Monday, December 18, 2017

Goodish Bye

As the credits rolled on episode 7 last Tuesday, the continuity announcer said that...
... the series would be concluding next week - and added, "and it'll be an emotional show as it'll be the last ever one of the series."

Which, of course, led to a small flurry of tweets from people, asking if he meant it was the last ever... or just the last of the series... all of which is very flattering. Thank you.

As people have continued to ask me since then if this is the last one or not, I thought it was probably worth writing a few short words about it to try and add a little clarity. Or, more likely, I'll write a lot of words. Let's see how this goes.

The first thing to say is that I love the show and I'm exceedingly proud of the last five years of work. And I'm hugely grateful to have had the opportunity to do quite so much long-form stand-up on TV.

I add the words 'long-form' for a reason.

It seems odd to me that TV largely presents stand-up as something that happens in short sets of 7 or 8 minutes - or even as a quick minute, before "we get on with the rest of the show".

I don't think that's what any of my favourite comics are best at.

In terms of live work, the only times you really watch someone doing something that short is when they're a brand new act doing unpaid gigs as they learn or, maybe, somebody more established trying a new idea out somewhere.

A standard set on the circuit is 20 minutes, a one-person show at a festival is expected to be 60 minutes and a tour show is longer.

If you can get into the position of touring shows in your own name - you have to have worked out how to shape a longer show - and yet the people who have worked that out tend to be the ones being asked to do 7 or 8 minutes of stuff on telly.

I don't think doing an hour is as simple as just doing three lots of twenty. Or at least it shouldn't be. Because the longer form affords you more opportunities to link things up, to draw out themes, to misdirect audiences in more interesting ways and to make things feel more complete. You have to change things up more or they get wise to your rhythm. A short set can be great - but it's the fast food version of stand-up. It's a dirty burger. But long-form stand-up, done well, can be a banquet.

It's why I was chuffed to bits with this Sunday Times review of a show in Series 4.

The idea of 'handling an audience like a DJ at a club' sort of gets to the nub of the difference between long-form and short-form stand-up.

I don't think you can really do that in a short set. I think it's the thing to aim for in a longer show.

With that in mind; what a fantastic opportunity this series has been. When people say they think it's a shame the show hasn't been on a bigger channel, I always ask them to tell me any other channel that has given any other comic the opportunity to do this kind of show? Not stand-up and sketches. Not stand-up and anything else. Not a package of discreet bits that could be edited together in a different order and make just as much sense. Proper, long-form stand-up that actually represents what a touring comic does live? I can't think of many. I don't think I can think of any. Not just now... but for many years.

In that sense it is a dream job. And I have always tried to go about my job without complaint. There's no point moaning about having-to-come-up-with-more-stuff when coming-up-with-stuff is one of the key parts of your job. That's what we're supposed to do for a living.

And I'm not pretending that every last bit of it has been all my own work. I'm lucky enough to have worked with a fantastic bunch of collaborators - producers and writers - all of whom have contributed much. 

So please don't mistake any of what follows for any kind of woe-is-me, moaning. That couldn't be further from the truth. Here's the thing: as lucky as I am to have an almost unique opportunity to do the thing that I love, in the form that I love, on the telly... it's also bloody demanding in terms of time.

We've always recorded the shows in pairs. So when we've made six episodes (series 1 and 4) we had three recordings... and when we've made eight episodes (series 2, 3 and 5) we've had four. During this final series, we've had 9 weeks between recordings. In each 9 week block I've spent the first week having some time off. I've then spent the next five weeks working 40 to 50 hours a week and then, for the final three weeks of each block - which includes doing a few dry runs of the shows in small theatres while I try to properly hone the shows - working in excess of 100 hours a week.

Three or four times a week during that time I start work at 10am, work through to 5am try to get some sleep... and am at my desk by 10am later that morning to carry on. And while it doesn't happen every time, there are plenty of occasions where I work through the night and into the next day without sleep because I won't meet the deadlines otherwise.

And it's simply not possible to keep doing that without making yourself ill. In series 1 we didn't really know what we were letting ourselves in for when it was set up and as a result we only had two weeks between recordings. It's probably not a coincidence that I fainted on stage during the taping of episode 6.

Everyone involved - the channel and the production company and everyone working on the show - has been aware of quite how labour intensive the show is to make ever since we began. There isn't an executive involved who hasn't, at some point, been in a meeting with me when I've been awake for 48 hours and counting. And everyone has done everything they can to make it easier. But unfortunately, there isn't a short cut when it comes to building the powerpoint.

We don't write a paper script and then send it to a graphics department to build. We talk about ideas. We throw ideas around. We talk about a vague structure. And then I build it. And I don't build it to a script... me building it is me writing the script. Nobody involved in the show - me included - knows what it's going to look like until I emerge from my shed having built it.

