Kilts and Tartan – right and wrong…

Apparently tartan (or plaid as our American chums will insist on calling it) is going to be big fashion news this Winter. To be fair, tartan usually makes a resurgence this time of year – as the nights draw in and we start thinking about boots and thick jumpers instead of flip-flops and tshirts, a lovely warm wool tartan is an obvious choice. To clear up the whole tartan/plaid confusion once and for all, a kilt is the garment, a plaid is the optional long length worn over the shoulders and tartan is the name of the checked pattern itself. Okay?

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Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 20.45.41It’s pretty easy for ladies – a short, unfussy skirt with black tights and boots is always a winner (be inspired by Dr Who’s gorgeous companion, Clara Oswald, left). If you’re not a fan of the schoolgirl / schoolmarm look, or not so confident about your legs, you could always try some 1950s vintage glamour with these amazing outfits from Vivien of Holloway.

But just in case your man is planning to break out in tartan or a kilt (and as you may have realised, I think there should be much, much more of this kind of thing), I thought I’d give y’all a handy guide to some ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. I’ve even researched some suitable pictures (oh, the things I do for my readers…)

The key thing for men is simplicity and a degree of ruggedness. No frills, no bows, and for mercy’s sake, watch out for the size of that sporran.  These guys all get it very RIGHT

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From top left: 1. The divine Sam Heughan (Outlander), always a joy to behold. 2. Liam Neeson in Rob Roy. 3. Richie Gray, ‘scrummy’ Scottish Rugby player – he’s damn near 7ft tall, so how did they even find enough material to make that kilt?  4. Unknown, but loving the Aran sweater and chunky socks combo. 5. Ewan Macgregor on the red carpet (he doesn’t always get it right, and those sock suspenders are worrying, but the casual look works on him). 6. Graham McTavish (Outlander’s Dougal Mackenzie), showing that older guys can look fab with a bit of attitude. 7. His Royal Highness Sean Connery (has a worrying tendency to break out in frilly jabots, looks much better in this black crew neck). 8. Bernie Williams – okay, so he’s American and plays baseball, but he’s still totally rocking that green velvet jacket. 9. Rod Stewart (should really be wrong, but somehow he carries it off in a strange 1970’s kinda way…)

Wrongness, on the other hand, comes in many forms. Once you stray too far from the basic template, you are absolutely heading for trouble…

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From top left: 1. Burberry model – too bright, too tight, hideous socks. 2. Christopher Lambert in Highlander – I love him to bits, but accessorising with a dead bear and unwashed hair is SO not a good look. 3. Gerard Butler – controversial, I know, as he’s a bit of a hottie, but this leather kilt with pink cashmere sweater is somehow trying too hard. 4. Camouflage Grandad – JUST SAY NO! 5. Wedding Model – I’m not impressed by the business-suited top half, even for a wedding, and there’s absolutely NO excuse for that dead horse sporran. 6. Moschino Catwalk model –  looks like a teenage yeti in pyjamas. With a bumbag. 7.  Golfwear Model – Tartan suit, tie AND scarf? Much too matchy-matchy. 8. Rod Stewart again – Donald where’s yer troosers (and your shirt?) 9. Arghh. Just plain WRONG on EVERY possible level.

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 07.55.07Kilt Length:  This is always tricky, especially for the taller chap – in the pic to the right, Kevin McKidd (on left, with plaid) gets it spot on. By contrast, his Gray’s Anatomy co-star Patrick Dempsey (right) gets it very, very wrong – he looks more ‘cheerleader’ than ‘highlander’. C’mon Dempsey – if Richie Gray can find a kilt to fit, there’s no excuse for you. This leads us on to…

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 12.04.20Kilt Etiquette:  Again, this can be problematic. We all know that chaps are supposed to go commando under their kilt, but this can lead to certain – ahem – hazards.

