Monday, December 31, 2007

Bishop's Egg

In the Observer yesterday, Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, agrees with Richard Dawkins that morality is possible without religion.
That's why most of we atheists don't spend our lives murdering, pillaging and raping.
So, well done, Bishop.

'But then you go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like':

"........there is a fount and origin of all our moral insights which is good, perfect good, all good, our true and everlasting good. For a Christian, this is above all shown in the willingness of God to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within."

Forget the Platonic absolutes in the first sentence. Try getting your head round: "the willingness of God to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within."

Or simply marvel once again that an intelligent man writing a mostly sensible article can suddenly come out with this kind of meaningless gibberish.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The History Boys

The best TV film of the holiday was The History Boys, a first chance for some of us to see this much-acclaimed play, or at least the film version. I don't know how different the two are but it was apparent that many of the scenes would have worked better inside a proscenium arch than on a big or small screen.

I enjoyed it very much but found it strangely troubling. I went back to the sections on it in Bennett's 'Untold Stories' but they failed to put my mind at ease.
Firstly, I had no idea that Hector's groping had such a central role in the play and in the plot. I fear it may have overshadowed the points that Bennett was trying to make about education. Of course, you could argue it was brave to put that in the play in the current climate and it saved Hector from becoming a sentimentalised Mr Chips character. Then again, he could have given him some other character flaw. It ceretainly provoked horror and incomprehension in the American audiences - the fact that "inappropriate touching" could be treated so leniently by both the playwright and the other characters.

I'm with Bennett to this extent: the current hysteria has elided distinctions between different degrees of abuse so that a grope is regarded as seriously as a rape. Not only does this distort language but it's insulting to those who suffer the horror of serious sexual assault.
According to Bennett's diaries, he was subjected to some ineffectual fumbling on the back of a motorbike at the age of 17 whilst hitch-hiking, which gave him the idea for the Hector scenario. It struck me as remarkable that, of all the motorcyclists in all the world, the young Bennett was picked up by one who fancied tall, skinny, bespectacled, nerdy youths.

In my first phase of blogging, I recounted here how, at the age of about 19, while working at a top London hotel, I was groped on a ladder. I wrote it as a humourous piece and the experience still makes me laugh - chiefly because of all the people I wanted to lay hands on me at that age, a short, elderly, bald, Cockney Jew with pebble glasses had never figured in my fantasies. Yet I hoped, and still hope, that the pleasure he derived from that brief, impertinent encounter with my genitalia justified the risk that he took. The boys in Bennett's play took much the same view of Hector's fumblings.

But here's the problem: there cannot be a trade-off between groping pupils and inspired teaching. Maybe that's not what Bennett was saying but it sometimes felt as though he was. In the final scene, we're told that the gay Posner becomes a teacher and is a better teacher for having to fight the temptation to touch his pupils. I found that pretty shocking. And if I were one of the many gay teachers in our schools, I'd find it rather insulting. Do straight teachers struggle to keep their hands off their pupils? Maybe they do. It's a struggle that some teachers of both sexes and both orientations sometimes lose, as we know from regular court cases. So exactly what point is Bennett making here?

Anyone who has read much autobiography, from Arthur Marshall (private school) to Denis Healey (Grammar School) will know that generations of boys have been groped by teachers and not taken it very seriously and certainly not, to use a phrase from the play, been "scarred for life". And not all those teachers were Hectors. Some were probably incompetent teachers, not that that makes any difference. Whilst it's wrong that today such people would be treated with as much severity as a serial rapist and whilst it's tragic that a good teacher should be sacrificed for such transgressions, it's surely not desirable to go back to an age of turning a blind eye and discreet warnings from the Head.

My second problem with the play was the issue of realism, or lack of it.
Bennett touches on this in his diaries. Nicholas Hytner wanted to remove the scene in the gymnasium on the grounds that sixth formers didn't do PE. Bennett wasn't happy with this on the grounds that reality and a work of art are two different things. But he concedes that Hytner is right in one respect: "once the audience starts thinking 'But school isn't like that', they're off the hook."
The gym scene was in the film. I don't know whether it was in the play. But I suspect this issue of realism was more of a problem with the film because unless we're clearly shown that a film is fantasy we expect it to at least have some pretensions to realism, particularly if we're told that it's set in a Northern Grammar School in the 1980s. It's quite different from a film like Lindsay Anderson's 'If'' which was a transparent blend of realism and surrealism set in a fictional public school.

So much in the The History Boys is implausible, including the clunking plot devices.
Would a boy like Posner be so openly gay at school and sing a love song to another (straight) boy in front of the class? Would a boy even as conceited and self-assured as Dakin invite a teacher to give him a blow-job - not as an act of defiance in front of his mates but in a private conversation? And all of this 20 or more years ago, bearing in mind that 20 years in gay history is about 100 years in straight history.

There are two answers to these criticisms. Firstly, that a piece of drama is not a documentary. And secondly, that a dramatist is justified in using some pretty blunt instruments to make his points if those points are worth making in the first place.
I'm certainly with Bennett in his central argument that knowledge is an end in itself and that today children are crammed with facts, like battery chickens being crammed with chicken feed, in order to lay fat economic eggs. But I'm not sure there was ever a golden age of education when more than a small minority of children were enthused with a love of subjects for their own sake.

The play has an added resonance for me because I was a state pupil who sat the now defunct Oxbridge entrance exam and went for interview. Unlike the boys in the play, I did this in splendid isolation, sitting the exam in a huge hall on my own, apart from the invigilator. I wasn't schooled in the techniques of impressing the examiners in the way that Irwin teaches the boys in the play. But fortunately, like Bennett himself (as revealed in his diaries), I was adept at perfectly legal 'cheating'. Louis MacNiece described examination papers as "intellectual window dressing" and I was quite good at that - sprinkling erudite references and quotations like confetti, implying a far greater depth of knowledge than I had. (I do it here, you know). My defence is that you need to be pretty intelligent to do that successfully.

The Oxbridge interview scenes in the film reminded me of my own interview at one of Oxford's most conservative colleges. I was rather like the Rudge character, though, if I may be so bold, rather more academic. I had drunk two or three pints of Wadworth's 6X before the interview to calm my nerves, and then had to chew an entire packet of Polo mints to kill the smell.
I was ushered into the presence of three elderly dons who were drinking Earl Grey and eating cream cakes from a loaded tea trolley. They didn't offer me a cup of tea, which I thought was ill-mannered.
The conversation turned to the novels of Hardy, which I had written about in the exam. "Have you read Jude the Obscure"? said one of them. "Actually", I said, the 6X still working its magic, "I feel very like Jude the Obscure, coming here today from a College of Further Education."
I expected them to laugh.
There was a long silence. The oldest don went very red in the face. Several of the others started coughing. A raw class nerve had been touched. Not for the last time, I had been fucked up by my own frivolity.

Like Rudge, I was accepted against the odds, albeit by a different college that had somehow dragged itself into the early part of the 20th century.
Unlike Rudge, I never actually went. Partly because in those days you had to have 'O' level Latin and life seemed too short to learn that. Also because moving to London seemed more attractive than moving to Oxford and living with the public school Hooray Henrys I'd met during interview week.