And then, when I've built it, we talk about it some more, we come up with some definitive ideas for words to go with it. And sometimes that involves me rebuilding it. And then I perform it. And rewrite and rebuild it. Then perform it again. And rewrite and rebuild it. And then all of that a third time. And then we record it.

A regular show has somewhere between 300 and 500 slides in it. (A tour show, will have many, many more) Here, for example, is a version of what a late-ish draft of this series' episode 4 looked like the day before we recorded it:

There isn't a quick way of building this many slides - especially when there are plenty of moving parts.

Unfortunately, whatever we've done to try and find solutions, the nature of the beast is that this much work has to be squeezed into the final two or three weeks before a recording.

There are lots of reasons. For one: doing dry runs will always lead to rewriting and rebuilding because it's only when stuff is performed for the first time that you discover both how long it is and how well it works. And the dry runs need to be relatively close to the recording because a performance isn't learned, it's honed. In so much as things are learned, it's muscle memory - it's about instinctively finding what you did last night because that worked, rather than poring over a script trying to commit things to memory which, in my experience (and perhaps with my limitations) robs a performance of authenticity and immediacy. I don't want you to watch me remembering stuff - I want to relate stuff to you. Muscle memory doesn't last very long. A few days off undoes it. There has to be a churn of performing/rewriting/performing/rewriting for there to be any benefit to that process.

For two: it's unhelpful to build powerpoint for bits until I know what they're going to be a part of. For example, in a recent episode there was a small section about serving suggestions. It's an idea that's actually been knocking around since the start of Series 1 but has never found a home until this series. There'd be no point in me spending a day or two powerpointing it early on because it was one of 60 or 70 similar ideas and we'd never be able to use all of them.

It only earned it's place in a show because I could see a way of connecting it to other bits. It provided a segue to something else, but also created a really easily understood metaphor that improved a later, seemingly unconnected later bit making it shorter to tell and more immediate to grasp. I need to know these things when I'm making it... and I didn't know those things at the start of Series 1. It took a new idea, generated during Series 5 to provide the context in which that old idea could do two jobs on the show.

For three: even if I we were able to come up with a paper script that someone else could create powerpoint for... it wouldn't teach me the timing of the powerpoint. On the night it's me who presses the button to fire the next transition/animation/video/whatever. And it's me who's trying to wrap my words around it. The best way of me absorbing the timings is for me to create them. It's easier to learn a song if you're the one who writes the tune.

Dave have been brilliantly supportive all round. Before we'd finished series 1, we knew they wanted series 2 and 3. And before we finished series 3, we knew they wanted 4 and 5. And before we started work on series 4, we knew that everyone was committed to trying different schedules and finding ways of solving these issues. We tried all sorts. Most of the time it made it harder. But the efforts were sincere. In the end, the reality is that there are no short cuts. And nor should there be. Like I say, I try to do my work without complaining.

It's hard to let go of such a wonderful opportunity. I know that if I wanted to make more I could. But I don't want to do it half-cocked. And I don't want to make myself ill doing it either. And I want to do other things too. I want to do more live work.

In a way, the decision to tour next year, made my mind up for me. It would be impossible to create another series at the same time as creating and touring a new show. So series six was never going to happen in 2018. And I can't help thinking that not-working-100-plus-hours-a-week is probably going to feel quite nice after five years of crazy. So it's probably best to leave it there.

I know that, with ads, each show is less than an hour long... but creating 36 telly-hours in the space of five years is something I'm hugely proud of. There aren't many comics that will get that opportunity. And I like to think I respected the opportunity - and the audience - and always gave my all to it.

In the mean time, I'm having a bit of time off over Christmas - and the channel and I are actively looking for ways of working together in the future.

If you don't know what this rather self-indulgent post is going on about - here's a nice write up of the series from the Christmas Radio Times. (My Mum's chuffed about this)

It's rare for a series to end like this, with everyone involved feeling happy that it happened and nobody bearing any grudges.

If you've enjoyed the shows - thanks for being a part of it. I'm pretty sure they'll be available on UKTVPlay for some time to come. The final episode airs tomorrow, Tuesday at 10pm. I hope you can catch it.

If you want to make sure you know what I get up to next, my mailing list is the best way to find out.

For now, my thanks to Nick Martin, James Fidler, Judy Lewis, Nick Doody, Sarah Morgan, Carrie Quinlan, Carl Cooper, The Bilroth Quartet, Annabel Port, Richard Watsham, Iain Coyle, Jamie Isaacs and a whole host of other people who all came on the ride with me. I've had a blast.



