Thursday, July 31, 2008

Get Real

Discussions on the radio today about the age-rating of video games, though the idea that younger children won't get access to them from older brothers or friends seems absurd.

Apparently the TV psychologist Tanya Byron reported to the Government that children under 12 are unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. That is a staggeringly stupid generalisation.
Do children come down to breakfast on their twelfth birthday and announce: "Father Christmas doesn't exist. Eastenders isn't real. George Bush isn't President of America. Can I have my copy of Grand Theft Auto now?"
"Well, you got 2 out of 3, so here you are, dear. Don't spend all day on the computer."

As I've often said, one of the problems of censorship is that it leads people into fantasy-land itself, not to mention crazy inconsistencies.
When the DVD of Summer Heights High is released in Britain at the end of the year, it seems it will be given a 15 Certificate. This is no doubt because of the strong language. Yet this coming Saturday evening, a child of any age can watch it on BBC television at the relatively early time of 9.20 pm. And millions of kids have unsupervised access to TV in their bedrooms. Furthermore, they can watch a lot of it on the internet.

There's still a case for the 9pm watershed on TV because it's a wonderfully simple idea that everyone understands. But all the other apparatus of censorship is just pissing against the wind.

Intimations of Fogeydom (Contd)

You know you're getting old when your local paper does a supplement called a Proms Special and, instead of articles about Vaughan Williams and Nigel Kennedy, you find photos of what used to be called Sixth Form Discos.

Remind me. Which fucking country am I living in?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Summer Heights High - The Final Reckoning

Last night Summer Heights High (BBC3) reached its triumphant conclusion with a final episode that was everything one could have hoped for and more.
I didn't think anything could eclipse the opening of Mr G's excruciating musical but I was wrong. It was Jonah who stole the final episode, a rare case of an actor upstaging himself since Chris Lilley plays both Mr G and Jonah.

This isn't a show that has mixed pathos with comedy - not until this final episode. The Guardian's Sarah Dempster described Jonah's expulsion as "a masterclass in bitterweet understatement". It was also one of the most heartbreaking things I've seen for a very long time.
This is a bizarre comparison but when Jonah was dragged from the remedial English class it was almost as painful to watch as the scene in Cathy Come Home when Cathy's screaming children are wrested from her by social services. In vain did I tell myself that this was a comedy, that Jonah was a fictional character being played by his comedy actor creator.
I won't give away the ending but Jonah had the last laugh and left his mark on the school all too literally. Good on you, Jonah, one felt and then realised that was, according to every conventional social norm, completely the wrong reaction. Or was it? At one level, behaviour that no "right-thinking citizen" could condone but at another level the triumph of the individual over the rigid and uncomprehending system. So those final shots were strangely moving too, at least to an old anarchist like myself.

All the "behaviour contracts", "pathway programmes", and "extreme behavioural problem student management strategies" had totally failed Jonah. His favourite word was 'bullshit' and he was ultimately swept out of the school and back to Tonga by a tsunami of bullshit.
The only person who could reach him was his remedial English teacher. This was because she liked him and wanted to help him, not change him. When he told her to fuck off she smiled and fucked off.
Not rising to the bait is often the best tactic. When, during my limited experience of teaching, I said that Milton Keynes was the fastest-growing town in Britain, a boy said: "Yeah, they never stop fucking in Milton Keynes!"
I paused for a moment and then said "Yes, that might well have something to do with it." It got a big laugh and seemed to gain me more respect than an angry reaction would have done. (Apart from that, I was not a good teacher and detested it).
There are parts of Summer Heights High that could be used on teacher training programmes. The young, inexperienced mainstream English teacher provides an example of how not to do it. But God, how one feels for the poor woman.

My favourite minor character was the boy who was Mr G's original leading man in the musical. I doubt that we see him for more than 20 seconds in the entire series but he made me laugh as much as anyone.
He's very slightly camp and his performance is stage school cheesy which is probably why he reminded Mr G of a younger version of himself. The brief clips of 'Anything Goes' in the first episode are some of the funniest in the series. Mr G's camp little sideways kicks in "I Get A Kick Out of You" are something to treasure forever. And in those scenes, Matthew is always a couple of seconds behind Mr G's moves. Unfortunately, there's a falling out and Matthew is never seen again, with Mr G telling the other pupils that he was a prick and will never be in any future show.

This might surprise you but I think the brilliance of Chris Lilley's Mr G persona is that it is slightly understated. On the camp-o-meter I would put it at 7 or 8. A less clever actor would have taken it up to 9 or 10 and then it wouldn't have been so believable or effective.
It may be significant that Chris Lilley is straight. It takes both a bad actor and a gay actor to go sickeningly over the top and mince like a turbo-charged sausage machine. (See Sean in Coronation Street).
Like all good actors, Chris Lilley uses his eyes to terrific effect and they seem different with every character. We see less of his eyes in the case of Jonah because like a lot of teenage boys he is usually staring at the ground or looking up resentfully from lowered eyelids. The attention to detail in Chris Lilley's performances is incredible.