I've never regretted it, even though it meant living in tiny bedsits and being groped on a ladder by an elderly, myopic Jew.
Of course, had I been to public school I'd have been no stranger to either spartan living conditions or being groped, although that's one experience I'm glad to have missed. And, aside from the wandering Jewish hands, I was once groped on the Underground by a boy who looked like Dakin in the play. Although he unfortunately alighted at King's Cross and I was going to Camden, that was rather more exciting than being touched up during double Latin by an elderly man in a three-piece tweed suit.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

There's been a lot of discussion about Britishness in recent times and what constitutes 'British values'. All too often people cite things like humour and tolerance but that carries the unavoidable, and absurd, implication that all other nationalities are humourless and intolerant. If you asked me what makes me proud to be British, I'd be stumped for an answer. I'd probably fall back on various, minor cultural traits. For example, I like queueing ('standing in line' for my American readers) and yes, I'm one of those people who, whilst ignoring far worse anti-social behaviour, will pounce like the Gestapo on anyone who queue-jumps. (Have you noticed how some elderly people feign mental confusion to queue-jump and think sympathy for their age will prevent any challenge? Well, the devious old bastards don't fool me. "I'm 87, you know", said one old woman as I frogmarched her to the back of the queue, as though that exempted her from the social codes that stand between Civilisation and Anarchy).

But here's something that does make me proud: to live in a country where a television channel in Christmas week broadcasts, in peak time, a series of 45 minute lectures on science for children.
These are The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. They've moved channels several times and used to be broadcast at lunchtime on Channel 4. Now they're on Channel Five at 7.15 in the evening.
Although designed for children, they're also fascinating viewing for adults and seek to make sometimes difficult scientific concepts intelligible and fun. So there are lots of demonstrations and audio-visual aids (some of them, it has to be said, wonderfully naff) and audience participation.
This year, a model of a man designed to show what proportion of our bodies consists of water proved to be incontinent and leaked all over the floor before falling over backwards. Look out for that on one of those clips shows. It was particularly embarrassing because the programme was sponsored by Rolls-Royce and legend had it that a Rolls Royce never went wrong.

I'd love to know where they get the children from. They give the lecturer an opening ovation worthy of a pop star and listen silently and attentively throughout. From the names the volunteers give I suspect they have all been cloned in a secret labarotory in one of the posher parts of Notting Hill. Reassuringly, some childhood traits are universal: the biggest laugh of the series was when a man was pushed into a bath of iced water.

If you watched this series you will now know that butter contains five times as much energy as the equivalent amount of TNT and that there's enough energy in your Christmas dinner to blow up a car. You'll have discovered that short-distance sprinters appear to hold their breath for the entire race and that one of the world's strongest men can last only a minute on a treadmill before collapsing. And that being fat can have it's advantages: you'll survive much longer if you fall into the sea, although that didn't seem to work for Robert Maxwell.

In the great 'Two Cultures' divide I'm very much an Arts and Humanities man and I stopped studying science when I was about 14.
I think I was in my twenties when I read the books of John Stewart Collis. They seem rather dated now but they opened my eyes to the extraordinary nature of the physical world. I am typing this facing a solid brick wall but if I were small enough I could take a stroll inside that solid wall because most of an atom is empty space. That's one example of what I learned from John Stewart Collis but not from a boring school lesson on the structure of the atom. At the other extreme from the micro or nano level are the incredible discoveries in cosmology and today there are some very good 'popular science' writers, amongst whom I would single out Marcus Chown.

That any of us are here at all, sitting on this lump of rock whirling through space, is so improbable, so accidental, that to live one's life without learning anything about the natural, physical world seems as shameful as to never have read any Shakespeare. Moreover, science can be as inspiring and enriching as anything in the arts and, for me, more awesome than any religious belief.

So, apart from being the best programme on television this Christmas, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures might just have encouraged a few more children to either pursue a scientific career or simply regard a modicum of scientific understanding as part of being a rounded, educated person. And with 'faith schools' in the ascendant and a 'Creationist Theme Park' planned for the North of England, it won't be a moment too soon.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Have A Good One...........

........what a useful, non-specific, portmanteau phrase that is. Better even than 'Season's Greetings'.
So, whatever 'one' you're having - and even if you're celebrating the birth of a child to two homeless asylum seekers 2,000 years ago - may I wish you, all my readers old and new, a very good time.

There may be postings over the holiday period but today I am entertaining my nonagenarian father. This week he told me an interesting tiny snippet of social history. When going to the cinema as a child to watch the then silent films he would always walk down the middle of the wide central aisle. This was because elderly people who couldn't read would sit in an aisle seat, grab any passing child, sit them down next to them and make them read out the subtitles throughout the film.

Anyway, I must now brave the rain and venture into the Lupin Towers herb garden (established by monks in the 15th century) to see if I can find any parsley for garnishing. Last week all I returned with was some empty Fosters cans thrown over the wall by passing Chavs.
See you soon...........

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Old Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Mike

One of my fears when starting blogging again was that I would repeat myself. Not just repeat the odd line or joke but virtually an entire posting. I can remember only a fraction of my previous 440 posts so I'm not sure whether a particular experience or topic is something I've written, something I've said to someone or has simply been floating around in my head for years.

But in my case any repetition will be entirely accidental. Not so with many of today's comedians. Some of these people are recycling the same material over and over again. Unlike humble bloggers, they're being paid large amounts of money and addressing an audience of millions.
'Live at the Apollo' is a showcase for well-known stand-ups on BBC1. The last edition featured Dara O'Briain, Stephen K Amos and Frankie Boyle.
Much of Stephen Amos's act was the same material he did on the Royal Variety Show a few weeks before. I'm sure he did the same jokes again this week on Radio 4.
Almost everything that Frankie Boyle said I'd heard before. Ditto with Dara O'Briain. In fact, when I woke up the following day I decided that this particular show was a repeat of one I'd seen before but on checking the Radio Times I found it was the first broadcast.

The problem for today's comedians is that there are too many of them and there is too much stand-up comedy. Some of it is very good but much of it is dreadful.
The second problem is that they have too much time to fill. In the days of variety, a leading comic might be top of the bill but would still probably only do fifteen minutes. Today, comics do solo shows that are an hour or more long. In most cases, there will be about twenty minutes of brilliant stuff and the rest is dross.
The third problem is that they have to do television as well as live shows. Most of them seem to keep their new material for the paying punters on their touring shows who don't expect to see the same material they've seen on the television.
A fourth problem is that a lot of today's comics appear to write their own material. This is commendable but if they're doing live gigs as well as TV they simply can't produce enough material to fill the time.
In the past, most comedians had writers. Some had dozens of gag writers who they paid by the gag. Others, like Frankie Howerd, who did long rambling monologues had single writers who wrote the entire act. In Howerd's case, these included brilliant writers like Eric Sykes and Jonny Speight. In some ways, it was a massive deception. Few people realised that Bob Hope never wrote a gag in his life. But it had the advantage that they could buy in as much fresh material as they needed. Another benefit was that it gave employment to many people who, although unable to perform on stage, could write very funny material.

The most breathtaking piece of recycling occurred last night in an episode of 'Not Going Out' which stars the stand-up Lee Mack. Like many stand-ups who venture into sit-com, it's just a contrivance for him to spout gags at other cardboard characters. (Even 'Dinner Ladies' was a bit like that). Fair enough, if you like that kind of thing. But last night there was a scene where he came out with a routine about his childhood that he'd done a few weeks ago on either 'Live at the Apollo' or 'The Royal Variety Show'. Or maybe he did it on both shows and now he was going for the hat-trick. Frankly, I'm beginning to lose track in this head-spinning outbreak of déja vu and déja entendu.

I'm also beginning to lose patience. What really annoys me is the sheer shamelessness of these people. I suppose to do stand-up you need a thick skin and to be immune from embarrassment. But if you treat the punters like fools, they'll turn on you eventually. They turned on Eddie Izzard a few years back when his live tour was much the same as the previous one. The excuse was that because he improvises, the new material would be added incrementally throughout the tour. But some people still demanded refunds.
I think it's time the public kicked their lazy arses. TV viewers should complain to the broadcaster and live audiences should chant "We've heard it all before" or, even better, chant the punch line before they get to it.