Monday, November 13, 2017

NEW TOUR: With Great Powerpoint Comes Great Responsibilitypoint

This is happening next year...

Tickets are on general sale from Friday... but they go on pre-sale from 9am tomorrow, Tuesday 14th via SeeTickets.com, then on Wednesday at 9am they go on presale via Ticketmaster.co.uk and on Thursday morning you'll also be able to get them from tickets.amazon.co.uk

And yes, I know 'pre-sale' is a silly phrase but I don't know what else to call it.

Anyway, live shows are far and away the most fun part of what I do and it's been too long since the last tour so I'm chomping at the bit to get on with this one. I hope to see you there...

*UPDATE*
Hello... I'm editing this post to explain that the poster has been changed. The original had some errors on it - for which I apologise. It seems that one venue has a refurb scheduled that won't be finished as early as they anticipated so they've changed a date... and it seems another venue was making arrangements while looking at their 2019 diary by mistake! These things happen. I apologise for the confusion caused... oh, and I also have all the correct dates on the live dates page of my site.

Friday, November 3, 2017

If you want to win some Mockbusters...

As a brand new series of Modern Life Is Goodish is underway, I've been asked if I'll be reviving my competitions for my mailing list... and yes, as and when there's something to give away, I will. If I can, I use things from an episode that's already gone out - that way, the prize doesn't act as a spoiler for what's coming up.

Which is why the prize for this week is going to be this assortment of terrible mockbuster cartoons.
 

(If you haven't seen the first episode of the new series then the full horror of this, um, prize won't make a lot of sense to you, but, of course, it's always very easy to catch up with the show using UKTVPlay)

To be in with a chance of winning these - and who wouldn't want to own them - you need to be on my mailing list. I'll email a reminder for the new episode on Tuesday along with a question about that night's show. All the people who send an email to a secret address with the right answer go in the hat. One (un)lucky person will win the DVDs. Simple.

In other news... I filmed an episode of Pointless over a year ago... and it's being shown on Saturday. I was paired up with one of my comic heroes, John Shuttleworth and, well, I'm not allowed to tell you how we did...

By the way, it's okay, I think everyone involved in the show already gets the irony in the title Pointless Celebrities. It's on Saturday at 6pm. On BBC1.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Modern Life Is Goodish Day, Everyone



Series 5 starts tonight. 10pm. On Dave. 
And there'll be a new episode every Tuesday for 8 weeks.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Series 5 Starts Next Week...



And look... we only went and got the brilliant Cassetteboy to make us a trail...

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Hello. Long time, no see.

I thought it was worth posting something here because I had dozens of people getting in touch with me yesterday about the same thing - largely on Twitter - and I didn't find the limits of Twitter very helpful as a way of responding...

It started when the announcement was made for the "Funniest Joke Of The Fringe" award.

The award is sponsored by the TV channel, Dave and the joke that, scooped the top prize - because as we all know, scooping is how top prizes are won - was as follows:

"I'm not a fan of the new pound coin, but then I hate all change" and it's attributed to a comic called Ken Cheng.

A lot of people were immediately scathing about the selection - with the comedy website Chortle writing,
"The choice is likely to inflame accusations of unoriginality for a gag that has done the rounds on Twitter. Cheng himself tweeted it as long ago as March 21, 2014, when news of the design first broke, but he was still beaten to it by many people."

I doubt there is anyone attending the Fringe who really thinks that is the funniest thing being said on a stage throughout the thousands of comedy shows being performed at the world's largest arts festival. What's more, I'd lay good money that it's nowhere near the funniest joke in Ken Cheng's show either.

Stand up is a more nuanced art form than that. You almost certainly can't extract the words that lead up to the biggest laugh in any given show, type them up and present them as a one-liner that will work well on the page.

I think that's true, even for those comics whose stock in trade is one-liners. Even then, the jokes aren't discrete units of comedy that can be assembled in any order, each standing or falling purely on its own merits. There's always more going on than that.

And it seems unfair for people to pick on Ken Cheng for telling the joke when we're unaware of the context in which he tells it.  Ken Cheng is a relative newcomer, but at least two of the other jokes in the top ten list - both told by very experienced (and brilliant) comics - are every bit as old as that one, if not older. (One of them was even in my original set when I was starting out at 19, but I soon dropped it when I realised it was a thought that had been had by hundreds of people before me.)

The truth is of course that the short list of "best jokes" aren't the best jokes at all. Not at the fringe and not even in the shows from which they've been culled. If you compiled a list of the things-that-made-people-laugh-the-longest-and-loudest-at-the-fringe-this-year it wouldn't make any sense in print and would have to be book ended with countless but-it's-the-way-she-tells-it and you-had-to-be-there and but-of-course-it-won't-make-sense-because-you-didn't-see-the-first-fifteen-minutes-where-he-set-up-this-idea codicils. So instead you get a list of these-are-the-only-things-we-could-extract-that-are-understandable-as-jokes-in-isolation-when-put-in-print-but-it's-destined-to-get-a-lot-of-coverage-and-that-works-well-for-all-concerned-okay?

