Ashok Ferrey may not be his real name, but he is a very real presence in at least half a dozen demographics – among them those who read books (he has written short stories and a novel); those who attend the annual Galle Literary Festival (where he is a prominent figure as emcee, chairing panel discussions and interviewing writers); those who study art and architecture (a qualified architect, he has been a guest lecturer at the Academy of Design and the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects), and those who frequent high-end gyms (he is a valued physical fitness instructor).
|The host: Ashok Ferrey.
Mr. Ferrey is now about to take on a new public role – as TV talk show host. Here’s the reality of that venture: this is not your regular celebrity-pop star-movie star-politician-social butterfly chat session. This is a true-blue literary, arts-specific enterprise, and it is being done with distinctive flair. If you know anything about Mr. Ferrey, you will be aware that he keeps close company with writers, artists, actors, playwrights, and musicians. It is this very down-to-earth and serious-minded community that he is hosting in a 20-part television series, The Ashok Ferrey Show, to be launched on Saturday, June 19.
In early February, when the 2010 Galle Literary Festival was drawing to a close, the television station ETV approached Mr. Ferrey about engaging with writers who had taken part in the seven-day international event. ETV was mulling over a TV series about writers. Mr. Ferrey thought it an excellent idea. They drew up a list of potential interviewees, including past festival participants and leading figures in the local art and performing arts scene. The past four months have been spent taping interviews with writers, artists and architects in a range of locations, starting with Galle, scene of the country’s annual Big Lit Event.
When we called on Mr. Ferrey at his home in Flower Road, Colombo 7, last week to talk about the show, he was out on the front lawn with the ETV camera crew. They were in the middle of filming short introductions to the 13 TV episodes recorded so far.
The young, soft-spoken director Dinuksha Wattegama was instructing Mr. Ferrey on the best way to collapse on a rubber exercise mat, as if exhausted from a workout, and then turn and talk to the camera without sounding too out of breath. The idea was to fuse Mr. Ferrey’s gym instructor image with his upcoming talk show host image. “Cool” and “fun” are important elements in The Ashok Ferrey Show. Mr. Ferrey had to fall on his exercise mat many times before Mr. Wattegama had the take he wanted.
After another introductory shoot, this time involving dumbbells, with Mr. Ferrey’s two dogs Jools and Popeye delightedly joining in the action, we headed into the house and upstairs to the balcony for further footage, this round revolving around barbells.
The day’s strenuous work out of the way, a perspiring Mr. Ferry and a satisfied Mr. Wattegama went downstairs, where we relaxed on the veranda and chatted about the origin and the making of The Ashok Ferrey Show.
Dinuksha Wattegama (a film student and graduate of the LaSalle College of The Arts, Singapore): “The show came about through Lakshman Bandaranayake, the CEO of Vanguard, which commissions and produces all ETV’s programmes. ETV has an interest in literary content and the arts. It has been covering the Galle Literary Festival. Another contributing factor was the lifestyle website, The Colombo Spirit.
|The director: Dinuksha
giving instructions to his cameraman
“I got drawn into the project because I have been working with ETV for some time now, and generally when there’s something out of the box, out of the ordinary, I get called in. And also perhaps because I have little bit of a background in writing. I did some training as a journalist before getting into film.
“I wouldn’t say this project is very demanding, compared to things we’ve been doing at ETV. There was no suggestion of trying to break the mould, or do something ground-breaking. We just wanted to be safe in the way we approached the project technically. No fancy cameras, no high-tech equipment.
“In fact, we’ve taken a very simple, straightforward approach. One reason for this is Ashok Ferrey himself. He has a very strong persona, as Ashok Ferrey. We certainly did not have to steer or push him. He knew exactly what we needed.”
Ashok Ferrey: “The other thing is I was keen to keep this project homemade. Literary people are not fancy, ritzy, glitzy. In our film shoots, we did things on a shoestring, and we didn’t mind if things got a bit chaotic. That’s the kind of effect we were looking for. Fanciness takes away from the artist as a performer. And that is also a reason we went in for backgrounds that weren’t shiny or cutting edge. The more dated and decayed the better, we thought!
DW: This show is also a very timely thing to do. The reality show craze is spreading in television. Everyone is doing a reality show in every corner of the TV world. Our show is therefore a radical departure.
“The main challenge with the Ashok Ferrey show is to sell it. Right now, I don’t think there’s a demand for this kind of show. People haven’t really put money into a show like this. They would rather have shows with singing and dancing. It’s the major studio stuff that gets promoted. It’s a bold initiative for ETV to do something like this.”
AF: “It is risky. It is a known fact that in this country, although it is 95 per cent literate, people here don’t read, especially in English.”
(At this point, we trotted out, for what it was worth, a statistic about book reading in the US: “Forty per cent of the people in the US read one book or less a year,” according to Apple CEO Steve Jobs.)
“Our young people will read to pass exams, your hotshot business karayas will read the financial section of the newspapers, or the property section, or the advertising section, but no one reads anything literary. This is not to say there isn’t a flourishing community of writers in this country. Flourishing is the word here.
“This show is to mainly to encourage people to pick up a book by Sri Lankan writers, rather than pick up the latest Sidney Sheldon, or whatever. I fear that many Sri Lankans would rather read Sidney Sheldon than Sri Lankan writers.
“To draw the audience in, we have to maintain a tricky balance. On the one hand we are reaching out to an older, mature audience, or people who have studied literature, and on the other hand we are appealing to young people to pick up a book. So we are being zany on the one hand, and serious on the other. We are alternating a serious show with a light show, and so on.