The most uncomfortable scenes in a show that often shocked at first viewing were of 16 year old Ja'ime forcing 12 year old Sebastian to be her boyfriend and her date for the Formal. As always with Ja'ime, this was done solely to draw attention to herself. But Sebastian was a small and quiet 12 year old, still in short trousers and Ja'ime, being played by Chris Lilley, was a hulking, predatory Amazon of a girl. The squirm factor went off the scale.
Ja'ime intended to take a lesbian girl to the Formal, again to focus attention on herself, but when the girl discovered Ja'ime wasn't really a lesbian she pulled out. Ja'ime then reverted to Plan A and took a bewildered-looking Sebastian. "I'd rather be a paedophile than a lesbian", she said. I nominate that as one of the most extraordinary comedy lines ever written.

The supporting cast were exceptional. My favourite was Rodney, the science teacher who helped Mr G with the musicals and played the keyboard. He's Mr G's only friend amongst the staff and it seems to be the attraction of opposites.
Rodney seems starstruck by Mr G who treats him as his poodle. I won't say he's Mr G's bitch because there's nothing sexual in the relationship and Rodney is married. But we do learn that Rodney sometimes goes to dinner at Mr G's house and then they watch a DVD together.
Poor put-upon Rodney is the only person in the world who believes that Mr G is "professional industry standard" and has the "triple threat" (can sing, dance and act). Every self-obsessed prima donna needs a Rodney as a willing and self-effacing myrmidon to their fantasies.

When I first wrote about Summer Heights High on the basis of seeing two episodes, I mentioned the double satire on attitudes to the Special Needs kids. But it's actually even more complex than that.
The way that Mr G talks about them is often offensive and it's a bit rich for a gay character to be contrasting them with the 'normal' kids. Yet in another respect he is more egalitarian than the school establishment. He refuses to make any concessions to their disabilities, pooh-poohing the idea that they should be treated any differently and being brutally honest about their shortcomings in performing. "It was your dancing that let you down", he dismissively tells Toby, the boy with Downs Syndrome. (For complicated reaons, Toby eventually ends up in a leading role in the musical. I suspect one of the reasons may be that Mr G does not want anyone as good as, or better than, himself in the show.)

Toby (Danny Alsabbagh) is one of the stars of the series. It's difficult to write the following without sounding patronising but I'll do my best. One of the great things about the series was the way you grew to like Toby as a person on his own terms. You didn't stop noticing his Downs Syndrome because that's an integral part of who he is. But you saw beyond it to a warm person with a sense of humour who was enjoying his role in the show.
There are several remarkable scenes with Mr G and Toby sitting on a bench talking. Some didn't make the final cut but are on the DVD and on YouTube. It's impossible to know how tightly scripted these were and there's always a point where Toby starts chuckling at something Mr G says.
In one, Toby tells Mr G that "Fuck you" is Syrian for "How are you?", something his mother has told him. The opener of the penultimate episode has Mr G talking about bullying and the names, like 'spazz', that Toby gets called. But, as always with Mr G, this is just an excuse to talk about himself and the bullying he endured at school, not least because his real name was 'Helen', "the Greek masculine version of the name."
The propensity of people with Downs Syndrome to throw their arms round people is incorporated as almost a running gag. In one eyebrow-raising scene, Mr G ingenuously demonstrates to the camera the appropriate and the inappropriate ways to touch Toby ("This is fine. This is not fine"). Like much else, it sounds worse in print than it actually is.

A reviewer in The Times (Hugo Rifkind) wrote: "I'm still waiting for a comedian to explain to me when or why laughing at "special" kids in "special" schools became such easy, light-hearted fun". I marvel at the fact that someone so obtuse should be let loose reviewing TV programmes. For at no time have I felt that I was being asked to laugh at Toby or any other of the other special needs kids. I was laughing at a clever and complex portrayal of the muddle we get into when dealing with any kind of difference.
Being 'politically incorrect' for the sake of it and to get an easy laugh is Ricky Gervais' department. Chris Lilley is doing something that is superficially far more shocking but is actually groundbreaking, admirable and thought-provoking - to anyone with half a brain to see it.

I'll end, as I did before, with that super, gorgeous, utterly brilliant tracking shot on the opening titles. Closer inspection reveals two, possibly three, edit points. The jury's still out on the third one. But only purists will object to those. The structure and composition of this shot is damn near perfect (as is the music, written by Chris Lilley. Is there anything he can't do?). It's the flight of steps that lift it into tracking shot heaven.
And guess what? The final episode ended with a reverse angle of the boy running out of the school just to surprise us and bookend the series. To those who appreciate such things, this was another piece of genius.

No, on second thoughts I'll end with the coincidental news that yesterday the King of Tonga announced that he is "voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people". So, as Jonah is despatched back to his homeland he might console himself with the thought that bullshit can sometimes be beaten. Let's hope there's break-dancing (and graffiti) in the streets of Tonga tonight.

For the second time in a fortnight, BBC3 is showing the entire series back-to-back, this time starting at the earlier time of 9.20 pm on Saturday, 2nd August.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Short-arsed post until the temperature falls

You know you're getting old when you expect a supplement in The Observer called Wireless World to be full of nice features about your favourite radio programmes.