At this stage, you might be thinking there's no reason why I ought to feel compelled to offer an opinion either way. But it gets more complicated (for me) because a version of the winning joke had been in one my TV shows. The shows that are broadcast by Dave. The channel that gave Ken the prize.

It was in Series 2, episode 8 as it goes.  We're currently working on Series 5 - so it's more than 3 years old. But by sheer coincidence it happened to be the episode that was repeated last night... on the same day as the announcement.

Now this raises the obvious question: why were you telling a joke in your show if you know it's unoriginal and don't think it's very good?

Good question. I'll explain.

Here's the thing. In that episode there was a found poem about the new one pound coin. I road test all the material. That found poem always went over well. Found poems basically work best when the people writing the below-the-lines comments are pompous. It's an exercise in pointing out how seriously they take themselves by taking them even more seriously in jest. So people expressing outrage and upset about a topic that ought to generate none are perfect.

And I like it best when the end results contains comments both for and against because it helps underline that none of the opinions are mine. (You'd be amazed at how many times people write to express their upset at something I said in a found poem believing it to be my heartfelt opinion).

But in setting the poem up, I often need to give a precis of the topic. I need to explain why people might be for or against. I need to provide that tiny bit of context that will make people understand where these things have been found.

In this case I needed to express the idea that some people were upset about the new pound coin because they don't like it when things change in life. And the simplest expression of that thought is simply, "of course some people are upset about the new pound coin because they fear change."

Like I say, before we get to the recording of the show, I run it in over several live shows to try and find the best way through the material. And this simple thought - necessary to make the found poem work - was something of a road block. There basically wasn't a way of saying it that didn't lead to some form of negative judgement.

If you say it in a straightforward way, without a pause before the word 'because' then some people  still hear the joke and some of your audience think you've told a bad joke badly. If you put the pause in and acknowledge that it's a joke the whole audience thinks you've told a not-very-original-joke. If you rephrase it and say, "of course some people don't like it because they don't like it when things are different" some people think, "why are you going round the houses?" and other people think, "oh, you've missed a joke there, you should have said, 'some people fear change'..." and so on and so on.

Basically the joke is so obvious that some of the audience will think of it whether or not it is spoken aloud. And so even its absence casts a shadow over proceedings. And yet the singular meaning - that some people don't like things changing - needs to be expressed to make the next section work.

Our solution was to acknowledge the sentence for what it was. And so the show started with a warning that later on I would be telling an accidental, but unavoidable joke involving the words 'fear change', that I shouldn't be judged for it etc etc... and then, 20 or 30 minutes later, when it came in to play, I'd be able to play with the audience's reaction, whatever it happened to be.

But of course I don't expect everyone to have a 100% recollection of the show and the way in which every word was said. And so a lot of people who had seen the show had a vague recollection that I'd once said something about the new pound coin and the fear of change and then they read the story about the prize and suddenly I was receiving dozens of tweets from nice people saying things like this...


and also this...

And plenty of others like it.

At which point the 140 character limit makes it tricky to explain.  Because what I want to say is, "yes you heard something similar on my show, but you've forgotten the fact that I was sort of disowning it because it's not my joke it's one of those jokes that everyone thought of but I had a good reason for saying it, but at the same time please don't think I'm being really judgemental about the person who won the prize because I don't know the context in which it sits in his show but I do know that every joke in the list has been taken out of context in some way but people are happy to receive positive PR during a very competitive festival so let's not rain on his parade."

In acknowledging that the joke had appeared in the show, some people thought I was claiming it as mine and wanted to tell me that it was a shit joke I shouldn't be proud of. In explaining that I knew the joke was unoriginal and had been in the show in that context, I appeared to be critical of Ken Cheng. Which I don't think is fair either. Good luck to him.

Also: it's only a bloody joke.

By the way, if you want to watch the show, it's on UKTV Play as are the 28 other episodes from series 1 to 4.



Friday, March 3, 2017

A Yahoo Spokesperson Speaks

If you're not sure what this is about, it's probably worth reading yesterday's blogpost... and possibly the long post before that one...

But here's Yahoo's response. I've screen grabbed it from the email so that I make sure I maintain the context.



It doesn't specifically answer any of the questions I raised yesterday but, at face value, it looks like exactly the right thing to say. They agree that these ads shouldn't be there. And they're telling us that they do take steps to stop it. Regularly.