Now, did I ever tell you about a funny thing that happened to me when I worked backstage in the theatre?
Oh, shit. I think I probably did.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Clegg Comes Out

Congratulations to new Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg for saying he didn't believe in God. Strange that it should be newsworthy to state something that you share with millions of your fellow countrymen.
But the commendable honesty was rather undermined by the fact he felt it necessary to issue a clarifying statement:
"I have enormous respect for people who have religious faith."
Well, why wouldn't he? You might not think it, but if you remove the word "enormous" I could have said that myself. I respect anyone's right to hold any belief they like so long as they don't attempt to force it on me or enshrine it in the law of the land.
He then added that his wife was a Catholic and he was committed to bringing his children up as Catholics, as though this close association with members of one of the most illiberal faiths somehow mitigated his own atheism. But if he were truly a liberal he would not foist any religious belief on his children but leave them to make their own choice of belief, or non-belief, when they were adults.
He is also said to have implied that he was at the agnostic end of the atheist spectrum.
I wasn't aware there was an 'atheist spectrum' but even Richard Dawkins - if you actually read him - could be described as an 'agnostic'. Agnosticism in a wider, non-theological sense, is the basis of all science.
Still, as it's the season of goodwill, let's be generous and give him 7 out of 10.
And if this were America, he'd be dead in the water. Or even literally dead.


In case you were as confused as I was, I think the position is this: the Queen is now the longest-lived British monarch. But she is not yet the longest-reigning British monarch.
I think that's right.
Like you care......
"The last ever British monarch" that would really be something to celebrate.

I mentioned recently that Robinson's had sponsored (sorry, "supported") the BBC Sports Personality of the Year programme.
The only reference I've seen to this was Peter Preston in The Observer. He says the BBC's response was that Robinson's had sponsored only "the event" not the programme. Robinson's paid for the hire of the venue and for the food and drink for the 8,000 audience. Preston called this "hair-splitting". I would call it blatant dishonesty. After all, the BBC would otherwise have had to pay these costs themselves. And in return, Robinson's got a name-check from Gary Lineker and had their name prominently displayed behind the rostrum.
If that's not paid advertising, then my name really is Willie Lupin.
I still want some of my licence fee back.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The God Factor

I don't feel so bad about watching The X Factor now that I know God also watches it.
In his "first interview since victory" to The Guardian (yes! The Guardian! Somewhere, some PR person will be hailing this as a "counter-intuitive marketing strategy"), Leon Jackson said: "I've been thrown a lifeline by God. I believe in God, and this was destined in my life.....he wrote it for me."
Now it so happens that 80 of the runner-up Rhydian's fans have complained to OfCom that the vote was rigged. Putting the two stories together raises the awful possibility that it was God what rigged it.

The allegation of rigging seems to be based on no more than people getting the engaged tone at times of peak voting. However, the engaged tone began when the call centre was reached and before someone added the digits that identified the contestant.
I have to sheepishly admit I know this because I got the engaged tone when attempting to vote for Leon. I was motivated to do so to avoid feeling a tiny portion of blame if any of Satan's Children had won the contest. Of course, I wouldn't have bothered had I known that God had already arranged for Leon to win.

It's remarkable that a supreme being with so much on his plate should find the time to ensure that a young Scottish shop assistant wins a TV talent contest. It's multi-tasking on an epic scale.
But maybe the 'prioritising' is a lttle bit dodgy.
There are all those billions of prayers to be answered, or more often not answered. There are the Catholic McCanns, among others, praying for the return of a missing child. There are the millions praying for deliverance of themselves or a loved one from a terminal illness.
Then there are the contradictory messages. He told George Bush to invade Iraq. He told Tony Blair to join him. Then he told the Pope to condemn the invasion. With the Archbishop of Canterbury it was a case of "Sorry God, I'm on a train. You're breaking up. I think we're in a tunnel." But eventually the Lesser Bearded One seemed to get the same message as the Pope, in so far as one can ever be sure what Rowan Williams is saying.

But if we rule out the possibility that Leon was actually talking about Simon Cowell, then God had chosen The X Factor for a direct and unequivocal intervention.
I think this was ill-advised. He may now find himself investigated by OfCom and Michael Grade may commission another Deloitte Touche report into the affair. The channel may even have to broadcast a new announcement to viewers: "Recent irregularities in telephone voting on The X Factor were caused by an Act of God. Viewers who feel they suffered a financial loss should take a copy of their telephone bill or satellite/cable television statement to their Parish Priest, Rabbi or Imam. Thank you for your continued support."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Leon Jackson Swings to Victory

By common consent this was the worst series of X Factor, yet it had a surprisingly gripping final and a fairy tale ending.
Leon Jackson is potentially the most talented singer ever to have won the contest. The dilemma for Simon Cowell is what to do with him. Does he go down the pop route and make him sing crap songs like the one released to be the Christmas No 1? Or does he let him sing the swing/jazz numbers that he loves and excels at? He'll probably take a middle road and do a bit of both. Cowell is hardly likely to turn his back on Leon's fan base amongst teenage girls in favour of a more niche market.

Leon Jackson is a far better singer than his inspiration Michael Buble, or Jamie Cullum. And if he can sing like this at 18, what will he be like in another five years? No wonder Buble's admiration of Leon is tinged with the fear that he has a serious rival. And whilst putting his own stamp on an old classic, Leon still respects the song and the composer. Buble and Cullum don't always do that. I have painful memories of Jamie Cullum stamping on the piano keys during 'I Get A Kick Out Of You.' It became a circus act and, frankly, you don't fuck about with Cole Porter.

Another reason that Leon deserved to win was that for most of the competition he had 'loser' stamped on his forehead. It was only in the last few weeks of the live shows that he gained confidence and suddenly unleashed some amazing performances. In the final, his duet with some pop bimbo called Kylie was an absolute joy, as was his choice of solo number.

I wish it were otherwise, but we certainly haven't seen the last of runner-up Rhydian. The good news is that you may only see him if you pay to see a West End show or tune in to Songs of Praise. In my view, anyone who walks into the audition and smugly announces "I'm a classically-trained singer" should be shown the door and given an application form for 'Britain's Got Talent'. The X Factor is a popular music show, one that includes, pop, jazz, rock, etc., but opera is a genre too far. Rhydian was technically flawless but devoid of emotion and warmth. He did cry like a baby on the ITV2 show afterwards but that was probably because he was watching a fait accompli gurgle down the plugpole.

Then there were the Stepford Children. For the first time I can remember, I simply had to turn my head away whenever Same Difference were on screen. I'm not exaggerating for effect here. I simply could not look at them.
Charlie Brooker hit the nail on the head when he said they were like two young people that come up to you in the street and give you a religious leaflet.
Every performance was like the end of term show at the stage school. It's true that they could both sing and dance. Unfortunately, they did neither particularly well.
I'll say no more about them because that will mean thinking about them and I need to wipe their stupid, grinning, gurning faces from my memory as quickly as possible.

I've never bought an album by a TV talent show winner but if Leon ever releases a swing album I may well be tempted.
And isn't it wonderful that, after fifty years of pop, rock, punk, techno and rap, an 18 year old shop assistant from Glasgow should be inspired to sing by music that was already old when I was a child?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

On Not Being Maxine Carr

A TV programme last night (Channel 4) showed the worst of human nature in all its stupidity and viciousness.
Maxine Carr, the partner of Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer, served a short sentence for lying to the police. On her release she was given a new identity and became the first non-murderer to be given what is called a 'Mary Bell order' that prevents the media reporting on her.
Since then, women all over Britain have been mistaken for her and subjected to harassment, abuse and violence. One woman tried to kill herself. This programme told their stories.

