Sunday, 18 November 2012


Saturday, 8.30am: the last day of the Banned Insubstance shoot: this evening we are to be ejected from our Nexus Art Café studio, and leading man Lockwood leaves town (and cuts his hair).

My phone vibrates but it is not the alarm clock function. It is a text from leading man Lockwood. For the third day in a row, he is too sick to act. Lockwood plays the character of Harley Byrne, whose memoirs our series is adapted from. Therefore, Byrne is in every scene. If he didn’t witness it, it didn’t go in his book. His absence is a problem.

On Thursday, when Lockwood first bailed, we got round it by replacing him with a three inch wooden doll in miniature plasticine costume and just shooting his long shots. By Friday, there was nothing else we could do this way, and the crew were all sent home to bed, with instructions not to get ill. Saturday morning, however, when the phone vibrates at 8.30am, I know we have an important day ahead with guest star Amanda Belantara: a noted filmmaker in her own right, and former high school drama queen who has taken acting lessons especially for her come-back this week. She is to play Yolanda, the corrupt National Olympid Committee official who tries to put Byrne off the scent by seducing him. (James Bond sleeps with spies to get information. Spies sleep with Harley Byrne so he’ll forget he was looking for information).

Without hesitation, I decide to shoot Yolanda’s scenes without Lockwood – to ‘film around’ him. This is the UNIVERSAL EAR spirit: gaps, inconsistencies, improbabilities, impossibilities.

11am: Belantara arrives at the studio in futuristic dreamcatcher earrings from Superdrug (so 2012 people wear such things too?) and inflates her hair to 2112AD proportions with the Super-feeble Hold spray we previously upturned in the Nexus junk room. Her husband, our soundie, “On The” Mike Cacioppo arrives minutes later, sickening for something but determined not to let us down. At several points during the day I feel the urge to embrace him for his dedication but choose not to because of the germs.

Cacioppo spraying raw light instead of raw germs

The first shot is from towards the end of the movie, when (without giving too much away) Yolanda presents Byrne with a medal for his athletic feats. How to shoot it without our Byrne? This one’s easy: we create a podium in front of our blue bedsheet sky so that Byrne’s head will be three feet higher than Yolanda’s. The bedsheet sky is by this point in the week creased and uneven: we decide this is due to some kind of environmental catastrophe occurring between now and 2112. Cacioppo towers over Lockwood heightwise, and the only other person on set today is production assistant (and so much more) Jennifer Jordan, a female. Thus it falls to me to double for Lockwood from the neck down (Byrne is redheaded and heavily bearded; I am silver-topped and sport designer stubble).

Once I’m up on the podium and we’ve blocked the scene we recall that I am meant to be the cinematographer and there is no-one else on set to operate Doris, the Super 8 camera. I call out instructions to Jordan from the podium and within minutes she is cinematographing the movie and any mystique I had as the sole operator of our mechanical eye evaporates.

The big project of the day, though, is designing and building the set for Yolanda’s office, a 22nd century lair equally equipped for bureaucracy and love. With the latter in mind, we note that the arch at the far end of our tiny studio is oddly suggestive, and elect to hang a pair of purple faux-silk curtains from (again) the Nexus junk room over a wooden frame from an ornate old wardrobe. Cacioppo, whose health is visibly fading, spends several hours trying to hang the frame evenly and centrally from the three awkward pegs a previous occupant has hammered randomly into the ledge above our gynaecological arch.

Jordan and Belantara

Belantara and I raid the junk room one last time for stuff to dress the set with. In Banned Insubstance, 22nd century Greece has missed out on the Singularity as a knock-on effect of today’s economic crisis. As a result, while the rest of the world is an unimaginable techno-utopia, Olympia in 2112 is meant to look a bit like Luton in the 1980s. Therefore we are pretty chuffed to find both an empty box of Black Magic chocolates and an early ‘80s hardback history of Vogue magazine for Yolanda’s desk.