BBC News channel reporter this morning:
"The Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare is destroyed by fire but on the beach the donkeys continue doing their business."
Dirty bastards.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

My Non-Designer Genes

There are very few Guardian readers in my village. The newsagent stocks hundreds of copies of the tabloids but rarely more than half a dozen Guardians.
I almost never see a fellow Guardian reader. They either get up very late or buy them covertly for fear of being attacked by a gang of Daily Mail readers.
But this afternoon I saw a middle-aged man buying the Guardian.
He had a beard and was wearing sandals. His hair was slightly too long for a man of his age.
I think he caught me staring at him but I could hardly explain that I was looking for fragments of organic muesli in his beard.

I haven't worn sandals since I was six. I never eat muesli. And I don't have a beard. I should probably not be allowed to buy the Guardian.

There's little chance of me growing a beard since, as I once described here, when I briefly grew a moustache it was ginger. So with a beard I would look like George Bernard Shaw.
It's very odd because neither the hair on my head nor any of my body hair is ginger. I must have an aberrant ginger gene which has targeted my facial follicles but couldn't be arsed with the head, chest, pits or pubes.
My gay gene is incensed by this disregard for colour co-ordination.
(No, actually it isn't. I played the stereotype card purely for comic effect).
I blame my mother, for she was a ranga*. Her Mick Hucknall impressions were amazing. (I made that up. The 30 degree temperature is affecting my customary veracity).

It doesn't end there. My eyes are different colours. Not so different as to attract attention on the street. But noticeable when you get up close and personal. I wish had a pound for every pre- or post-coital conversation that has included the phrase "Did you know your eyes are different colours?"
To which the only reply is: "No, all the mirrors in the house got smashed when I was a child. That's why I've had 35 years of bad luck in meeting twats like you."

One short-lived boyfriend ( I don't mean he died. So far as I know the bastard's still alive) went even further and said I had "mad eyes".
"That's a bit rich coming from a psycho like you", I replied. That wasn't a relationship that was written in the stars.

Since some of you may now glance at the photo on this blog, I have to admit that he had a point. Indeed, when I first published that picture I almost got myself voluntarily sectioned before I ran amok with a chainsaw.

All of which leads me to conclude that a gay gene is the least of my worries. I'm a walking genetic disaster area. The mis-matched hair colours, the different coloured eyes, the unusually large (no, I won't go there)..........a few hundred years ago I would have been burned at the stake.
'Intelligent Design'? Don't make me laugh.

*ranga: a person with red hair. Much used in Summer Heights High.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Chris Morris Or A New Nadir For The BBC?

We haven't heard or seen much of Chris Morris recently (The Day Today, Brass Eye).
I think I know why. He's working undercover on Radio 4's PM programme.

Yesterday they ran a piece on this year's Proms season being a "punch-up" between Vaughan Williams and Oliver Messiaen.
A reporter said to a conductor: "If this was a boxing match, who would win? Vaughan Williams or Messiaen?"
Don't tell me that wasn't written by either Chris Morris or Armando Ianucci.
If it wasn't, then the BBC's coverage of culture, always cited as a justification for the licence fee, sinks ever lower.

Searching For The (Gay) Hero Inside Yourself

The Making of Me (BBC1) had John Barrowman on that ancient debate: are people born gay, do they become gay through environmental influences or is it a choice?
The scientific consensus today is that sexual orientation is determined before birth. But there is no certainty about whether it is genetic or caused by something that happens in the womb - for example, levels of testosterone.

Whilst at one level the cause is an irrelevance, like most gay people Barrowman was delighted to find that he was 'born gay'. This is partly because it accords with a gay person's own experience, with some knowledge of their orientation pre-dating puberty, and partly because it spikes the guns of those who assert it is a wilful and sinful lifestyle choice.

But (you knew there was a 'but' coming), like all popular science programmes this was a mish-mash of gross generalisations, half-baked science, conceptual confusions and hypotheses presented as fact.

If you're going to examine the nature and behaviour of a minority of the population, it's not a bad idea to look at the the nature and behaviour of the majority. If you look at what causes the majority of people to be heterosexual, it might provide some clues as to why a minority are homosexual. In the same way, to ask why most of us are not criminals is as interesting a question as why some people do break the law. I'm sure this forms part of the scientific approach and might have been mentioned in the programme.

A more serious criticism is that the programme perpetuated the gay/straight dichotomy. It totally ignored bisexuality - defined as an equal physical and emotional attraction to both sexes. Or indeed the possibility of a spectrum of sexual orientation with some people predominantly but not exclusively straight or gay.
If scientists are searching for a 'gay gene', are they also looking for a 'bisexual gene' or for that matter a 'heterosexual gene'?

Actually, I'm pretty certain that most geneticists would dismiss the idea of a 'gay gene' as highly improbable. Genetics is an incredibly complex science that has the misfortune to be rendered in popular discussion as something absurdly simple. It's rendered even more complex by 'epigenetics' which studies the interaction of genes and the environment and includes the possibility of some genes having the capacity to be 'switched on' or 'switched off'.

More worryingly, the 'gay gene' hypothesis has been seized on by those would like to be able to either prevent or 'cure' homosexuality. Not so long ago, one of our lovely tabloids was crowing over the fact that mothers might be able to abort a foetus with the 'gay gene'.