“But there will be some heavy-hitting people, like Anne Ranasinghe, Yasmine Gooneratne, Shyam Selvadurai and Seneka Abeyratne. These are the big hitters.
DW: “This show is unique for an English language TV show in Sri Lanka. As far as I’m aware, this is the first programme, apart from the Home Gourmet show with [culinary impresario] Koluu, where the show is built around a personality, in this case Ashok, who is a very strong personality.
We have had presenters, but we’ve never had a show that’s driven by a personality. That was one of the key things for me when I approached this project. I allowed certain things on this show that I wouldn’t have done with other people. Because it kind of does justice to what Ashok is, and the kind of things he writes, and the image he already has in Colombo. I went out of my way to accommodate certain things that Ashok wanted that normally wouldn’t be done on TV.”
AF: “For example, the lovely girl we did the first show with shocked me by saying, Please try to be more serious! But then she came around, she understood, and said, that’s okay, you can be funny.”
DW: “You have conventions in TV that you don’t want to break, unless you had a good reason to.”
AF: “Here’s a good example of how we aimed to be different. I love handheld cameras, because the camera moves. But they hate that. They look at the footage and say we don’t know how to use a camera.
But that’s not really the case. A lot of very good shows, especially in the West, and even films, are done where the camera moves. I was very keen to do this, and I think I succeeded in persuading them.
“For example, there was this scene we shot in the sea around Galle. It was a seawater scene, with the water playing, and they were all complaining, saying you can’t use most of the footage because the sound is bad. But I insisted. I said the visuals are good, so let it be.
“It was just craziness, but you have to think of crazy things. Life is not worth living unless you have a bit of fun. And with something as boring as literature, and you can quote me on that, because I am a writer, you have to make it interesting. Writing is not boring to me, but to everyone else it is.
“We had another scene, on the staircase of an old house. We filmed it like a ghost sequence. We hammed it up. “Even in England, literary shows tend to be very serious, done with very serious ladies with their hair done like this [at this point, Mr. Ferrey shows us how serious, intellectual women in England do their hair]. In this country, you can get away with a bit of zaniness, because Sri Lankans are quite mad anyway!”
DW: “The fact that we moved out of the studio to shoot these shows is quite a breakthrough.”
AF: “I mean, who wants to watch the same background every week? You might say that the programme is more important than the background, but I say they are both equally important. We are blessed with a beautiful country, with an abundant supply of beautiful backgrounds. In England, you couldn’t shoot a literary show outdoors nine months of the year. It is either snowing or raining.”
DW: “I am pretty sure this is original for Asian TV. If you notice, a lot of Asian TV is not driven around personalities. Ashok is someone who has a life after and beyond the camera. With most people, when you switch off the camera, they too switch off and go back to their normal life. With Ashok, this is not the case. He continues to be Ashok Ferrey after we have packed up our cameras and gone home. That’s the difference. That’s where we are unique. And for Sri Lankan TV, it’s an achievement.”
AF: “There’s another side to this. The people I interview tend to be major writers and artists in their own right. And I already know them. I have not met them for the first time five minutes before the show begins. They and I go back a long way, and we have certain shared experiences. That’s what makes it easy for them to open up to me. Take the writer Anne Ranasinghe [Jewish German by birth and who lost her parents in the Holocaust].
“She was the first president of the English Writers’ Co-operative, and I was the second. She handed the reins over to me and we would talk every day for one whole year. So I am able to get people to share things they would not normally talk about. I got her to talk about God. I asked her, do you believe in God. And she said no. Normally she would not say that. In front of 300 schoolchildren, she hedged that question. But she said it out on TV. That was the answer I wanted.
“The other thing I wanted, and this was something Lakshman Bandaranayake wanted, was that this programme be a record of all the major writers and artists in Sri Lanka of our present time. We were very sorry we missed the writer Christine Wilson, who passed away a few months ago. At the time of her death, we hadn’t finalised plans for the show. In 20 years, these episodes can be put together as one. You can rewind the tapes and see who these people were and what they were like. A lot of these people, like Anne Ranasinghe, Yasmine Gooneratne and Shyam Selvadurai, are on the syllabus. So this show has great importance.”
The ETV crew is ready to leave and signalling discreetly from the garden that it is already late in the day. Time to say “Cut.”
As we get up to go, we ask Mr. Ashok Ferrey about thenom de plume, under which he plays most of his public roles.
“I think it’s great to have another name,” he says. “You get to reinvent your life. I highly recommend it!”
NOTE: The first Ashok Ferrey Show will be broadcast on ETV on Saturday, June 19. The weekly shows will be aired three times a week: Saturday, 8.30 p.m, Sunday, 8.30 a.m, and Thursday, 10 p.m.
WHO’s WHO IN THE SHOW
Participants in The Ashok Ferrey Show:
Vivimarie Vanderpoorten – poet
Mahen Perera – artist
Yasmine Gooneratne – writer
Anura Rathnavibushana – architect
Ewan Taylor – opera singer
Lal Medawattegedara – writer
Nazreen Sansoni – poet, bookstore owner
Geoffrey Dobbs – Galle Literary Festival director
Ramya Jirasinghe – poet
Juliet Coombe – photographer, publisher
Seneka Abeyratne – playwright
Gill Westaway – British Council Sri Lanka director
Anoma – artist
Vimukthi Jayasundera – filmmaker
Royston Ellis – author
Natasha Rathnayake – singer, composer
Shyam Selvadurai – writer
Anne Ranasinghe – poet, writer