Back in the studio, Cacioppo has created what is supposed to be a circular window for Yolanda’s office out of paper, bedsheet and PVC tape. He has been hindered in this process by the dripping of his nose onto his art materials. The circle is a bit flat on top and bulgy down below. “This is what has happened to circles by the year 2112,” croaks Cacioppo, and we humour him. The office, though, looks fantastic.

Belantara with Yolanda's personal crest
Lockwood arrives on set to get his stuff just as we are to begin run-throughs. He watches from the side, his malady now compounded by the sight of me out-acting him in his signature role, the time-traveller Harley Byrne. The credit will all go to him though: only my shoulders and one knee will be in shot. We bid the poor sod farewell and he leaves for his train. I nip into the Zine Library in the next room to get back into costume. My Harley Byrne shorts won’t stay up. “Didn’t these have a belt this morning?” Yes, I’m told. It was Lockwood’s and he took it back before he left. A final insult.

Belantara shimmers and dazzles as the strong and sultry Yolanda, a woman with a secret but who makes no secret of her desire to explore the full realm of physical and metaphysical experience available to old-skool, pre-Singularity human beings. Her attention to the nuances of vocal and gestural effect recalls the natural cinematic presence of Elizabeth Taylor, though I nearly ruin it all the first time she sits on my knee when my phone starts vibrating in my pocket. “Look, it’s my phone. Really. My phone.” Meanwhile, Jordan has created a rig for Doris out of crates and a broken old chair, so as to exploit the only possible angle from which to film Belantara sitting on my stand-in leg and gazing into my eyes without showing my face or hair.

Having accomplished this cinematographic feat, Jordan leaves to catch her coach home to Leeds; with no more sound to get, Cacioppo makes what may prove to be his last stand, prising his failing eyes open to film his wife stroking my leg. “That’s a wrap!” we yell at each other when its done (Cacioppo sort of whimpers), overlooking the fact that we’ve shot barely half the film we set out to this week and that the production will have to be powered up again in the new year. The fact is, regardless of our failures this week, today we achieved the impossible – with feathers, gold paint and snot. 

Yolanda (Amanda Belantara) at her desk; Cacioppo takes a well-earned biscuit

TONITE Harley Byrne: Library of Postures and Expressions with live music TONITE

Harley Byrne: Library of Postures and Expressions will play at Video Jam 4 in Rusholme tonight, with a live improvised musical accompaniment. Sorry for the late notice. We've been busy. Do come along.

Harley Byrne: Library of Postures and Expressions @ Video Jam 4
WHERE: Antwerp Mansion, Rusholme Grove, off the Curry Mile, Wilmslow Rd, M14 5AG  
WHEN: Sunday, 18th November 2012, 7pm - late  
COST: £2 on door


Friday, 16 November 2012


Lockwood texts in sick. We immediately scale down the production.

When Dr Who gets sick, do they regenerate him as tiny wooden man?

Thursday, 15 November 2012


Wednesday. We mess Lockwood up and Peter Easterbrook arrives to play Harley's brother, Santiago Byrne - the degenerate and Temporal Cubist who Harley reluctantly relies upon for his time-travel needs.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


Tuesday: Today’s guest star has left five grand’s worth of photographic equipment on the tram: fortunately, it is his own gear and is nothing to do with our production, except that in frantically hailing a taxi and chasing the tram across town, Garth Williams has made himself late for work at Universal Ear Studios.

But we have plenty to be getting on with before he arrives. Lockwood is attempting to replicate the sky with blue bedsheets from Primark and a new staple gun which he can’t switch off ‘safety’. Jennifer Jordan is striving on with the mobile foliage unit (MFU), which must go mobile today. And I am scouring the Methodist building above for a filmable door frame. We have just one day to film Williams’ cameo.

All of which playful productivity lapses into a late lunch when Williams, wide-eyed and sweating, joins us underground. It’s somewhat of a relief for me to see him like this as Williams – who had a supporting role singing and dancing in our musical It’s Nick’s Birthday – is an accomplished renaissance man, talented in many fields: actor, filmmaker, vaudevillian, a maker of fine chocolate brownies. Whilst we have a lot of talent involved with Universal Ear, there’s always the fear that someone new’s going to come on set and call my bluff. Primark sky? What are you playing at?