It's just a shame that those steps don't seem to, y'know, actually succeed in stopping them...

Let me give you an example. On February 9th, I sent an email to Michael Todd and Gavin Patterson at BT with a screen grab of this ad:

The business name for the ad has been squeezed on the page, but it was businesscasestudies. The title for the ad is How Bannatyne Got Rich and the tag line is Learn more about Duncan's investment secrets.

The ad was also being served on Yahoo's home page etc.

If someone clicked on the ad they were taken to a URL that starts: http://eurowatch.money/gb/duncanwh.php

I've removed some digits from the end of that URL so that it no longer works - I don't want to send anyone there - but here's a screen grab of the page it lands on.

If you click on the picture and enlarge it, you should be able to read the text.

Or you could not bother and just trust me that it is  transparently untrue.

You know the sort of thing. There's a secret system. It always beats the market. You can't lose. And anyone can use it.

And Duncan Bannatyne's found out about it. And one of his friend's has accidentally revealed it. The way you do. And now there have been loads of national TV and newspaper articles about it - you know, you've seen them! Haven't you?

No wonder the establishment is running scared that everyone will find out about it. I mean, it won't be long before everyone's a millionaire.

Anyway... the important detail is that BT knew about this ad on February 9th.

On March 1st I sent Michael and Gavin another email. And this time I also included Charles Stewart (PR Manager, Public Policy, Yahoo). The email included a screen grab of this ad that was on Yahoo's home page that day.
That's an ad from businesscasestudies for How Bannatyne Got Rich with the tag line: Learn more about Duncan's investment secrets. The URL it pointed to started with http://eurowatch.money/gb/duncanwh.php

That's the same ad. With the same wording. Using the same company name. And pointing to the same website.

I also emailed them on March 2nd. Because it was still showing up that day.

I emailed them again this morning. Because it's still showing up today. Same picture. Same words. Same ad.

But it's okay, because we have their statement. So we know that they regularly take action to block ads in violation of their policies, as well as bad actors who work to circumvent their human and automated controls.

It's just that they haven't done so on this advertiser in the 22 days since they first became aware of them.

That's 22 days in which this deceptive and misleading ad appears to have been accepted by Yahoo. But let's not be misled by that evidence of fact. Their statement is more important than the facts before my eyes. The statement makes it perfectly clear: ads like this are unacceptable. It's just that it is, as I type, still accepted.

So that's that sorted.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

At what point does it become okay to say that British Telecom and Yahoo are knowingly profiting from fraud?

If you are against fraud but then find out that you're unwittingly profiting from it... and you could take steps to sever your connection to that fraud immediately... but you choose not to do so... and days - even weeks later - you're still profiting from that fraud... well then, at some point, isn't it fair to reach the conclusion that you're just, y’know, knowingly profiting from fraud?

And if that's the case, in what way are you, y'know, against fraud?

Marissa Mayer May 2014 (cropped)
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who profit from fraud
Photo used under CC licence.
Attrib: By Yahoo from Sunnyvale, California, USA
Gavin Patterson at Chatham House 2016
Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT, who profit from fraud.
Photo used under CC licence, attribution: By Chatham House






















At this point, I guess I ought to say that this blog post probably won't make a lot of sense unless you've read my post from a couple of days ago. It's long so I recommend making a cup of tea before you start, but it details how I frequently see BT and Yahoo carrying ads for fraud on their networks and how those ads continue to appear on their networks, often for days after they're reported.

By the way, when I say "fraud" I don't mean "things I don't like" or "products that I think don't work, grrr" I mean actual, criminal, steal-your-money, fraud.

Sometimes, weeks after they've acknowledged an ad is fraudulent, identical ads leading to the very same websites will still be appearing on their networks.

This seems to me to be negligent on their behalf. And as I've been corresponding with the two companies about it since July last year - and with particular frequency throughout February - I don't really see how either entity could claim to be ignorant of their role in enabling these scams to prosper.

This morning, I emailed Michael Todd (Executive Level Technical Complaints, BT), Gavin Patterson (CEO, BT) and Charles Stewart (PR Manager, Public Policy, Yahoo) the following few questions:

Question 1: Every time you run one of these ads, you expose your customers to the risk of fraud. Are ads subject to any kind of editorial review before they are accepted on to your network?

Question 2: If ads are subject to editorial review - how did these ads pass? Even allowing for human error, initially - how is it that ads you have been made aware of, continue to get through?

Question 3: It is now abundantly clear that, even after a month of pushing, Yahoo is a) unable to remove ads quickly and b) unable or unwilling to adequately block ads. In which case, do you agree that continuing to run ads through this system means you are now aware that fraudulent ads can and will get through and won't be removed promptly, exposing your customers to harm?