Gentlemen, if you are wearing a kilt, Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.12.16please learn how to sit with your knees pressed firmly together… How this fellow (left) didn’t get court-martialled, I will never know.  And if you do decide to take the safe route out and wear pants, please don’t do a Richard Branson and display your novelty knickers…

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 15.51.48Dudes, if you think tartan’s somehow not masculine enough, consider this – following the Battle of Culloden, wearing tartan was considered an act of insurgency in Scotland, punishable by six months in prison. South of the border, this made tartan fashionable for anyone in love with the lost cause of the Jacobites. A Scottish tourist, visiting England in 1748, noted young people clad in checks in defiance of their government – they were the very first tartan-wearing rebel “punks”. Now imagine telling Johnny Rotten (left) that you think tartan is a wee bit girlie…

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 14.42.40To be on the safe side, why not take your cues from some fictional heroes? Most men dismiss the kilt as impractical for everyday wear and it’s true that in the Outlander books, Jamie Fraser’s as often in breeches as he is in a kilt – but Outlander star Sam Heughan (right) became a convert to the practicalities of his character’s feileadh mhor, or traditional kilt: “It’s a long bit of cloth… about seven, eight foot long, and they are basically used as a tool. The Highlanders would use them to wear to keep themselves warm. You could use it as a sleeping bag. You could use it as camouflage to blend into the background.  They also had lots of pockets and you could wear them in different ways. … It took a long time to get used to it, but it’s a real joy to work with it, and you can find various uses. I mean, we even discovered you can use it as a shield you can wrap around your arm.” 

In Lizzie Lamb’s delightful Scotch on the Rocks, whisky-loving American hero Brodie wears his family tartan with a t-shirt and leather biker jacket (just like Sam Heughan) – much to the satisfaction of Scottish heroine Issy… And even James Bond, the quintessential English spy, is really half-Scottish (and therefore potentially kilted) in Ian Fleming’s original books.  Sadly the only film to feature Bond in a kilt is George Lazenby’s sole outing, On her Majesty’s Secret Service – though (coincidentally?) it’s also the only film in which Bond actually gets to marry the girl…

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 14.00.04And then, of course, there’s Rupert Bear. Yellow checks aren’t a look everyone could pull off (or frankly, would want to), but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Rupert Bear annuals I was given every Christmas as a child may have started my whole strange fondness for tartan…

The Oldest Profession?

No, it’s not what you’re thinking – according to the eternally fabulous Terry Pratchett,              “The oldest profession is that of flint-knapper, a confusion which has caused many an embarrassed misunderstanding in quarries everywhere.”    (From The Discworld Companion)

Anyway, I’ve been reading a lot about Prehistoric Britain recently – it started because my children were studying the Stone Age at school, and then (as is the way of these things) I got interested and decided to read on…  Peering back through the obscurity of many thousands of years, little physical evidence survives of our Neanderthal and Early Human ancestors – vital clues about how humankind developed therefore come from the stone tools these early people made and used.  After reading (in great detail) about the development of hand axes and flint arrow heads, I leapt at the chance to spend a couple of hours at Torquay Museum with a master flint-knapper, archaeologist Phil Harding (the engagingly enthusiastic, Wiltshire-accented one from Channel 4’s Time Team programme).

Phil Harding & Museum Curator Basil Greenwood examining the Kent's Cavern jawbone.

Phil Harding & Museum Curator Barry Chandler examining the Kent’s Cavern jawbone.

The flint-knapping event was organised by Torquay Museum to tie-in with their new exhibition about Britain’s First Humans. It features the Boxgrove Shinbone, a half-a-million years old fragment of one of the earlier human lines, Homo Heidelbergensis, and also showcases a piece of jawbone excavated in 1927 from Kent’s Cavern, which is just a mile or so from the museum. The jawbone has been extensively analysed, and in 2010 was dated at over 41,000 years old, making it the earliest known relic of our type, Homo Sapiens, in North West Europe. This is why archaeology is so bloody amazing – a tiny two-inch scrap of jawbone clinging onto a couple of yellowed teeth gives us a poignant point of human contact across the millennia. It proves there were people living in the Devon hills and woodlands thousands of years ago, people who in evolutionary terms, were exactly like us.