Two things contributed to this witch-hunt. Firstly, Huntley and Carr were tried together, quite unnecessarily. Huntley had murdered two schoolgirls. Carr was 100 miles away at the time. She gave him a false alibi but nobody but Carr will ever know whether she suspected that he could have been the murderer so we have to give her the benefit of the doubt on that.
Secondly, the media tried to turn Carr into a Myra Hindley figure (Hindley having recently died). The two cases had nothing in common since Hindley, unlike Carr, had been actively involved in Ian Brady's murders.

The women who found themselves under siege to rampaging mobs bore little resemblance to Carr. What they did have in common was that they were outsiders, having recently moved into communities from another part of the country.
Some of their abusers were interviewed and were unshakeable in their belief that Carr had been living in their street. What was fascinating was the circular reasoning which made the parallels with historical witch-hunts so strong. We all know that suspected witches were put under water: if they drowned, they were innocent; if they survived, they were witches and put to death.
In this case, mobs threw bricks through the women's windows. The police came to the street to protect them. 'Aha!', people said, 'she's getting police protection so she must be Maxine Carr.'
A police officer went door-to-door telling people she wasn't Maxine Carr. 'Of course she's not', they said, 'because she's been given a new identity'.
One woman showed the baying mob her passport and birth certificate. To no avail, of course, because the real Maxine Carr would have been given new proofs of identity under a new name.

There was never a more graphic illustration of how difficult it is to prove a negative. Nor a more frightening example of how small a part reason plays in most people's lives.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Rhythm of the Night

Shock, horror! On Desert Island Discs, Professor Sir Alan Jeffreys, inventor of 'DNA fingerprinting', chooses a club music track as one of his eight records.
In doing so, a new record was set for the shortest piece of music played on the programme. They cut it after about twenty seconds in case Middle England choked on its Oxford Marmalade.

It may have come as a surprise to Sir Alan's students to learn that he often has club music blaring out whilst reading a difficult PhD thesis. As for me, I have been known to write this blog while listening to a Judge Jules mix that includes the refrain 'you love it when I spank my monkey'. Though never while spanking my monkey. That would play havoc with my typing.

Sir Alan said he regretted being too old to have enjoyed the Ibiza experience, other than on CD. I was more fortunate, having just sneaked into the club scene before I was of an age to look totally ridiculous or to stand out like a pork butcher in Tel Aviv. (The only embarrassment I recall was handing a friend her handbag at the bar, having thoughtfully retrieved it from the dancefloor. "I haven't got a handbag", she said, shortly before a violent young girl and several security men closed in on me.)

I prefer to call it 'club music' rather than 'dance music' because if, at my age, you speak of 'dance music', people think you're talking about Victor Silvester and ballroom dancing.
After all, TV news reports about the over fifties are frequently accompanied by footage of tea dances in village halls and leisure centres. It would be interesting to know what percentage of over fifties ever go tea dancing. I don't think any of the elderly members of my own family ever went within spitting distance of a tea dance. But if, in another twenty years, the tea dance has been replaced by an all-night rave, I'll be happy to hobble along to the community centre. At least I won't have to get up in the morning and I can discuss the science of DNA with Sir Alan Jeffreys in the chill-out room.

Critics of club music say it's repetitive. But much of Bach is repetitive. Sir Alan also chose some Bach for his desert island. And I've noticed that scientists and mathematicians are often fond of Bach, though I'm not qualified to say why this should be so.

Club music, like much classical music, is life-affirming, although in a totally different way. It gives you a lift. Sometimes you need that shot in the arm, that aural adrenaline, that cacophonous caffeine-substitute, that atavistic expression of joy and youth and movement, that affirmation that briefly, and improbably, you're alive.

If listening to Mozart's Requiem is the closest some of us will get to a non-existent heaven, then club music is the pulsating celebration of living in the indisputably existing here-and-now. So turn up the volume and stick two fingers up at the millions yet unborn and the trillions long dead - that was your past, that will be your future - but this is the brief nano-second in the cold wastelands of eternity when you can shout at the universe 'I'm alive'.
And you can't do that with a cup of PG Tips, a Gypsy Cream and a slow fucking foxtrot.


One thing that does become tiresome as you get older is the strange changes to everyday language.
I wish that total strangers would stop telling me that they'll 'see me later'.
I wonder if I should get some cans of beer and crisps in and worry that they'll turn up during Coronation Street.
What was wrong with 'Goodbye'? Why use three words instead of one and tell a complete lie into the bargain?

Then there's:
How are you?
I'm good.
No, you misunderstand.
I was enquiring about your health, not your moral condition.

And then there's:
"I'll be there for you."
Where will you be?
How will I know that you're there?
Will you send me a text to let me know that you're there?
And why do you presume that I'll want you there, wherever that is?

Now, where did I put that chill-out CD?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Last Night's Telly

Did I miss something?
The BBC Sports Personality of the Year (isn't that an oxymoron?) was sponsored by Robinsons, the barley water people.
If this was so, can I please have some of my licence fee back?
They didn't actually say "sponsored". They said "supported". But Robinsons surely put some cash into it to get their name mentioned and displayed behind the presenters. If not, the BBC must be crazy.
As it happens, I have long thought we should have a lower licence fee, with the difference made up from discreet sponsorship of programmes, but not actual commercials.
ITV now do both. But it needs to be done sensitively. I have almost stopped watching The Bill since it became sponsored by Jeyes Fluid. I don't wish to stare down a lavatory bowl at every commercial break, not least because I eat late and am often having my evening meal when it's on.
The two hour Sports Personality show was a lavish production that even included the BBC Concert Orchestra. It struck me that we don't get this kind of extravaganza devoted to the arts, with the exception of the BAFTAs.
More people go to the theatre in Britain than go to football matches, yet both the Olivier Awards and the Evening Standard Drama Awards have now disappeared from television.

Meanwhile, on ITV, the Royal Variety Show came from the Liverpool Empire and the Queen was forced to slum it in the Dress Circle instead of in a Royal Box at the side. She'd have had a far better view this time but nowhere to hide the gin bottle.
I was once in a London theatre when the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were in the Dress Circle. Half the audience had to be treated for neck injuries afterwards. You don't get that problem when you can shoot sideways glances at the Royal Box to check if One Is Amused.

Jimmy Tarbuck shamelessly did gags that were already old chestnuts in the Mesolithic period and did one about David Blunkett that would have been topical several years ago.
He was followed by Joan Rivers, who hasn't written (or bought) a new gag in twenty years. She's always watchable, if only because she totters round the stage as though being operated by a very drunk puppeteer. But she seems to have built her whole career around talking about her tits dragging along the floor. I heard myself saying that famous line from the film 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday': "Oh no, here come those tired old tits again!"