Thankfully, the tram incident has left Williams vulnerable and I’m able to puncture his confidence by bringing up the fact that he’ll have to perform in a fake Greek accent (I had assumed this was implicit in the script). We also put him in a skintight Adidas mono-tard and 80s wig. He is to play Evangelis, a simple but corrupt athlete in the 2112 Olympid games and the first person our hero Harley Byrne meets on arrival. Williams’ Greek accent results in much corpsing and further delays, but he and Lockwood manage to pull it together for the take. This is, of course, a one-take set – each shot is only filmed once and any mistakes are allowed to stand.

The second shot on this location sees Byrne emerge from an desktop tryst, and in order to get the required post-coital glow Lockwood disappears next door with the Nexus teddy bear again. After yesterday’s kicking, it’s proving a demanding week for that toy.

Finishing with that location gives us license to stop for biscuits, and it is only when we realise we’ve twenty minutes left before Williams has to leave that we are galvanised into action. This is the difficult stuff – the climax of the big finale in which Byrne must catch up with Evangelis on the race track and decide whether to complete his mission, or go for glory and win the race. Nexus boss Jenny O. arrives to wheel the MFU behind the athletes as they walk on the spot, creating the effect of them racing along the track without us having to leave the spot. It works!

We also get shots of Byrne tackling Evangelis to the ground, although when it comes to the critical take Lockwood completely forgets to pull Williams’ wig off – which de-robing is meant to be the big ‘reveal’ of the movie. Glancing apologetically at our sound gal Jennifer Jordan, I yell “Hair! Hair!” at Lockwood and he grabs the rug from Williams’ head, possibly just in time to save the shot – it being, as mentioned above, a one-take deal.

Compressing a couple of shots into one and getting others with nary a read-through, the energy of these climactic scenes translates itself onset as a kind of frantic efficiency, and at 17.32 we bundle Williams back out of the studio and towards his next appointment as sweaty and harassed as when he joined us five hours earlier.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


Two years on from our residency at Nexus Art Café, during which we reproduced three episodes of the lost adventure serial UNIVERSAL EAR, we return to the same little back room to do it all again for a fourth episode – Banned Insubstance. After four days of painting, gluing and bending the set and props together, today is to be the first day of shooting, in theory, if we can fight through the mess.

The first figure to join me on set this morning is Jennifer Jordan – sometime UNIVERSAL EAR guest star, and guest runner/sticker-onner/soundie for Banned Insubstance. She takes me by surprise as I am staring, apparently into space, but in fact at our mobile foliage unit, a mass of cardboard leaves attached to a wheely clothes rail, which has fallen apart overnight. The idea behind the mobile foliage unit – or MFU – is that with limited studio space, rather than film the script’s walking contest with a pan or wide shot of the actors in motion, we will have the actors walk on the spot and repeatedly wheel the background past them to create the impression of progress. We will we see if this works tomorrow, when we film the big finale race scene with guest star Garth Williams. Meantime, no-one wants to touch the MFU, its emotional temperament being such that even looking at it the wrong way can cause an avalanche of carefully glued leaves.

Lockwood checks in, then “On The” Mike Cacioppo, but we feel obliged to wait for Nexus boss (and thus our Executive Producer) Jenny O. to appear, given that she knows where all the junk we need to shift should go and it would be rude to sing the company anthem without her. Waiting, the conversation turns to ‘hair’, and our emotional connections with same prove an unexpected ice-breaking exercise. Among the four of us:

One has cut all their hair off partially on the advice of a bodiless ‘presence’;
One has grown a moustache out of boredom and worn it around town for a single day to see how it felt before shaving it off again;
A third has accidentally deoderized their pits with TCP having arrived at a stranger’s party stinking of BO;
And the final one has re-stickered all the creams and potions in their bathroom having grown sick of the brand labels.