PH sLuckily, Phil Harding is not just an expert flint-knapper, he’s a great showman – keeping a roomful of people from toddlers to octogenarians riveted while you whack seven shades out of a great lump of rock is quite a feat.  Using his replica stone-age tools, a soft hammer (made from deer antler) and a hard hammer (basically a large round pebble) he soon transformed a huge nodule of chalk-covered virgin flint into a usable hand axe. The techniques are actually very subtle and skilled – successful flint-knapping is about calculating angles and pressure to ensure the rock flakes shear off and create the correct shape for the tool. Even an old-hand like Phil (he’s been knapping since he was a boy) can be thrown by natural flaws in the rock.  An internal fracture in the flint nodule cracked off a larger chunk of rock than he’d intended, which meant that Phil’s demonstration piece ended up a tad smaller than usual, although it fitted perfectly into my small hand.

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The finished hand axe. Sharp edged and beautiful.

And this is where I got a little shiver up my spine… About halfway through Phil’s knapping process, the axe was already usable. The basic tool was right there, with its twin cutting edges and the rounded ergonomic shape that snugs into the palm for ease of use. And yet, the vast majority of ancient hand axes go way past this basic point of utility. The makers spent extra time refining the shape, perfecting the symmetry, chipping carefully and subtly at the edges to create a perfect teardrop. These axes aren’t just lumps of rock that do an effective job of skinning and butchering a deer, they look good, feel good in the hand. They are not merely functional, they are also beautiful.

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The reverse side, showing some of the original chalk cortex.

This process of designing an object for the sake of the tactile and visual pleasure it gives, reminded me of my previous post about Alexander McQueen’s fashion designs (here). Some archaeologists have speculated that the creation and possession of elaborate tools was a way of proving one’s worth in order to attract better mates – that the hand axe became a status symbol, the Porsche or Rolex watch of the ancient world. To me, that seems too obvious, too reductive an explanation. I prefer to believe that for our Palaeolithic forebears in the distant past, the urge to craft something they could take pride in, to create something beautiful for the sake of beauty, was as strong as it is today.

For more about Torquay Museum and the First Humans exhibition, visit:

http://www.torquaymuseum.org

Savage Beauty

“There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible” 

Alexander McQueen

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The Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A in London finally closed yesterday – it has been declared the best-selling exhibition in the Museum’s history, with over 480,000 visitors, and the gallery opening overnight for the first time to cope with demand. I’m not surprised – I visited it last month at the insistence of my fashionista friend, the Divine Miss P, and was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t the static display of clothes in glass cases I’d expected, but an immersive, disturbing, exhilarating experience. From the very first image, of Alexander McQueen’s face morphing into one of his trademark skulls, I was swept up into a dark and disturbing world orchestrated by a soundscape of music which incorporated throbbing bass heartbeats, anguished/ecstatic female moans, tapping typewriter keys, birdsong, and the banjo theme from Deliverance (which influenced one of his fashion collections). Surrounded by plate glass and tarnished, clouded mirrors, the senses were ravished and assaulted; exactly the effect, one imagines, that McQueen would have wanted.

It’s part of the new museum experience – you don’t just look at artefacts and read their labels, you ‘interact’ with the exhibits. At the Natural History Museum, that means the fascinating old bottles of pickled animal specimens have been banished to a cellar in favour of computerised dinosaurs  – here, it means you experience the grandeur, the passion and the downright freaky weirdness of a fashion designer’s imagination.

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This is the closest I get to fashion – a TopShop ‘re-imagining’ of an Alexander McQueen design, bought second-hand from eBay.

I’m not exactly a couture lady – as someone who loosely identifies as feminist, the bullshit attitudes of the beauty world stick in my craw, and besides, I’ve not got the figure, the finances or frankly the energy for fashion.  But I do find the creative instincts and processes behind these collections fascinating. McQueen was essentially a story teller using clothes instead of words, and the stories he tells are warped fairytales, slices of bloody history, flights of dark and twisted fancy – the skull beneath the skin.

It’s hardly surprising that McQueen was prey to stress, to depression. Imagine the pressure of creating something this vibrant, this novel, every season – making two themed collections each year, and never compromising on your dramatic edge. McQueen said he never had any problem finding inspiration, and the range of influences here seems to bear that out; from African wildlife to futuristic sea creatures, from bondage and fetish-wear to Japanese chrysanthemums, from Dutch Old Masters and religious iconography to Romantic poets and the darker days of British history.