Most of the theories presented in the programme were no more than 'lines of enquiry'. Some of them seemed highly dubious and relied on very small research samples.
I say this as a non-scientist with an interest in science and a great admiration for the Guardian's Ben Goldacre who exposes the fallacies and absurdities of so many science stories that appear in the media.

We saw a psychologist who studied the play patterns of children who turned out to be gay based on home movie footage and asserted that the gay children manifested gender non-conformist styles of play. The problem, it seems to me, is that this research was based solely on children whose parents had taken either old 8mm or camcorder footage of their children, a relatively small sample of the population.
Another problem is that the act of filming can change the behaviour of the subject. Was the little girl smashing a cup on the ground because she was a lesbian or because she was doing something for the camera? (I leave aside the question of whether smashing crockery is typical lesbian behaviour).
The psychologist may have been on to something. On the other hand, do the clips on 'You've Been Framed!' prove that most young children fall off the trampoline into the swimming pool or that your auntie's knickers will always fall down on the dance floor at your sister's wedding?

Then there was the theory that your chances of being gay are vastly increased if you have an older brother. If you have several older brothers you might as well book a holiday in Ibiza and stick your profile on Gaydar immediately.
I lay in bed last night thinking of all the gay friends I've had and a high proportion of them, like me, had no brothers. Which proves absolutely nothing, of course. Small sample, no control group, etc, etc. Nevertheless, it made me reluctant to accept this theory at face value.

The most infuriating thing in the programme was the confusion of sexual orientation with gender or gender characteristics. The worst case was the example of two small boys who were twins. One played with cars and soldiers, the other with dolls. The latter had told his mother he wanted to be a girl. Unless this was something insignificant and transitory, it sounded like someone with a transgender condition rather than homosexuality.

There is no necessary correlation between feminine characteristics and homosexuality in men. Some gay men are camp or effeminate. The majority are not. Some are terrifyingly macho or butch. Conversely, some straight men can be very camp. Indeed, the programme opened with Barrowman being asked to guess the sexuality of ten men. One who was as camp as Christmas turned out to be straight. It was a pity then that the programme later made such an issue of gay male children playing with dolls and having girls rather than boys as their friends. Some, including Barrowman, may well do so. I doubt that it is true of the majority.

I certainly never played with dolls or had girls as friends. I climbed trees and played football and hung around street corners with other boys. It's true that I never liked 'fun fighting' or what my mother called 'horseplay'. Forgive my arrogance, but I attribute this to intelligence rather than gayness.
I do remember sometimes wrestling in the playground with another boy at secondary school. "I've got an erection!" he would say. "So have I", I'd reply. (It was a Grammar School so we used the correct terms. No 'stiffies' or 'hard-ons' for us). Another boy was forever groping me which was very disconcerting because I fancied him like hell.
Both these boys, I see from Friends Reunited, are now married with several children. I think straight boys are actually more likely to engage in sexual behaviour with other males at puberty than gay boys simply because they know they are straight and so attach little importance to it. But if you know that you are gay and it's part of a more general attraction then, like Coke, It's The Real Thing and all the more scary for that. Of course, I'm talking of over 40 years ago when the term 'gay' didn't even exist and 'homo' was only used as a good-natured jibe rather than a serious insult.

In interviews about last night's programme, Barrowman revealed that he gets several letters or emails a week from young people who are worried about being gay or about telling their families. It's incredible that still today young gay boys are reduced to seeking help and advice from high-profile gay celebrities. We have almost total legal equality. We have gay characters in soap operas and we have Civil Partnerships. Yet a gay actor like John Barrowman is required to give solace and hope to young people wracked by misery and confusion.

Most schools are still not providing adequate sex education nor support for gay students. And imagine you are a gay teenager with strict Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim or Jewish parents. Or parents with deep-seated non-religious bigotry. What kind of living hell must that be? What degree of fortitude must you summon up just to cope with being you?
There was a period in my early teens when I cried myself to sleep every night. Maybe that's why I rarely cry now. A lifetime's tears drenched my adolescence.
But I'm fighting back the tears now. Thinking of young kids today unable to talk to anyone, least of all their close family, or bullied at school. Thinking of all that needless suffering and the shocking complacency about it.

So, despite my criticisms of last night's programme, I think its overall impact was positive. It may have helped some people and educated others. John Barrowman deserves credit for making it and for using his celebrity in a more constructive way than going on some crass reality show.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Little scrubber Willie, down on his knees again

Didn't realise it was so long since I posted anything. Time flies when you're not enjoying yourself.
The hiatus is mainly due to Lupin Towers being back on the market and the need to make it look presentable to prospective buyers.

For once, I have some sympathy for the aristocracy who have to open their homes to the public, although I doubt that they themselves are ever on their knees scrubbing floors with Flash liquid.
A girl I knew once offered to come and scrub the floors of my flat, saying she was very good at that. I said that might explain why several mutual friends had told me she was a scrubber.
She then withdrew the offer.
Women can be rather touchy like that.