Question 4: BT's CEO has made it very clear that BT people should turn down business when it would force the company to compromise their principles. Does this compromise your principles? Or is there an acceptable amount of fraud that you are happy to expose your customers to?

They seem kind of shy of answering straight questions and have previously expressed a desire for me to not publicise the contents of our interactions thus far... but I don't think these are complicated questions - and I don't think there's anything here for companies of this scale to shy away from.

If they come back to me, I'll let you know what they say.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

British Sell-A-Con

The world was a bit simpler when I was a kid. I was brought up in Stafford, which is in the West Midlands. Which meant that the Midlands Electricity Board provided our electricity. and Stafford is in England which is a part of Britain and so, naturally, British Gas provided our gas. And British Telecom provided our telephone line. Simple.

Of course that was in the days before such things were privatised. And it was before the internet and mobile telephones were a part of our everyday lives. Nowadays everyone seems to offer everything. Sky TV don't just deliver satellite televison, they're internet service providers. British Gas provide electricity. Marks & Spencers provide gas. Tesco are a bank. And British Telecom are a TV sports channel, a satellite broadcaster, an internet service provider and a hawker of fraud. Admittedly that last one isn't something they do on purpose. But they do it. And - perhaps more to the point - even when they know they're doing it they seem unable to stop it happening.

Allow me to explain...

BT are my internet service provider. I have a btinternet dot com email address. I use my BT email for friends and family and other non-work related stuff. Adverts are a part and parcel of the experience although I don't often see them because I mostly deal with that email address on my desktop computer's mail program. It's only when I log in to webmail that I see the ads. The top of the page looks something like this:


As you can see BT provide their email in collaboration with Yahoo and, at the top of my inbox, there's an ad. It's normally for something innocuous. In the example above it's for Californian holidays. I don't mind that. I do mind when it's an ad for something that's altogether less wholesome... like this next example:


 That's an ad for something called The Oxford Method.

... and if you saw the fourth series of Modern Life Is Goodish last year, it might be ringing a faint bell or two.

Because last year, one of the episodes had a section about something called The Brit Method. And also the Aussie Method and the Canuck Method and the Irish Method and a whole lot more.


The Brit Method is a a con that sells the idea that a man has found a foolproof way of investing in Binary Options; a special method that guarantees success and will make anyone a millionaire... and that is mysteriously being offered, for free, to a select few.

All you have to do is invest some money. And then wait until you become rich. Unsurprisingly, there's no such thing as a foolproof way of making millions. People who fall for it will lose their money.

Now, Modern Life Is Goodish isn't Watchdog. We're not there to warn you off these sort of things - it was in the show to make some other point entirely. That said, I'm sure that nobody who saw the show could be in any doubt as to the nature of the thing. (If you're curious to know how and why it appeared in the show the episode is currently available on UKTVPlay, here.)


As you've no doubt twigged by now, The Oxford Method is just another Brit Method clone. I'm used to seeing ads for dodgy offerings such as this on awful clickbait sites and in other dark corners of the internet but I was surprised to see it being advertised somewhere as mainstream as British Telecom's network.

I might be wrong about this, but I reckon BT's history as a fundamental part of British life means they're likely to have an older client base than a lot of other internet providers. They're the trusted British brand that people have known all their lives. They represent 'the establishment' as much as is possible for a company in that business. I reckon a lot of people who find the internet a bit intimidating probably trust BT to deliver the service.

If that is the case then I think it follows that BT's customers are more vulnerable to this kind of con. And I think the BT brand confers a touch of respectability on the ads they carry. Doesn't an ad that appears as part of BT's branded content carry just a bit more authority than one that appears on one of those, "You won't believe what Susan Boyle looks like now" pieces of guff that so litter the information superhighway?

To be clear, I don't think any part of the internet should be carrying ads for this sort of fraud. Of course they shouldn't. But I can't help thinking that if a giant company like BT - who trade on a reputation of trust and respectability - are prepared to run ads of this nature then there's no hope of anyone else acting responsibly. It's like discovering your gran is dealing drugs. You know that people do it. But not her. Surely, not her!

It was July last year when I first saw the ad for the Oxford Method. I can't remember whether it was before or after we'd taped the show with the Brit Method content, but I know it was at a stage when it was too late to go messing around with the material and adding in more details. I knew what the Oxford Method was because of the research I'd been doing for the show - and it may be that the research I had been doing was one of the reasons the ad popped up on my inbox, but even so... if they're serving me the ad, they're serving it to other people too... and they shouldn't be.

It seemed obvious to me that BT weren't aware that this ad was on their network. The ads were probably bought and sold without much human interaction or oversight. I figured that once they discovered the ad was there, they'd remove it immediately. So I sent an email to BT letting them know it was there.