HSome themes recur – Highland Rape (1995) and the Widows of Culloden (2006) both drew on McQueen’s Scottish roots, and the devastation wrought by the English clearance of the Highlands following the Jacobite rebellion. The first show became McQueen’s calling card, with ‘bumster’ trousers cut low enough to reveal bottom cleavage and his favourite erogenous zone at the base of the spine, and bare-breasted, battered-looking models sent down the runway in ripped lace and tattered tartan. It caused outrage and condemnation in Daily Mail reading circles, and delight in the fashion world. It made McQueen a household name and launched the High Street trend for low-slung jeans which generated the dreaded ‘muffin top’ in every woman bigger than a size 10.

 

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‘The Widows of Culloden’ revisited the theme, but played less on the violence of the Highland clearances, and more on the enduring tragedy of a lost generation. These outfits are Victorian mourning laced with punk attitude –  grey tartan and oppressively tight-buttoned corsets, froths of black tulle with kick-ass boots, a melancholic wedding-dress featuring tiers of tea-stained ivory lace, stag antlers piercing the veil. That show concluded with an old Victorian stage-trick called Pepper’s Ghost – an optical illusion using carefully angled mirrors to project a ghostly transparent image onto the stage.  In McQueen’s vision, we are haunted by an ethereal Kate Moss, twisting and turning in a cloud of swirling frayed muslin like unravelling bandages, a spectral bride rising from the sepulchre. Even knowing how the illusion is worked, the vision brings a chilling, delicious shudder to your spine.

 

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The dark heart of the exhibition is the towering, mahogany-panelled ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – an imposingly high-ceilinged room lined with niches containing the most elaborate and alarming one-off pieces from his collections. Death and decay lurks all around you, the fragile and ephemeral juxtaposed with hard bone and metal. Chrome exoskeletons lurk like costumes from a ‘Predator’ movie, a headdress features hundreds of hand-painted red feather butterflies, carved prosthetic limbs, jewelled gimp masks, iron and leather shackles, taxidermy as a fashion accessory…  You are trapped in the private collection of a twisted Victorian explorer as he reveals his most coveted, disturbing trophies – too long in the twilight world of strange sights and half-recognised sounds leaves you restless and twitchy.

_81613379_tv026283899There is an element of the grotesque to much of McQueen’s work – even as you admire the artistry of the vision and the craftsmanship of each perfectly constructed article, you are repelled by the subtext. Every mannequin in the exhibition is masked or hooded, features obscured, rendered literally faceless. Although many of his clothes flatter and celebrate the female form, the extreme make-up, spiked jewellery and metal restraints that accessorise his collections suggest a degree of fear of femininity and a need to control. This is the starved dark underbelly of fashion, where waiflike teenage bodies sell a warped version of sexuality to people with more money than sense. From a girl spinning helplessly while robots spraypaint her pristine white dress, to a plump naked woman lying in a mirror-box full of moths, models splashing awkwardly through shallow pools of waScreen Shot 2015-08-03 at 21.36.37ter or encircled by flames, his shows generated feelings of unease, a sense of impending violence.

Even the ‘pretty’ clothes displayed here have disturbing undercurrents. One collection showed vintage-style summer dresses adorned with ruffled layers of fabric flowers in sweet sugared almond colours – yet the catwalk show included real flowers that fell to the floor as the models walked, to be trampled underfoot and destroyed.

treeThe 2008 collection ‘ The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’ was inspired by dreams McQueen had about an ancient Elm in his garden. The costumes conjured decadent images of the British Empire, opulent gowns swagged with falls of rich brocade and gold-embroidered velvet that seemed too heavy for the frail, doll-like models. Dainty high-waisted dresses and delicate slippers encrusted with crystals tree1evoked Jane Austen heroines, while tightly braided military jackets teamed with puffy net skirts hinted at a Regency hero in drag.

The show-stopper was a scarlet coat of almost architectural construction – I can’t describe how dextrously the yards of silk were sculpted into rolling billows and pleats. It’s a coronation robe designed for an evil queen, what the Empress of China would wear if she’d been channeling Maleficent.