Fortunately, my new estate agent has more of a sense of humour and did not take offence when I told him yesterday that a recession is simply nature's way of culling estate agents.
There are a great many books in my home so you can be sure that some twat will say "Have you read all those?"
And should you conceal any contentious titles? Will The God Delusion offend any bible-bashers and would the late Paul Foot's Why You Should Be A Socialist deter any Tories?
Who cares? Any bible-bashers and Tories can fuck off.
My ideal buyer would be a gay, Guardian-reading blogger who likes gardening and Coronation Street and won't turn the place into some poncy, minimalist nightmare that you see in the Sunday supplements.
Maybe it would be easier if I just stayed here.


It's a relatively recent development for police officers to call a press conference after a trial and not just describe the investigation but launch a vitriolic attack on the character of the convicted person.
I don't recall this happening after any of the high profile trials of my childhood. The most they would say was that they were pleased with the result and felt justice had been done.
Since a proportion of convictions will be overturned on appeal, the police should not be engaging in this kind of public character assassination.
And even where the defendant has pleaded guilty, the facts of a case speak for themselves. If someone has, for example, brutally raped and murdered someone, why do we need some prima donna detective mounting a metaphorical pulpit on the court steps to tell us this man is despicable and evil?


Tonight BBC3 is kindly repeating the first few episodes of Summer Heights High, starting at 11.50pm. The early episodes have some of the funniest scenes, including Mr G's drama class and the glorious silliness of 'Slap the Butcher.'
This series has been a slow burner, gaining viewers by serendipity and word-of-mouth so those who came late to the party can set their recording devices tonight.
I was pleased to see that the Guardian's excellent TV Editor, Gareth McLean, has joined the fan club and made it a pick of the day this week.
There's much more to be said about it but I'll wait until after next week's final episode.
The DVD isn't released in Britain until November but at least that will catch the Christmas market. In Australia it was the top-selling TV DVD of all time.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A New Political Myth Is Born

You will have read or heard dozens of times this week that Gordon Brown had compared himself to Heathcliff.
Except that he didn't.

It was put to him that some other people had compared him to Heathcliff and he gave a jokey reply. That is completely different from making the comparison himself.

Here's the relevant passage from the New Statesman interview in context:

"There is a human side to Gordon. He may be uncomfortable talking about himself, but on the train home our conversation is punctuated with laughter, and most of it is neither nervous nor insincere.
Is he a romantic? I ask. "Ask Sarah," he chuckles. Some women say you remind them of Heathcliff, I suggest. Brown is, after all, brooding and intense. "Absolutely correct," he jokes. "Well, maybe an older Heathcliff, a wiser Heathcliff."

The context is important: a lighter interlude in an interview conducted on a train. Of course, if Brown had paused to reflect on what the media might do with this, he might have said "No comment." But even then the reports might have said 'Brown refuses to deny that he resembles Heathcliff', which would quickly have morphed into 'Brown compares himself to Heathcliff.'

But if Brown does indeed resemble Heathcliff, Tony Blair may need to reconsider what he said in his last Conference speech: "At least I don't have to worry about her [Cherie] running off with the bloke next door."
For here is Cherie on page 30 of her recent memoirs: "it was thanks to [my grandmother] that I discovered Wuthering Heights and fell in love with Heathcliff, Emily Bronte's dark-skinned orphan from Liverpool."

It's so long since I read Wuthering Heights that I was surprised by the revelation that Heathcliff was a Scouser. Somehow it just doesn't feel right.
Heathcliff saying to Cathy: "Come ahead, soft girl. Don't stand there like one of Lewis's. Y'know yer wanna."?
No. I think not.

This will now join the well-established myth that Brown said he liked listening to the Arctic Monkeys, for which he was widely derided.
In that case, the interviewer asked him if he liked the Arctic Monkeys. Brown only said "they would certainly wake you up in the morning."
This is a typical reply to such a question from someone of Brown's age (and mine). Translated, it means: "I've sometimes heard snatches of their music and thought 'What a fucking racket'".
This mis-reporting soon accreted new detail like a snowball rolling down a hill, including the claim that Brown listened to the Arctic Monkeys on his iPod.
I don't even know if Brown has an iPod. He strikes me as a non-iPod man like myself, someone who doesn't want music piped into his head every waking hour.


Following up on my last post about the Christian Registrar who refused to perform Civil Partnership ceremonies and won her case at a tribunal, this was covered on Sunday (Radio 4) today, the religious magazine programme.
Joshua Rosenburg, the Torygraph legal correspondent, explained that the ruling meant that gay rights and religious rights had equal weight in law. One could not have primacy over the other. This baffled the presenter, Roger Bolton, as much as it baffled me.
Asked if a Catholic who worked in a chemist could refuse to sell contraceptives, Rosenburg said no, because that was an essential part of working in a chemist.
But surely today conducting Civil Partnerships is an essential part of working as a Registrar?
The only issue in all this is whether religious beliefs should give exemption from both laws and contracts of employment. If the answer is 'yes', then why is this privilege accorded to religious beliefs and not other beliefs?

Of course, in recent years religions managed to get exemption from various equality laws, although failed to do so in respect of adoption by gay couples because a weakened Blair was over-ruled by his Cabinet.
An unfortunate precedent was set many years ago when Sikh men were given exemption from the legal requirement for motorcycle riders to wear crash helmets.
The other question raised by this is what constitutes a religion or a religious belief? If I were to establish my own religion tomorrow, could I claim exemption from laws and employment duties on the basis of my beliefs? I suspect not.