This is the core of our dream team for the week.

Jenny O. arrives and refuses to join in the company anthem. But she will fight a few fights on our behalf as the day progresses and her loyalty to the organisation is not in question.

The remainder of the morning is spent wrestling with the MFU and finishing off 22nd century Olympia’s grass (paper) race track. In the afternoon, for the sake of morale, we decide we should definitely film something, so we begin to rebuild Stampy’s – a corner of the postal service’s members-only club, from where our hero Harley Byrne introduces each episode. Part of this intro is to be made up of re-used shots from previous intros, so it is imperative we make it look the same as when we last shot here two years ago. The bike in the background of the shot has since been stolen though, so we decide to take its absence as an acceptable continuity error. However, on surveying the café out front for the comfy chair Byrne previously spoke from, they seem to have grown so as to be impossible to squeeze through the studio doors. Spotting a smaller model of the comfy chair hidden beneath a customer, we decide to wait out her departure. Time is money, but on a £200 shoot we’re only talking small change here.

With a little further difficulty – mainly getting various bits of set to stay where they should – we’re ready to roll, and all that stands in our way is our indulgence of lead actor Lockwood’s new technique, as learned from Brian Astbury. It involves repeating his lines again and again whilst engaged in ‘right brain’ activities – controlled breathing, press ups against the wall, beating the crap out of the Nexus teddy bear – so as to free his subconscious to respond spontaneously to the script’s action. In fact, it makes him a bit cocky so I attempt to puncture his performance with various distractions, such as air traffic controlling Mike’s boom pole into Lockwood’s face. At one point I am paralysed by overwhelming déjà vu, until someone points out that we did in fact do exactly the same as this on the set we’ve replicated two years ago (sans boom pole). The idea is this time we can use all the lessons we learnt last time and achieve a more desirable state of imperfection: having achieved this, we’ll leave our Nexus methodology behind and start from scratch elsewhere for the next episode.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

BANNED INSUBSTANCE: All-new episode of UNIVERSAL EAR goes into production

Production begins today on the fourth episode of UNIVERSAL EAR – a lost adventure serial of the future which we at L’Institute Zoom are charged with (p)reconstructing.

Harley Byrne’s ongoing mission is to record and make available for download all the world’s music, ever, for his employers at the Universal Ear record company – using his shed-built ‘Universal Ear’ recording device. In new episode Banned Insubstance, Byrne travels through time to Olympia, 2112 A.D., where Olympid athletes are using illegal motivational music to enhance their performances. Seduced and then snubbed by the corrupt Chairwoman of the National Olympid Committee, Byrne realises if he wants a shot at recording the Banned Insubstance, he’ll have to train for the games – and be strong enough to catch up with the cheats. But does his coach, a reformed ex-ear-doper, have Byrne’s best interests at heart?

Series regulars Stewart Lockwood (Byrne), Tuesday Betts (his arch enemy and mistress of disguise, ‘Being’) and Peter Easterbrook (Santiago Byrne) will return, joined by such luminaries of the Manchester alt-movie unscene as Garth Williams (It’s Nick’s Birthday) and Amanda Belantara (Sonotoki). The Banned Insubstance itself is to be reimagined and re-recorded by artpop misfits Modern Blonde.

Sets are being built in our pocket studio at Nexus Art Café today, tomorrow and Saturday. The movie shoots from Monday 12th-Saturday 17th November 2012, 11-7pm. Interested parties are welcome to drop in to the studio at their own risk. The shoot will be documented online at and in a new zine for the Salford Zine Library, which happens to be immediately next door to our studio.

The Institute has received £200 Micro Funding from Nexus Art Cafe and Artisan Manchester to do this important work.


There were over 1,000 episodes of the original UNIVERSAL EAR and we don’t know what order they’re supposed to be in. In each episode, Harley Byrne must travel to another time and place to re-discover – and re-categorise – someone else’s idea of ‘music’. He always gets his track.

The first reconstructed episode, A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear, premiered at the Abandon Normal Devices festival this August.