To be fair, ITV did edit the show and seem to have edited the comics rather than the tedious speciality acts. We know this because the trailers showed Russell Brand talking about swans, a sequence that was absent from the broadcast programme.
But the highlight was the two second shot of Russell Brand shaking hands with the Queen. He towered over her diminutive figure as though on stilts, baring those enormous white teeth. It was like an encounter between a giraffe and a dormouse and you wondered if the wild man of comedy might eat her.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Copse and Doggers (2)

On my annual Christmas shopping trip to Harrods I thought I had avoided the attentions of Mr Al Fayed when he suddenly appeared from behind some York hams and thrust a tin of Gentleman's Relish into my hand.
"Nobody buy this posh fish paste anymore", he said, rather undermining the generosity of the gesture. "Five hundred fuckin tins in store room and no bastard want them....... Willie, why you not write nothing about inquest? You lost your fuckin bottle?"
"If I had not written nothing, then I would have written something. But, as I think you were implying, I have indeed written nothing."
"Don't get smart, Willie", he said, poking me in the chest. "I'm just ordinary bloke. That's why Establishment hate me, innit."
"An ordinary bloke who happens to own the country's most famous emporium and whose son, by your account, was going to marry the Princess of Wales."
"Is true, Willie. She crazy about him. He crazy about her."
"And, with the greatest respect, a lot of people think you're crazy too."
"Because they're lying fuckin bastards. But now we got jury. Twelve true and good men. And women. Ordinary people like me. They won't pull wool over their heads. And if you want to bury your head in an ostrich, Willie......."
"It's eyes. And it's sand."
"Fuck off, Willie, and Happy Christmas."
And with that he rushed off to deposit another tin of Patum Peperium in Joanna Lumley's Prada handbag.


Preparations for the Middle England Pagan Alliance's celebration of the Winter Solstice are well advanced.
Sadly, we have lost the services of Brenda. Her negotiations with the dogging community two years ago led to a liaison with a building contractor called Wayne. They have now set up home together at a caravan site near Oswestry. Brenda's husband Len is devastated. Some of us saw him in the lounge bar of The Greene Man telling Brian, the landlord, that it was all the fault of "those Wicca basket cases". I had to quickly stifle a laugh when I realised this wasn't a joke and that there were tears in Len's eyes.
"That was a hell of a month", Len continued. "Some prat in a white van shunted the Cavalier at the Three Nuns Roundabout, the cat choked to death on a fur ball and then Brenda runs off with some tattooed park prowler. I've been dogged by disaster all my life."
This time, an involuntary convulsion sent a mouthful of Higgins' Advent Ale down my windpipe. When I'd finished spluttering over the salted nuts I said "It's hay fever."
"In December?" said Len. "Christ, you poor bastard. You must be nearly as unlucky as me."
"It's the flowers on the bar", I said.
"They're plastic", said the landlord.

Nigel, our Webmaster, continues to cause problems. He accidentally removed the password protection from our Wicca website which led to abusive messages appearing in our forums. We think these probably came from Brenda's husband Len, partly because they were posted under the user name of 'Len'. Because of this our website is temporarily offline. Not that anyone could read much of it because Nigel had used a strange Gothic font. It took me half an hour to work out that Len had called me a 'Wicc-head'.
However, some of Brenda's former duties have been taken over by Jocelyn, one of our newer members who works in the library.
She was only recently re-instated there after a disciplinary hearing. An exhibition of Jocelyn's Corn Dollies in the room used by the University of the Third Age had led to complaints when it was noticed that some of the Corn Dollies were rather too graphic in the genital department. In a masterstroke, Jocelyn's union representative produced a book of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs that he had found in the Art section, accusing the Council of inconsistency and prejudice against traditional English folk art. The case collapsed, as did several elderly councillors.

With Jocelyn on look-out duty at Dimmock's Copse, I think our Solstice ceremony will be safe from any disturbances from the dogging fraternity. A tall young woman who favours long black skirts and what I believe is called a 'No 1' haircut, she stomps around in Rockport boots. Some of the local chavs call her 'Skinhead', 'Britney' and 'Bovver Girl', though seldom more than once.

In fact, things were going swimmingly until Jocelyn left some notes about our event in the library photocopier. A few days later a story appeared in the local paper under the headline: SATANISM IN LOCAL PERV PARK. 'Local residents were horrified to discover that a satanic cult are planning to stage a ceremony during Christmas in Dimmock's Copse, the local beauty spot notorious for midnight sex romps. Len Blackwell, 49, said: "These people are sick. Normal families don't want Black Magic forced down their throats at Christmas time." Mr Blackwell said a protest meeting would be held at the Greene Man public house on Friday.'

At an emergency meeting at Jocelyn's flat, it was decided that Nigel would email Brenda to enquire if there were any suitable venues near Oswestry. But he received an obscene and threatening reply, signed 'Bob the Builder', with a short video file attached. This turned out to be a grainy sequence filmed at night through a car window.
"I didn't know Brenda had taken Len's Cavalier", said Nigel. "I recognised the furry dice hanging from the mirror and the Werther's Originals on the dashboard."

So now we're looking for Plan C.
Personally, I'm tempted to just tag along to the 'Christingle' service at St Jude's with Mr and Mrs Skidmore. After all, the Christians appropriated our gods and ceremonies in the first place. Let them do the bloody work. They won't know who we're worshipping. There'll still be candles and music and ivy and holly. And the Rev Simpkins' services are more Disneyland than Bethlehem.
The winter gales sweep through Dimmock's Copse with an icy blast. The thought of standing there as exposed as one of Jocelyn's Corn Dollies brings tears to my eyes.
Apostasy or pragmatism? After recent events, I'm almost past caring.

The first Copse and Doggers appeared here

Any resemblance to real people is entirely accidental.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Gavin and Stacey

Congratulations to Gavin and Stacey on its success at the Comedy Awards.
I'm ashamed to say that for a long time I avoided this series, having irrationally decided that I wouldn't like it. I still haven't seen the first couple of episodes but I'm eagerly awaiting the second series.

But I fear that when series one is re-shown and billed as "multi-award-winning" some people are going to be disappointed. Not because it isn't brilliant but because this is the gentlest of comedies. It's a 'slice of life' comedy that sometimes reminds me of Mike Leigh's work, partly because it features Alison Steadman as Gavin's mum, doing a variation on her many Mike Leigh roles.

If there's one quality that defines Gavin and Stacey it's warmth. One could equally say heart or soul. It's a million miles from studio-based sitcoms like My Family or Not Going Out. There are wonderfully funny lines but no 'gags'. All the characters are 'real people' - in fact, less bizarre than some of the people one meets in everyday life.
I've heard the two friends of Gavin and Stacey (played by the writers Ruth Jones and James Corden) described as 'grotesques' but I think they represent the kind of stupid and unappealing friends that most people acquire in their lives and simultaneously "put up with" and feel inexplicable affection for.

It also features by far the funniest performance Rob Brydon has ever given, as Stacey's Uncle Bryn. I was going to describe him as Stacey's gay uncle but if Uncle Bryn were to read that he'd be horrified because he doesn't know that he's gay. The programme's website says only that he's "terrified of sex". Stacey does have a gay brother and there are many references to something that happened between him and Uncle Bryn on a fishing trip that causes Bryn to become deeply uncomfortable in his presence. But we are never told what this was. This is a good comedy trick, like having characters who never appear - remember Captain Mainwaring's wife who once came within seconds of walking into a room when an air raid siren went off and we had to be content with our mental image of her?
Uncle Bryn is the person you would least like to sit next to you on a train or stand next to you at a bar. There's a hilarious scene where he shows Gavin, who works in IT, how to use a computer. Bryn has come up with some strange mnemonic to remember the letters WWW. Gavin suggests that 'World Wide Web' might be better. Bryn concedes that's quite good and says he might use it in future.
Talking of Stacey's previous boyfriends, Bryn says they were all good-looking boys. Then, with breathtaking ingenuousness, he adds: "melt in the mouth, all of them." An uncomfortable silence descends on the room. I felt so embarrassed I almost walked out of my own living room.
I may be quite wrong about Bryn. It may be that what happened on the fishing trip was that he pretended to have caught a fish that he had previously bought at the fishmonger in order to impress his young nephew. That possibility only emphasises the subtlety of the writing and the characterisation.