That was on July 4th. I sent it to the email address that shows up online if you search for the CEO of BT, Gavin Patterson because, in my experience, emailing a CEO is a pretty good way of accessing the highest level of technical support. I don't know if Gavin actually reads the emails that arrive at that address or not... but I'm pretty sure there's a team of people employed to respond to them that are more empowered than the regular staff on a regular helpline.

So I emailed Gavin explaining my concerns. And I thought the ads would disappear overnight. Only on July 5th they were still there. And on July 6th too. They did get back to me. On July 6th I spoke on the phone with someone called Michael Todd. He's an Executive Level Technical Complaints man, apparently. He was very polite and seemed genuinely concerned that the ads had been there. I don't remember the details of the call - because I wasn't expecting the thing to drag on and become this sort of a tale - but I'm pretty sure he explained that the ads weren't solicited, were sold via some kind of online auction process. More importantly, I got the impression that they'd now been dealt with.

And then, on the 7th July, I saw another ad for The Oxford Method.
The wording has changed. But even so. If the Executive Level Technical Complaints people aren't capable of blocking ads for a given name, something has to be amiss. If it takes them three days to try - and still they fail - then that's three days in which I think they can - and should - be held responsible for the ads.

If the people behind the ad are changing the wording in order to get around the block, doesn't that suggest that the ad is worth their while? And doesn't that suggest that a BT customer or two have fallen for it? Of course, I can't prove that someone fell for it, but I can't see why the scammers would persist if it wasn't a fruitful route for them, so it's surely a strong possibility. And that seems like an awful thing to have on one's conscience. 

Anyway. It was a busy time and I thought little more about it. I happily assumed that BT had got to grips with the issue. And for all I know they had. I was at home a lot more and so I had little or no need for webmail and so I wasn't seeing the space where the ads appear.

But then, on February 1st - nearly 7 months after our first exchange of dialogue on the subject - I saw another dodgy ad at the top of my BT mail. This time it wasn't for The Oxford Method. It was for The Brit Method.

So I emailed Gavin again. And again, Michael Todd was the man to reply. On February 3rd he explained that the scammers had got through by changing the name of the con. Which makes sense from one point of view. But is also basically admitting that the system is very easily abused that they're powerless to prevent it. In which case, I wonder if the system is fit for purpose?

We exchanged a couple of emails and on February 8th (Wednesday) Michael wrote telling me that he'd get back to me by the end of the week.

I didn't give him the time to do so... because I spent Thursday and Friday letting him know about other Binary Options scams being advertised on BT. Like this one:


This is even more alarming when I know that the bosses are aware of the problem and are trying to stop it. Especially given that they've explained they have category blocks and word blocks and other systems in place... because this means that words like "Increase your income" and "gets rich" and "over £10,000" aren't setting off any alarm bells...



Yes, those words could be used in a legitimate ad... but how often are they? And wouldn't having oversight of just those ads at least be possible?

Oh... and there was also this:


Which landed on this page of obviously fake newsiness about "secret money systems" and of-its-time references to the "political elite getting nervous about this secret getting out". Which tells you all you need to know about who this ad is aimed at. It's the already-feeling-beaten-up-by-life folks they're trying to seduce. It's the already-shafted who might end up getting shafted further.  

And those are just the two I saw on the 9th. On the 10th, I also let him know about this little lot...






... so that's DiCaprio, Dwight, Stallone, Winfrey and Hewson all dragged into this. It seems it's not just businessmen from popular culture... anyone from pop culture is up for grabs.

(Incidentally, while this is far from the biggest issue here... I reckon DiCaprio, Dwight, Stallone, Winfrey, Hewson, Bannatyne and Branson would all be rightly irked to discover their names and faces are being abused to help con people in this way... I wonder, what, if any recourse is available to them?)

All of these ads pointed to fake facebook pages using the domain fb dash biz dash news dot com... :



All these pages are essentially the same - if you click on the pictures they should enlarge enough to make the text legible.

Personally, I'm most fascinated by this man... 

He seems to be the closest friend of all five of these hugely famous showbiz legends. It's quite a feat for someone to be quite so well connected!

Especially when his un-pixellated face reveals him to be the Cyprus Government Spokesperson and Director of the Diplomatic Office of the President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nikos Christoulidis

You think he'd have enough on his plate dealing with Cypriot politics without finding time to hobnob with the stars.

Hmmm... maybe he isn't their closest friend after all. Maybe some crooks have just stolen his photo online and stuck it in their fake facebook page to make it look a bit more real somehow. 