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‘Plato’s Atlantis’ was the final collection completed before McQueen’s death in 2010 – a surreal vision of (wo)mankind ‘de-evolving’ into some species of amphibian, complete with gills and fins. The beautiful body hugging dresses in gorgeous metallic digital prints are like futuristic fish skins, but the feet are hobbled by 10inch high ‘Armadillo’ shoes. When the show’s stylist was terrified the models would fall and break their ankles, McQueen allegedly said, ‘Let them fall’.

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The models survived unscathed, but McQueen himself fell; depressed and grief-stricken, he committed suicide one day before the funeral of his beloved mother. Suddenly those skull scarves and bone masks looked less ironic, more chilling; newspapers rushed to document McQueen’s tormented personal history, friends and family to defend him.

Ultimately, his short, explosive, creative life and tragic death have become part of his mythology – working-class boy made good, Romantic hero, tortured artist – leaving behind this legacy of strange and savage beauty.

 

If you’d like a taster of the V&A exhibition, visit: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-alexander-mcqueen-savage-beauty/

For the eerie Pepper’s Ghost illusion, watch the last few minutes of the ‘Widows of Culloden’ catwalk show here: http://www.alexandermcqueen.com/experience/en/pages/alexandermcqueen/archive/?years=2006#id_article=220

 

 

 

In praise of perfume

In which buying a new fragrance triggers thoughts of things past…

Scent is the most mysterious, primal sense of all – have you ever had your mouth water and your tummy rumble at the aroma of frying bacon, or been fore-warned not to eat something in the fridge by an unusual odour? How about feeling comforted by the smell of your mother’s skin-cream, aroused by the scent of your lover’s hair or returned to your teenage years by the sweetness of candyfloss and popcorn?

Classic advert for Miss Dior - 1950s

Classic advert for Miss Dior – 1950s

This is the Proustian Effect, when a smell unleashes a flood of memories, taking you back to a particular time and place. The theory is named after the French writer Marcel Proust, who in his novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) describes a character vividly recalling long-forgotten childhood memories after smelling a madeleine cake dipped in linden-blossom tea. Proust wasn’t actually the first to describe the ability of smells to trigger memory – experts suggest the link is due to the close proximity of the parts of our brains linked with processing smells, and those controlling emotion and memory.

 

 

Smell is so important – not just for everyday enjoyment, but as a basic human survival trait. Anosmia – the lack of a sense of smell as a result of medication, a head injury or even a very bad cold, can trigger depression and a withdrawal from life. In my short story Making Sense (see here), the heroine suffers from Hyperosmia, a massively heightened sense of smell, which leaves her able to ‘see’ traces of fragrance floating like colours on the air.  I have a sensitivity to smell which leaves me sniffing around the house for stray abandoned socks, burying my nose gleefully in roses as I walk past my neighbours’ gardens, and can leave me nauseous while in the throes of a migraine.

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Art Nouveau style perfume ad – 1920s.

Scent has the power to sicken, stimulate, comfort or arouse and so it’s surprising that perfume features only fleetingly in literature. Oscar Wilde used exotic fragrances as an extended metaphor for decadent, tainted luxuriousness in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and scents feature in romance stories as easy shorthand for the sweetness of the heroine / manliness of the hero – but perfume is rarely the centre, the driving force of a novel. An exception is Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume – the story of a murderer’, which follows the ‘de-scent’ into madness of a perfume obsessive, determined to capture the fragrance of beautiful virgins – a hugely popular book which stayed on the bestselling lists in Germany for nine years. The film of the book was a disaster, possibly because film is utterly unable to capture the magic of scent (which is why perfume ads have always been glossy, glamorous fictions selling an imagined, potential lifestyle, rather than making any real attempt to explain what they actually smell like).

Perfumes%20paperbackThe best book written on perfume has to be ‘Perfumes – The A-Z Guide’ by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. A comprehensive guide to nearly 2,000 commercially-available perfumes, with descriptions and ratings, this isn’t just a handbook, but a fabulous read, full of flavour, humour and anecdotes – a love story to perfume in all its forms. Lauded by writers including Hilary Mantel and Joanne Harris, the book inspired a love story of its own; after corresponding via email, and writing the book together, the authors (a renowned biophysicist and a journalist) fell in love and married.