That I've been able to write this much from memory and from just one viewing is proof of the quality of the writing and the power of the acting. If you want knowing caricatures of family life, raucous studio laughter and lots of mugging and close-up reaction shots, stick with 'My Family'. (Or, if you haven't time for that, watch the current BT commercials). But if you want something fresh and warm and altogether classier, watch the next showing of Gavin and Stacey. Or buy the DVD, kick the family out and settle down to a Boxing Day treat.

Friday, December 07, 2007

More God stuff

Something in Polly Toynbee's article this week could have been better phrased:
"A full-time nurse in every school should be part of the Children's Plan, to provide good sex and relationship education."
One imagines teenage boys saying "Good sex? Yes please, nurse, but I'll pass on the relationship education."
That aside, it's a good article (you can find your own way to it. I really don't have time to spoon-feed you people with links) that describes the shameful state of sex education in our schools. That the situation is getting worse is not unrelated to the proliferation of faith schools. Schools must have a policy on this by law but - wait for it - the policy can be not to have any sex education at all. And if they do have sex education, any parent can withdraw their child from it. The most damning evidence comes from the children themselves in a large survey carried out by the Youth Parliament.

There's a reply to Polly's article today from the Family Education Trust (funny how these religious people hide behind neutral names - see below). Everthing this man says should be put in the context of his organisation's belief that nobody should have sex before marriage. As lost causes go, that one must be up there with stopping bears shitting in the woods.
He also resorts to the desperate tactic of misrepresenting your opponent's views. He implies that those who want sex education in schools wish to force children to have sex as early and as often as possible. Or, as he puts it, promoting "the right of children to engage in unlawful sexual intercourse". Most of us want no such thing. If someone wants to postpone sexual experience until they are married or in a Civil Partnership (ooh, he won't like that!) I respect that choice completely. For it is a matter of personal choice.
It wouldn't be my choice. Personally, I think people should enjoy as much sex while they're young as they can, but with due regard for the health risks and other consequences, just as I would say that if you like football, play plenty of football while you can because in later life you might be crippled with arthritis. Indeed, you might be dead.
But then, I don't ring-fence sexual pleasure as the 'special gift of God', to which He's attached numerous restrictions. As Alan Bennett memorably said, calling it a special gift makes it sound like some of the items in the Houses of Parliament: 'The Woolsack in the House of Lords was a special gift from the people of New Zealand'.

"Sex education doesn't work" is the heading on this reply piece. But he carefully avoids the evidence from Holland which has some of the earliest and most explicit sex education in Europe yet also has one of the latest ages for first sex.


Buried in the the Guardian's Society section this week was an alarming piece about the use of religious organisations to provide statutory public services. It's based on a report by the British Humanist Association. Obviously, they're not neutral on this subject but the facts cannot be contested.
Religious organisations have some exemptions from equality laws, particularly in the employment of staff. (This goes back to Blair and his own religious views. By the time the issue of religious adoption agencies came up, Blair was in his final days and in a weakened position so the Cabinet stood up to him and he was unable to give the Catholic church an exemption.)
An outfit called Pecan, which has done work for Jobcentre Plus, states in its employment policies that it will only employ staff who sign up to the Evangelical Alliance 'Basis of Faith'.
Both the Government and the Conservatives want to use these kind of faith organisations more and more in the provision of state public services.

Although not covered in the Guardian article, I feel there's also an issue of transparency here in relation to the users of public services. Let's say you're an unemployed person and the Jobcentre puts you in touch with an organisation called Stepping Stones, or some equally silly name, to help you find training or work. If you knew that this was run by the Evangelical Alliance or the Salvation Army, you might well choose to find your own stepping stones back into work. For let's suppose you unwittingly invite one of these Bible-bashers into your home and introduce them to your Civil Partner or mention that you've done some voluntary work for your local Gay Switchboard. I have a feeling the atmosphere might turn a little frosty.

On Question Time (BBC1) last night, the audience applauded most loudly when members of the panel referred to miconceived and disgraceful attempts to abolish Christmas. Christ, I wish.....
This myth, peddled by the newspapers, is now as deeply entrenched as the story about schools banning Hot Cross Buns, which I wrote about long ago.
Serious journalists who have investigated these reports have found that hardly any of them were true. The best known one is Birmingham's alleged attempt to replace Christmas with 'Winterval'. But it never happened. 'Winterval' was an attempt to attract people to the shopping centre between November and February. In December, all the usual Christmas stuff happened - Carol services, lights, Father Christmas, etc.
On any false pretext the tabloids will run the story 'Now They Want To Ban Christmas!' At the heart of these stories is the line that it's all the fault of immigrants and their different faiths that we musn't offend. And of course, it's (fill in the dots) p........ c.......... gone m..
Last year there was a hoo-ha about how few religious Christmas cards were in the shops. Have they not noticed what the church attendance is these days? Presumably, the card business is market-driven like any other. If they could sell the bloody things, they'd be streaming off the production line.

Then there was the brouhaha about the Post Office issuing non-religious stamps, ignoring the fact that they have a policy of alternating religious (or rather Christian) stamps and secular ones. Personally, I don't see why they should ever put any kind of religious iconography on a universal product that we have no choice about buying. Ah, but it's a Christian festival, people say. No, the Christians took it over. Now, the wheel has turned again and it has become largely secularised and commercialised.
But not quite secularised enough where I live. Early on Christmas morning, a brass band plays religious music outside my window. This year I have the hardback copy of Dawkins' God Delusion ready to drop on their heads.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Count Arthur Strong

Count Arthur Strong, currently in the 6.30 slot on Tuesdays on Radio 4, is one of the very few comedians who can make me cry with laughter. Even my favourite comedians are doing well if a smile plays about my lips, but that's just a quirk of my character.
Given that most people have a sense of humour (and it's said to be one of the defining characteristics of being human), it's odd that humour should so divide people. And few comics divide people as dramatically as Count Arthur Strong. When his first series was broadcast, Radio 4 received indignant letters saying 'Why are you broadcasting this drivel?' and other letters hailing him as the greatest comic creation of our time.

The creation of Steve Delaney, Count Arthur is a former variety artist with delusions of grandeur. His indignation at not being recognised produces lines like "Why is it that you people always have to go through this silly rigmarole of pretending you don't know who I am?"
(It reminds me of when, as a teenager, I was introduced to the old variety and radio star Sandy Powell. He honoured me with his catchphrase, "Can you hear me, mother!" Not having a clue who he was, I gave him the kind of blank look those boys in B and Q give you when you ask where the 13 amp fuses are. He muttered into his whisky and went off in a huff.)

Count Arthur lives in a state of permanent confusion and misunderstanding although in his world view it's everyone else who is confused. His conversation is characterised by a combination of mild Tourette's, amnesia, malapropisms and periphrasis.
The accent is a rich and fruity Northern one with frequent modulations into what used to be called a 'telephone voice'. This will be totally lost on younger people because nobody under the age of eighty any longer uses a telephone voice. But when I was a child almost everyone, unless they already spoke like a member of the Royal Family, answered the phone in their telephone voice. If the person on the other end was friend or family they quickly dropped it. If not, they were forced to continue stretching their vowels on the rack of pretension.

In many ways, Count Arthur Strong is a throwback to an earlier generation of radio comedians: people like Robb Wilton, whose sundial sketch I once quoted at length in this blog. He was well before my time but a comedian I adored as a child was Harry Worth and there are definite echoes of Harry Worth in Count Arthur (although I've been told that Harry Worth was equally confused in real life, whereas Count Arthur is a created persona).