I've exchanged plenty of emails with BT about these ads which continued to appear on my email for a good few days. I can't think of a good reason why an ad pointing to fb dash biz dash news dot com should be appearing on BT's network a day after BT know about the problem.. let alone two or three days after. But they were.

I asked Mr. Todd (Executive Level Technical Complaints, BT) if it was okay for me to quote our email exchange in this blog and he replied to say that it wasn't and that the information he'd given me was for my private use only. Although I'm not sure if I'm really allowed to tell you that as it was a part of the email exchange that I now know was for my eyes only.

But then it's not as if I have much information from him that I could not divine from the situation. It turns out - I believe - that the Oxford Method/Brit Method ads were all from one advertiser and that they have now been blocked. Which rather begs the question: why didn't they block them in July last year... why were they still allowed to be posting adverts seven months after they were first discovered.

Really the only information I have is that a lot of these ads have been getting through. And days after BT acknowledges them - and sometimes, days after BT tells me they've dealt with them - they still get through.

I know that nobody vets the ads before they go into the system... but I find it utterly bamboozling that everyone accepts this as the status quo. The advertising world has made a technological leap that streamlines the process and reduces the cost and that is just how it is. But the consequence of it appears to be that there is little anyone can do to prevent it from being abused by people who are trying to con the vulnerable. And that's a consequence that ought to make everyone involved a little uncomfortable.Isn't it?

And you can't have it both ways. BT makes in excess of 2 billion pounds a year. Either the ads are profitable enough to afford human oversight. Or they're not profitable enough to bother with at all.

Maybe they'd say that this new system allows for huge numbers of advertisers to push ads to fewer people? And maybe that makes human oversight impossible because of the sheer numbers of ads involved? In which case, don't accept the status quo. It means the system doesn't work. Implement a system where new advertisers have to go through some vetting that established advertisers don't have to endure. But make it a privilege that can be revoked. I don't understand the world in which a corporate giant just shrugs its corporate shoulders and accepts that they'll occasionally be used to advertise fraud.

Oh, incidentally... the CEO of BT, Gavin Patterson used to be the President of The Advertising Association. As I type this, Wikipedia still says that he is...


As it goes, his presidency ended a few years ago, but I'd like to think that an ex-President remains as committed to the aims of the group as anyone else. And according to Wikipedia, the role of the Advertising Association is...


"to promote and protect advertising in the UK by creating and maintaining a climate of responsibility amongst advertising practitioners, encouraging moderation from regulators and building trust with consumers"

Way to go, Gavin.

I suppose there's something broader at work here - something that is an internet-wide problem. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Flickr etc would be unable to function if they had to take legal responsibility for every tweet, post, video and photo that was uploaded to their site. It's not possible to check every bit of content before it's published.

And so, by analogy, maybe we have to accept that in this democratised, online world of ours, companies like BT and Yahoo just can't be held legally responsible for the ads they carry because they work in the same way. But there is a counterweight to that situation - and that's a responsibility to remove inappropriate content in a timely fashion the moment they are aware of it.

I might be wrong, but I can't see anywhere on the BT/Yahoo mail page that acknowledges there's even a possibility that fraudulent ads might appear there or that explains a quick and easy way to report one. And my experience demonstrates that they're simply not able to act quickly enough when they are aware. Ads like these simply shouldn't still be in the system days after a company knows about them.

I know this is an extremely long post. And I don't know what I hope to achieve by it... but I can't help thinking that the idea that online-fraud is just one of those things we have to accept is just bizarre. And if a company with the clout of BT is unable to deal with it properly... then who the hell can?


PS: a couple of days after I emailed Michael Todd and asked if I could quote our email chain on my blog I was contacted by someone called Charles Stewart who works for Yahoo PR in the States. He asked if we could have an off-the-record chat about it all. I wrote back explaining that I'd love to chat but that I didn't want to make it off-the-record. It seems to me that what's needed is more transparency here, not less... That was six days ago. He hasn't got back to me yet.

It's only fair to point out that in those past six days I haven't seen a dodgy ad on my BT/Yahoo webmail page.

But today, on Yahoo's home page, I saw this...
... which is an ad for - drum roll please - The Brit Method. The website it takes you to isn't some new URL that could have easily slipped past their radars... it's Brit dash Method dot com.

Which, by my reckoning, means one of two things.
1: Yahoo and BT are aware of this issue, are trying to stop these ads and are still failing
2: Yahoo and BT are aware of this issue, have successfully stopped these ads from appearing on their shared webmail page, but are happy to allow ads they know are fraudulent to appear elsewhere.

I'm not sure either of those casts them in a flattering light...


************************UPDATE************************
Last night - after posting this, I checked my email on an ipad... and the ad for the Brit Method was there also...
 

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