Incidentally, although I resent two hours of Sunday mornings on Radio 4 being given over to religion, I never miss the 'Sunday' programme. Listening to Christians fighting like ferrets in a sack is vastly entertaining to atheists. And it contains more discussion of homosexuality than any other programme.
I'm always reminded of something that Bernard Levin wrote about political fundamentalists and which is equally true of religions:
"Factions dealing in fictions are prone to frictions leading to fractions."


Listening to Round Britain Quiz in bed last night, I got quite a few of the answers.
In more that 40 years of listening to bits of this programme, I have never even understood the fucking questions.
You see, I don't do cryptic.
That's not who I am.
What the hell had happened? Had my brain suddenly rewired itself?
What next? Will I be able to do quadratic equations or understand string theory?
Maybe it was all a dream. I do hope so.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Daily Mail Heaven: Christians:1 Homos: 0

Much rejoicing in Daily Mail-Land today over the Christian Registrar who has been backed by a tribunal after 'refusing to marry gays'.

She even had her photo on the Mail front page. She isn't white but, my dear Mail readers, you can't have everything and you have to clutch at straws when we're all going to hell in a handcart.
Not that anyone was forcing this woman to marry 'a gay' herself. Nor even to 'marry' gays to each other since the Government assured us that a Civil Partnership was not a 'marriage', the churches having declared a monopoly on that concept.
She was simply being asked to officiate at a secular, legal ceremony as part of her duties as a Registrar.

When I worked in the public sector I once had to tell a member of staff who held religiously-based anti-gay prejudices that they were perfectly entitled to hold such views but that, between the hours of 9 and 5, they had to put them on one side, adhere to the organisation's policies and be non-discriminatory in their dealings with the general public.
It's part of the impartiality and professionalism of being a public servant.
Similarly, when you work in local government you have to have good working relationships with politicians from political parties you detest. Personally, I never found that a problem. And if I had refused to take phone calls from Tory politicians I would have been out the door before you could say P45.

The decision on the Registrar sets a worrying precedent. People working in the public sector have many dealings with gay people, both individually and with some notional 'gay community'. Some councils have gay and lesbian panels or forums which their officers may be required to attend to explain and discuss policies that impinge on gay people. The same is true of local health authorities.
Are employees to be entitled to opt out of such engagement on religious grounds?

At the heart of this is the assertion, obviously accepted by the tribunal, that religious belief is in a different category from any other deeply held belief and should enjoy unique privileges that are recognised by law.
I can see no justification for this.

Let's consider a non-religious deeply-held belief. If you are a vegetarian, don't go and work in a butcher's shop. Simple.
But it may be that the Registrar was already in post before Civil Partnerships were introduced and was faced with a change of circumstances that she couldn't accept.
So let's continue the analogy.
You are a vegetarian working in a vegetarian restaurant. The restaurant is sold and turned into a steak house. The new owner agrees to retain existing staff. You say you will happily cook and serve vegetables but you won't cook or serve meat. The owner says that's impractical and suggests you move to another job.
Is this unfair? A disregard for your beliefs?
I think most people would say: tough shit. Life's a bitch. Move on. Get over it.

In the case of the Registrar, the issue isn't actually that she's a Christian. It's that she's a particular type of Christian. For there are many Christians who accept gay partnerships.
So is the law to give exemptions to every arcane, minority belief within a religion? There's a prohibition in the Old Testament on wearing clothes of mixed fibres. I don't know whether any Christians adhere to that but if they do could an employee of Marks and Spencer take them to a tribunal for making them selling a cotton/polyester garment?
We don't actually need to create hypothetical examples. We've already had the case of Muslims in supermarkets refusing to sell or handle alcohol. But then some Imams said they were mistaken and that they were only prohibited from drinking it. So the general lunacy is only compounded by the level of disagreement within the different religions.

Meanwhile, nobody is at all concerned at the extent to which the non-religious have religion rammed down their throats. Think of all the kids in 'faith schools' whose parents pretended to be religious to get them admission. Or, that old bugbear of secularists, Thought For The Day on the Today programme, which has sometimes included offensive anti-gay rants.

Coverage of the General Synod and the forthcoming Lambeth Conference is out of all proportion to its interest to most of the population.
But I must admit that I enjoyed the report from the former that, when the vote went in favour of women Bishops, young male ordinands in the gallery sat and wept.
Oh, how I laughed!
I'd pay good money to see footage of those little twats crying into their cassocks. I wonder if it's on YouTube?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Summer Heights High

Like many people I was amazed to read of the furore in Australia over Gordon Ramsay swearing in his TV show. I thought that Australians could swear for the Commonwealth. I'm even more amazed now that I've belatedly discovered the Australian comedy series Summer Heights High (BBC3) which has a fuck count only equalled by the British comedy The Thick Of It (which is returning. Praise be!). Moreover, Summer Heights High is a mock-doc set in a real school with real school kids as the supporting cast. Maybe the edginess of the humour overshadowed the swearing.