My enjoyment of Count Arthur is undoubtedly because this is language-based comedy as much as character comedy. If the physical world was engaged in an organised conspiracy against the great silent comedians, then it's words that conspire to obstruct Count Arthur's bumbling progress through life. Sometimes he has to take several runs at the right word, spitting out several similar words until he hits on the right one or explodes in anger. It's the verbal equivalent of trying to push a shopping trolley up a kerbstone.
Sometimes his brain gets locked into a theme that then infects everything he says. So, musing on war films leads to "the devil take the Hindenburg" and a request at the Post Office counter for "two second world wars."
From the same episode, there's this brilliant, surreal musing:"J Cloth......T Junction......U Bend......H Bomb......oh, it gets on your nerves, doesn't it, the alphabet?........Letters.......they might be all right for try adding up with them!"

In a famous malapropism, the internet became the 'Ilfracombe'. The context was a visit from a TV Licence inspector. Arthur explains that his cleaner, Doris, got her son to do it for him on the Ilfracombe. By way of explanation, he adds: "I've just had a postcard from Doris, that's why I said 'Ilfracombe'. She's on holiday."
Most comics would have left it there. The gag's done and dusted. But Arthur then adds: "Not that she's gone to Ilfracombe. She's" That second punchline lifts it from good to genius.

You may think that malapropisms, like puns, are easy gags to write. I beg to differ. Good ones are very difficult to fabricate. That's partly because the best ones come from real people in real life. I once worked with a woman who, instead of 'next of kin' always said 'next of skin', which is possibly better than the correct version. Or there was the woman I overheard talking about a man with a bad leg: "You know the man......the one who walks with a lisp."

I also like the role that food plays in Arthur's life, with his frequent visits to the local butcher and Jerry's Cafe. I like novelists who mention food and it's surprising how few do so when you consider how much time we spend preparing and eating it. Arthur has a predilection for offal, probably because it's cheap, and that also lends a period flavour because liver and kidneys don't feature in many people's diets today.

The episodes that include Malcolm are a particular joy. Malcolm, vividly brought to life by Terry Kilkelly, is a young performing arts student of negligible talent to whom Arthur gives tuition. Slightly camp, epitomising every provincial stage school no-hoper, his delusions of future stardom are a mirror image of the great future that Arthur has behind him. Like Arthur, he is destined to bore strangers with tales of his walk-on parts in today's equivalent of 'Juliet Bravo.'

I have felt a personal link with Count Arthur ever since reading that his creator, Steve Delaney's next door neighbour, known to him as 'Uncle Willy', was Chief Electrician at Leeds Grand. Steve has since kindly confirmed to me that this was the legendary Billy Kay and that "there is a bit of him in the Count alright!"
In a profession full of eccentrics, Billy Kay became famous throughout the theatre world. A friend took me to meet him in the 1970s. He was welcoming and charming and took me round the Leeds Grand. The bonkers side of him came out when, whilst talking about the history of the theatre, he would suddenly say something staggeringly obscene and then carry on quite normally.
On First Nights he would dress in an ancient dinner suit and wear pince-nezs and he wore a carnation buttonhole most days of the year. He had an idiosyncratic way of calling the lighting cues. For cue 8, he would sometimes shout "where the oil comes from!" which is pure Count Arthur. Thank God he wasn't around on my first night in the London theatre. As it was, I didn't understand a word that came through my tinny headphones and wondered why a chap called Alex had so many cues. It was several days before I discovered that the ASM was saying "Elecs cue".
Steve Delaney worked alongside Billy Kay (who was also his Godfather) at the Grand for a while and it's wonderful to think that some elements of that great character live on today through Count Arthur Strong.

This evening I was stupid enough to be chopping tomatoes while listening to Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show and almost severed my finger during his rendition of Churchill's "we shall fight them at the seaside" speech. If this is 'cult comedy' it's a dangerous cult to join. But with a third series in the pipeline, a guest appearance tonight by Barry Cryer and the acclaim of his peers, I think Steve Delaney has left that 'cult' tag behind. Of course, some people will never "get it" and their lives will be the poorer for it.
All we need now is a TV commissioner with the courage to translate these series to television, complete with the tuba and harp incidental music. Being television, the pictures won't be so good but it's a well-trodden path from 6.30 on Radio 4 to television stardom and for the Count I think the best is yet to come.

The first radio series is available on CD from Count Arthur's website:
or from Amazon.
This post is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Ronnie Brooks who introduced me to Billy Kay and to the wonderful backstage world of British theatre.
My thanks to Steve Delaney for additional information.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Where Have All the Script Editors Gone?

My memory may be playing tricks on me but I'm sure that those splendid Wednesday Plays and Plays For Today of my youth were seldom more than an hour long.
Last night we had an ITV 'drama' as they're now called, Who Gets The Dog?, that was almost two hours. Many of us Green Wing fans will have tuned in (why do we still say that? there's no tuning involved) to see the splendid Steven Mangan. I wonder how many people stuck with it beyond an hour.
In this case, never mind script editors. What was the commissioning editor thinking of? What was anybody thinking of?
This was a turkey that arrived a month early. The biggest, most overcooked turkey you're ever likely to see. A turkey that moved at the speed of a snail on valium.
In the short period of my remaining life that I wasted with it, I found myself wondering if the reason that Kevin Whately wasn't actually shagging his bit on the side was because she had an incipient moustache. Or maybe it was just the fall of the sunlight as they lay by a mountain stream like the one that used to be in the Consulate cigarette ads.
I was also concerned that this woman left her folding chairs in his car after they returned from the picnic. They may have belonged to the centre for disturbed teenagers where she worked. It was from there that she carried them when they set off. I had time to do this because the shot of Kevin Whately in his car after she'd left lasted a full ten seconds (I counted). Maybe he was wondering if she'd remembered the chairs. Or whether she'd take it the wrong way if he popped into Boots and bought her some depilatory cream.

Last week we had Channel 4's drama 'Boy A' about a boy who had murdered another child and, now a teenager, was released with a new identity. This also came in at two hours. It was an interesting subject but again I only lasted an hour. I'm probably in a minority here but I found it tedious beyond belief and the central performance as 'Boy A' intensely irritating. I don't blame the actor but he came across as someone with autism, which I don't think was ever the intention. It was also horribly predictable. After half an hour or less, the rest of the plot was all too apparent.

Where are the people who can explore complex subjects and move us to tears within sixty minutes?
Maybe it's that in a variation of Parkinson's Law, programmes have expanded to fill the time available.
In the old days, the Epilogue at 11, followed by the national anthem and close down must have concentrated minds wonderfully.

Quite Shocking

I had the misfortune to catch the Archbish of Canterbury Rowan Williams' ramblings on homosexuality on the wireless the other day and I was deeply shocked. There could well have been young people listening and what kind of example was this man setting them?

I can still scarcely believe it but Rowan Williams pronounced 'homosexuality' with a long 'o' as in 'home'.
We have been led to believe that Williams is one of the most educated and intellectual men ever to dress up in an embroidered dress and pointy hat and head our established church.
Does he really not know that 'homosexuality' comes from the Greek word for 'same' and not the Latin word for 'man'?
That's why it's perfectly acceptable to call a woman homosexual if you don't want to call her a lezzer or dyke or a lady of the Sapphic persuasion.
The man should hang his beard in shame.

Note: if you wish to know the Bearded One's animadversions on this subject it was along the lines of: 'it's right that gay people should be treated equally by the law and be able to form loving relationships......blah, blah......but it's also right that the church should be able to condemn homosexuality as against scripture...blah, blah.......sinful......against God's wishes.....blah, blah......will that do? that intellectually coherent enough?........does anyone give a fuck?.....'