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As the advert voiceover said – “Is this you touching me or me touching you? I don’t know where I end and you begin..”

We wear perfume because we like the smell ourselves, because it reflects (we hope) something about our personalities, and for the reaction we hope the scent will trigger in others. I remember meeting an ex-boyfriend years after we’d broken up and him sniffing appreciatively and saying – “You smell exactly how I remember you!” It was a surprise, because I wasn’t wearing the romantic, expensive Calvin Klein Eternity he used to buy for me (I loved its weird blend of roses, white wine and TCP antiseptic), but basic old Body Shop White Musk, the safest, cleanest, most sensible scent there is, the teenage-girl perfume I’d been wearing when we’d first met, many years before.

Ahhh… The Body Shop. I’ve never quite forgiven them for abandoning their Dewberry range and then reformulating the divine, marzipan and Play-doh Vanilla scent of the 1980s into something that smells like a cheap car-freshener.  Venturing into a Body Shop recently to buy some talcum powder for the Mother-in-Law, I idly spritzed my wrists with their latest offering – and was blown away…

The Body Shop’s new Italian Summer Fig is a dead-ringer (or whatever the olfactory equivalent is) for one of my favourite perfumes, Premier Figuier by L’Artisan Parfumeur.  Actually, this obscure but award-winning French perfume house makes several of my favourite perfumes – they’re famous for taking simple single notes, like smoky Lapsong Souchong tea, fresh figs or ripe blackberries and blending them into complex scents that smell delicious, fresh and real. But as poor writers can seldom afford to splash out over £70 a time for their scents, this Body Shop ‘smell-a-like’ seems like an absolute bargain at a quarter of the price.

I begged the Body Shop staff to sell me a bottle, (which they obligingly fetched from a back room, as it wasn’t officially supposed to launch until today), and I’ve been happily wearing it for the past month, fig 2feeling delightfully fresh and summery. The composition of the fragrance, according to their blurb, “opens with sparkling, refreshing shades of green notes and vine leaves, combined with honey fruit figs. The heart adds floral flavors of rose spiced with saffron while the base calms down the floral-fruity union with warm, woody notes of oak and amber.” The language of perfume can be as pretentious as wine-tasting; to me, Italian Summer Fig simply blends the fresh outdoorsy smell of green leaves with sweet, powdery coconut-milk, smelling exactly like, well, a perfectly ripe fig. And that, as far as I am concerned, is a very good thing.

 

 

Girl on film

Is this what they call a triple threat?

Is this what they call a triple threat?

Okay, so they’re not *quite* as sexy as the iconic Duran Duran video for Girls on Film (released over 30 years ago, though it seems like yesterday…) but the videos I’ve been helping to make for work are now available!

I’ve been telling clients for ages that they need to harness the power of YouTube to promote their businesses – and now I have first hand experience of making videos, I’ll be pushing that route even harder.

I was lucky enough to work with a professional videographer – the talented and eternally amiable Tom Turner from Paramore Productions, who guided me (and some very nervous clients) through the filming process.  Tom’s patience and humour helped the clients relax into telling their stories – and his ‘Which film-star do you look like?’ game had me giggling… we had a dead-ringer for James McAvoy on the Plymouth shoot, and I apparently have Sandra Bullock’s cheekbones (though not her figure or salary, sadly…)

Outset Client Anthony Bueno from A & R Events and Promotions.

It was amazing to see the attention to detail that goes into making a simple ‘talking heads’  film – Tom had me fluffing face-powder on a clients’s bald spot, he took painstaking efforts to maximise lighting to flatter skin tones, and he also has ears like a bat, picking up the sound of a hand-dryer running elsewhere in the building before it had a chance to ruin the recording. Filming wasn’t without difficulties – the lurid green-screen in the Plymouth studio gave every interviewee a strobing aura, which left me with a screaming migraine, and gave Tom plenty of virtual headaches during the edit – but the end results are exactly what we wanted.

You won’t see me on the final versions – I’ve been lost in the edit, as they say, which was always the deal. My role was simply to interview the clients to camera, so their stories could be captured, and hopefully, to then inspire other people to take the leap into self-employment and start their own business. If you’re interested, you can take a look at the finished videos here.