I've always loved the mock-doc as a comedy genre and, contrary to common belief, it wasn't invented by Fatty Gervais. And Summer Heights is up there with the best.
The three central characters are played by writer Chris Lilley: Mr G, the camp drama teacher; Jonah, the 13 year old bad boy; and Ja'ime, a bitchy girl student on an exchange from a private school.

This is a rare case where the term 'satirical' can accurately be applied to a comedy. One of the things it brilliantly satirises is the way that the global bullshit industry has invaded education as depressingly as every other aspect of life.
The school has a 'Peer Mediation Facilitator', a title that I'm sure exists in many schools today, and the mediation works wonderfully up to the point where the students leave the room and resume hurling abuse at each other.
One of the teachers proudly tells us that he's just been on a weekend course in Extreme Behavioural Problem Student Management and immediately implements a mentoring scheme involving Jonah and his gang. The outcome is that the little Year 7 boys that Jonah and friends are mentoring soon appear at the swimming gala with erect penises drawn on their backs.

In the first episode I saw, a female teacher said to Jonah and his friends "what are you doing?" Jonah replies: "Stop fucking perving at us, Miss."
So Grange Hill it isn't. But, to be fair, he did call her 'Miss'.
Jonah has been given a 'contract' to moderate his behaviour. A teacher enthusiastically explains that Jonah drew up the contract himself so "if he breaks the rules, he's only breaking his own rules." This misses the point that Jonah doesn't care whose fucking rules he's breaking because if he obeyed any rules at all that would make him a fucking homo.

A sequence that had me crying with laughter was about sexual abuse. Not a sentence I ever thought I'd write. But there was no actual abuse, just a joke that went too far.
Jonah leaves in the art room an explicit drawing of his father touching him in an inappropriate way (as they say). The art teacher calls him in for a chat. Soon the whole apparatus of child protection policies is activated.
Jonah and his father are called in for a meeting with two teachers. The drawing is produced and the allegation put. There's an explosion of incredulity from Jonah's innocent but brutish father: "What the fuck are you talking about? Why would I want to touch his genitals?........I didn't fucking touch his fucking dick, you fuck!"
When Jonah admits he invented the story, the teachers take a familiar tack: "If your Dad is making you lie, you have to know that there are people who will listen to you."
With the father's innocence finally accepted, Jonah, with a degree of chutzpah that only a teenage boy could summon up, says: "You should apologise to my Dad."
The teachers offer his Dad a cup of tea.
"Stick your fucking cup of tea up your arse!" says his Dad.
Despite his track record for this kind of thing, the possibility that Jonah had invented this for a laugh was never considered. Maybe that's more sensible than automatically believing the adult. My point is that, below the surface hilarity, this is intelligent, insightful comedy.

And so to Mr G the drama teacher (pictured) and his production of the school musical.
Whilst a camp, gay drama teacher may not be a very original idea, he's the most entertaining character, brilliantly written and portrayed by Chris Lilley.
One theme is Mr G's determination to keep the disabled and special needs kids out of his musical. Some of this stuff made me gasp. Here he is complaining about the "special needs nightmares" to another teacher:
"They've had a life of not being good enough. Surely they know it by now............wheelchairs, we're screwed because we'd have to build ramps. Although some of the non-wheelchair ones aren't exactly easy on the eye."

The programme includes two Downs Syndrome boys who are the butt of some of these remarks. One small detail I missed on a first viewing was when a second Downs boy was brought into the rehearsals the first Downs boy walked across and high-fived him. That was both funny and touching. (Like all good comedy, there's more rich detail than you can absorb in one viewing).

Mr G is more than a one-dimesional stereotype because beneath his camp, fluffy, genial exterior beats a heart of pure evil. In his determination to get the Special Needs unit closed down, he plants one of his own turds in the unit in the hope it will be shut on health and safety grounds.

When you've both stopped laughing and recovered from the shock of some of this material, there are some interesting points to ponder.
For there's an ambiguity about what is being satirised here. Is it Mr G's blatant discrimination against the special needs kids or is it the egalitarian dogma that these kids should be included in the musical even if they can't act, sing or dance?
Number 3 in this multiple choice question is: is it satirising both simultaneously? I think the answer is (3) and that's no mean feat.

Apparently, some schoolkids in Australia have been copying the language and behaviour in the series. That's inevitable and if you worried about that you would never write comedy at all. The important point is that the series is based on real-life behaviour and some kids in turn adopt phrases from the series. It's a circular process. It's most unlikely to have taught them anything new. And my researches on the web show that many teachers both in Australia and here adore the series.

I can't conclude without mentioning the wonderful tracking shot on the opening titles. I have a 'filmic fetish' about tracking shots. I absolutely adore them. I will watch some movies on TV just to see a particular tracking shot. Then I switch them off. 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too' is a grubby film that has a fabulous one near the beginning (1986, Dir: Alan Clarke, master of the tracking shot). Somebody please release a DVD of the greatest tracking shots. (Yes, I'm as mad as cheese, but you knew that already).

Summer Heights High continues on BBC3 and on the BBC iPlayer. There are some video clips on the Australian ABC website, plastered in warning messages about content.
I think there's a clip on YouTube of Mr G sniffing the pupils. It's not as bad as it sounds. Well, not quite.