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Chris Rock - Simply the Best

A common criticism of bloggers is that they do nothing but moan. So I like to share my enthusiasms as often as possible.
While I was 'resting' I discovered the stand-up comedy of Chris Rock. Most of the British audience will know him, if at all, from films or the TV comedy he wrote called Everybody Hates Chris. I have seen neither. But not too many people will have seen his stand-up act. His material is too strong for terrestrial channels. I caught it by chance on a satellite/cable channel.
I knew he was revered by many British comedians and soon discovered why. Indeed, I don't think a single British comic can hold a candle to him.

Starting with the content, there's a searing intelligence to his comedy, imbued with a deep and life-affirming humanity.
A comic has to liked, loved even. And it would be difficult not to love Chris Rock. I am unable to watch comics I don't like, however good their material.
Courage is also an admirable quality in comics and Chris Rock has it in bucketloads. That's also easier if your audience likes and respects you. So watch him condemn homophobia to a predominantly black audience and succeed in eliciting applause. Or see him assert that the most racist people on the planet are elderly black men and then explain the very good reasons why that is the case.

I said his material was 'strong'. That's partly because of liberal use of the 'm/f'' word, but also sequences on subjects like oral sex. But don't misunderstand me. The observational stuff on sex is only a small part of his act. However, I did wonder why I didn't find it offensive in the way that I find Jim Davidson or the late Bernard Manning offensive. I think the reason is that innuendo and double meanings are alien concepts to Chris Rock. And sex is not dirty or smutty but something to be celebrated. It's a million miles from the sniggering that charaterises so much British 'blue' humour. There's also something cathartic about the explicitness of Chris Rock. If the first reaction is 'did he really say that?', the second reaction is 'thank God he did!'

His material is so good that it often produces top-notch aphorisms as well as gags. I could easily fill a page of Willie's Little Book of Quotations' with lines from Chris Rock.
"A man is basically as faithful as his options."
"When you meet someone for the first time, you're not meeting them, you're meeting their representative."
If truth is the kernal of all good comedy, there's almost more truth in Chris Rock's act than you can take in an hour.

If you haven't yet seen his recorded concerts, I won't give away much of the material. But as we've just had World Aids Day I will say that there's a wonderful piece on waiting five days for the result of your Aids test and ringing round all your previous sexual partners to see if they're still alive. He compares this period of reflection to A Christmas Carol and being haunted by the Ghost of Pussy Past. Stunned to be told that a particular girl is dead, he whoops with joy on being further told that she was run over by a bus.

Finally, there's technique. I wouldn't usually watch a stand-up performance more than once. If Chris Rock is an exception, it's as much because of his technical skill as his material. And, after all, one would watch a great actor playing Hamlet several times, so why not a great comic?
When the content is familiar, you give more attention to the technique. Chris Rock prowls the stage like a caged tiger, trying to make individual eye contact with every member of an audience of thousands. Just watch his eyes. It's truly extraordinary. And how long should you ride the laugh? At what point do you start speaking again? Chris Rock knows to within a nano-second.
Even if the only public performance you've ever given was your talk as Team Leader to half a dozen colleagues about the re-organisation of the filing system, watch Chris Rock and learn. And marvel. And quite possibly despair.

Chris Rock: Comedy God! Chris Rock for President!

Note: At time of writing, British viewers with Virgin Cable TV can catch 'Chris Rock: Bigger and Blacker' on the On Demand service.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Time To Pull Off 12 Angry Men

We can all agree that rape is a terrible crime. We can also agree that the low conviction rate is regrettable. It's because of the latter that the Government is planning to educate juries in rape cases about such things as the ways that rape victims react, why they often delay reporting the rape, and so on. This will probably be done in the form of a booklet and video.
But this sets an intriguing precedent and undermines the whole point of trial by jury in the first place.
If the proposal goes ahead, then logically all juries should be provided with a booklet and video that explains, among other things:
- that identification evidence is often unreliable
- that police officers sometimes lie
- that real life bears no resemblance to TV cop shows
- that 'loner' doesn't equal 'psychopath'
- that people sometimes confess to crimes they haven't committed
- that an adverserial system is more about persuading a jury than eliciting the truth
- that forensic and scientific evidence is not always what it seems and expert witnesses often disagree about it
(On the last point, some members of the jury that convicted Barry George of the murder of Jill Dando have said that they would never have convicted had they known that the gunshot residue evidence was worthless.)

A lot of sentimental twaddle is talked about trial by jury. You know the kind of thing......the inalienable right of all free born Englishmen to be tried by twelve of their peers......a group of ordinary people drawn from all walks of life, exercising good old-fashioned British commonsense....
Well, thanks all the same, but I often think I'd rather take my chances with a single judge, even a fucking Old Etonian who thought Argos was a figure from Greek mythology. (which he was, but you get what I'm saying, your Honour).

Both judges and magistrates now undergo a great deal of training. The selection procedure for magistrates is both more open and more rigorous than it used to be. There are processes to try and screen out people of the 'put them up against the wall and shoot them' persuasion. And, as Peter Cook famously said, the judging exams are known for their rigour.
That's not to say that judges and magistrates don't sometimes do stupid things. But unlike juries they do so in public and there are ways of correcting them. A biased summing up can be grounds for a re-trial. Only recently, a bible-bashing magistrate who said he wouldn't place children with gay couples was told he couldn't pick and choose which bits of the law he applied because of his religious beliefs.

Juries are a relic from the days when people lived in small communities, before technology, before forensics and DNA, when the universal belief was that the sun went round the earth.
If we have training and monitoring for magistrates and judges, why would we want to pick twelve people at random from the electoral register to decide someone's guilt?
Ah, say the jury apologists, often with great condescension, you'd be amazed how seriously these 'ordinary people' take their responsibilities as jurors. No doubt some of them do. But someone who had served on a jury told me that their deliberations began with the laughing agreement that they'd all decided on the defendants' guilt the moment they walked into the dock - a presumption of guilt, they made clear to me, that was based on class, nationality and style of dress.

If you pick twelve members of the public at random, they may well include:
- the small percentage of people who don't know who the Prime Minister is
- those people who believe Eastenders is real and who assault soap actors who play villains in the street
- girls from shows like Big Brother who think Rio de Janeiro is a footballer
- every shade of bigot, racist and homophobe
- and these days, presumably, people who believe in Sharia Law

Be very suspicious of those politicians who extol the wisdom of the ordinary people. Ask them why Parliament abolished and will never re-introduce capital punishment. Ask them why they will never introduce compulsory castration and full-life prison terms for all sex offenders. Ask them why they won't completely close our borders to all immigrants. Ah well, they will explain, we have representative democracy. MPs make up their own minds on issues. If their electors don't like it they have a chance to vote them out of office every five years.
Translation: a lot of people are very stupid. Many are dangerously stupid. Democracy's fine in small doses. It's a check against tyranny and absolutism. But you'd be fucking crazy to want too much of it.
A view which I heartily endorse. As you might expect. For the freedoms I now enjoy as a gay man have all been won by ignoring the common sense, nay, the wisdom of the majority of people.
So why do we get misty-eyed about the jury system? Why do we rejoice when a jury surprises us by getting it absolutely right and forget that every shocking conviction of an innocent person has been by a jury, either through stupidity or prejudice or because the truth has been distorted by clever prosecution barristers?

The proposal to give training to rape juries concedes the points I am making. Already, child protection organisations are demanding something similar for sex abuse trials. These are two emotive issues where people are desperate to get convictions even where there is no corroborating evidence - and that's a very danerous path to go down. But once we accept that jurors need educating or training, the whole raison d'etre of the jury system is blown to pieces. And maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing.