If you squint, it works.
(I’ve often thought about doing one involving every Doctor, but there are plenty of those, and most of them are really quite good. Why re-invent the wheel?)
The mashup side of things is more complicated, and starts with an idea. Usually the ideas come at the least convenient moment – in the shower, in a tearing great hurry to get four children out of the house in time for the Friday morning school run, with no time to jot anything down and no pen to do it with in any case because my two-year-old has eaten them all. Sometimes inspiration strikes in the middle of a really bad episode – that was where, if I remember correctly, I got the idea for a Dalek subtitles video which takes its cue from Jenna Coleman’s inability to tell the Doctor who she is at the end of The Witch’s Familiar. It’s a silly, inconsistent idea, and I pushed the subsequent gag to breaking point and beyond, but that’s something Moffat has spent six years doing, and he gets paid for it.
Title sequences are probably where I have the most fun. You automatically find yourself creatively restrained, which is paradoxically rather liberating. Doctor Who did some of its best stuff within the confines of a limited budget / timescale / casting availability, and it’s the same with just about anything else: it forces you to think outside the box. When I was making an imaginary credit sequence for a Clara / Ashildr spin-off, I could find comparatively little usable footage of the two of them together, which led to a little improvisation – the end result is rather like Cagney & Lacey meets Highlander, but it hangs together. Title sequences are enormously popular – and not always very interesting – so what I often try and do is create a shot-for-shot remake, using footage from Who that closely matches what we see in the original. I took this approach when tackling Ulysses 31 and Magnum P.I. – the latter of which got a mention from BBC America and a momentary burst of traffic. Of all the title sequences I’ve done, however, my favourite is probably this one.
There’s a knot in your stomach when you’ve hit the upload button and wait for YouTube to finish processing, because that’s when most of the copyright problems crop up. Fair use is a minefield – I worked in publishing for twelve years; I know this – but you learn the workarounds and the film companies and record labels to avoid. In the case of Doctor Who, we have it easy: BBC Worldwide are, for the most part, extremely obliging, allowing mashups and remixes of just about anything provided you don’t impact too much on their ability to sell the original product. Only once have I had a video forcibly removed – you’ll be spared the details, but suffice to say I’m still not speaking to Aardman.
Somewhere in the creative ether there lurks a series of lost projects. The Camberwick Green / Third Doctor mash. The stop-motion Logopolis remake. And the Three Doctors redub that removes Omega’s shouty rants and replaces them with Bungle from Rainbow. (I may still do that one, actually, so hands off.) It’s not easy to explain why a reasonably good idea was canned when I honestly thought I was onto something by reworking the Series 6 finale – in a scene that’s baffled most of the people who’ve watched it, either because they have short memories or because they simply don’t understand the reference. I’m not including that here; you can have this one instead.
I mentioned traffic, but that’s something of a bone of contention. Going viral on YouTube is a combination of serendipity and timing (I wish we could say that talent had something to do with it, but you and I both know that isn’t really true). Most uploaded footage lingers on the servers, unwatched and ignored; with a couple of exceptions, that’s where mine sit. The likes of Zoella are the killer whales in a vast ocean: the rest of us are the pilot fish, foraging for scraps, tagging and watching trends and plugging to death on our seldom-seen Tumblr feeds, and (when it all gets too much) we’ll go and stand on a wintry street corner with an exploding euphonium.
There are exceptions. My most popular upload fuses footage of CBeebies characters with Uptown Funk. As we go to press it’s creeping up towards seven hundred thousand views. In YouTube terms this is chicken feed (Stampy Longnose manages this in the space of an afternoon), but I have a bottle of Moet et Chandon on standby for the day it reaches a million. People’s tastes are strange and variable, and sometimes the video that does well isn’t the one you want to succeed. It is a source of embarrassment that a Red Dwarf mashup featuring the Tenth Doctor got picked up by the Daily Mirror a couple of years back, because it really isn’t very good, and I learned a lot of hard lessons about reigning it in. On the other hand I got a brief mention in Doctor Who Magazine when Roy Skelton died, because coincidentally I’d done this just a few weeks before.
But you don’t get into this for the hit count: if you stick that at the top of your priority list you’ll become bitter and twisted and probably almost insane to boot (“And that’s how the Master started”). I’ve never made a penny from any of my videos, mostly out of choice – it seems somehow dishonest to profit from something you didn’t exactly create – and the best I can hope for is a few new blog subscribers from time to time. The life of a struggling freelancer is isolating and lonely and sometimes we like it that way, because it enables us to get things done without all those irritating people distracting us. Other times, you crave for a bit of attention, or at least interaction. I remember quivering with excitement the day my inbox pinged to let me know I’d received my first ever YouTube comment. I looked. It read simply “You vajayjay.”
Still. YouTube users are at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, and if you can go into this with your eyes open you’ll survive. There is a thrill about it: having created something not wholly yours, but skewed from your own unique perspective, indelibly committed to digital form even if it is eventually expelled from the web (assuming you keep backups, of course). I experienced this recently when I took existing footage of Capaldi and mashed it together to create an imaginary regeneration. It was a long, arduous process and I was tearing my hair out by the end. I talked earlier about loneliness, and while they drive me to distraction I am grateful that my solitude ends at half past three when our children come home. My family are my toughest (if most endearingly polite) audience: always anxious to have something explained if they don’t understand it, and – when it comes down to it – the only people whose approval genuinely matters to me.
I played this one to the eldest.
“That was actually pretty good, Dad,” he said. And off he went to continue the animation he was working on.
And ultimately, that’s why I do it.
James’s YouTube channel may be found here.