Organised Disorder

I discovered this week that my local council employs an 'Anti-Social Behaviour Co-ordinator'.
Prior to this, I had thought that the fact that various windows get smashed in the village on Saturday nights was attributable to weekend alcohol consumption.
I now realise that the concentration of vandalism in a single night is down to the efforts of this splendid young woman.

You see, it makes sound economic sense.
Police overtime payments are confined to a single night of the week.
There's only one call-out charge to the local glazing company.
Windows can all be repaired on a Sunday morning without disruption to businesses on a working day.
Clearly an excellent use of my Council Tax.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

ADWATCH: Ads That Chafe The Sensibilities

There's been a recent increase in TV commercials relating to bodily functions.
I accept that I may be more sensitive about this than the average person but, like many people, I am often eating when watching television and do not wish to be confronted with constipation, trapped wind, thrush, periods or any similar topics at that time.

I recently saw a new commercial for an anti-chafing cream. The possible causes and locations of said chafing were not specified but it featured a rather large lady jumping for joy that she chafed no more.
I rather uncharitably reflected that if she went a bit easier on the chips and doughnuts her legs wouldn't rub together when she walked and the anti-chafing cream would be surplus to requirements.

But chafing is a mild irritation compared to some other commercials currently being shown.
Last night I was subjected to a commercial for a 'stool softening' preparation.
A woman was discussing the hardness of her stool with a friend in a restaurant. My first thought was that if the furniture was so uncomfortable they should move to a more expensive restaurant.
But no. She was telling her friend about the unpleasantness of her recent visit to the Ladies. It's amazing that such a woman would have any friends. Not so much Ladies Who Lunch as Ladies Who Hunch and then discuss the results over the starters.

This was immediately followed by a rather coy commercial about erectile dysfunction.
This featured a middle-aged man kissing a woman in a kitchen. My first reaction was that at his age he should be cultivating begonias and leaving his wife to concentrate on making a Victoria sponge. But then I realised he was about the same age as myself and that I too would probably be up for it in the unlikely event that there was someone in my kitchen eager to fill the time while waiting for the spin cycle to finish.
This particular gentleman was on the portly side so probably wouldn't be able to see his erection if he had one but I suppose, to paraphrase the old saying, you don't have to look at the poker when you're poking the fire.

It's my considered opinion that the stool lady who can't get it out and the Kitchen Lothario who can't get it up should go the fucking doctor or the pharmacy and not bring their problems into my living room.
She's hard in the wrong places and he's soft in the wrong places. Meanwhile, I'm becoming increasingly nauseous.
But if I'm put off my dinner again I'll lose so much weight that at least I won't need the anti-chafing cream.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bojo on the wrong end of a lie

It was the lie about being a magistrate that finally did for Ray Lewis, Boris Johnson's Deputy Mayor. We are given to understand that Boris was none too pleased about being lied to and felt let down.

In a curious parallel, Boris was himself sacked from the Shadow Cabinet for lying to his leader about an extra-marital affair. Michael Howard didn't care about the affair but wasn't going to have in his team someone who lied to his face.

In my Oxford Entrance Exam I had to write a summary of a passage by Herbert Spencer which included the observation that people who lie are often also extremely credulous. It's the only thing I remember from that exam, probably because that observation has often been borne out by my subsequent experience.

Thus it was that Boris, who one suspects has told quite a few porkies in his pursuit of both power and nookie, never doubted for a moment that Ray Lewis was indeed a magistrate.
Crikey! Both the paradox and the symmetry are strangely pleasing.

Criminal Tosh

If you want a different opinion on Criminal Justice (BBC1, last week) from that of just about every professional critic, here it is: I thought it was an over-long, overblown pile of tosh.
Stripped across five weekday nights, it was a whopping five hours of television. The thin plot could have been dealt with by The Bill in two episodes, or even one if the script editor was on the ball.
Would anyone have sat in a cinema and watched a movie that lasted five hours?

I started watching it because last Monday programmes were delayed by the tennis. I continued because it had pretensions beyond simple entertainment and because miscarriages of justice have always interested me.
I also wondered how much more bonkers it could get. It got more bonkers with every episode. When was the last time that an expert witness cheerfully revealed to the court that the night before she'd had sex with the prosecuting solicitor? Or the defence barrister went down to the cells to snog her client?
Such criticisms produce the usual defence: this was a drama.
OK, but in that case don't try to sell it on its realism.

My other problem was that I wanted to slap the face of the central character. A large part of every episode consisted of close-ups of Ben Wishaw looking like an anguished sheep with a vet's arm up its arse.
For a long time I thought this character was supposed to be, in an old-fashioned phrase, 'a bit simple'. But then it was revealed he had been to university.
My own reaction aside, he was clearly meant to evoke our sympathy. But a braver and more realistic drama would have been based on the fact that many victims of miscarriages of justice are from the criminal classes (which is why they are on the police radar to start with) and may be deeply unappealing characters. They still, of course, don't deserve to be banged up for something they didn't do.
But, like those 'based on a true story' American TV movies, this was a sweet, telegenic boy from a good family whose father could afford to pay for a top barrister.
Actually, his father was only a taxi driver but given what taxis charge these days I suppose that wasn't so implausible.

The implausibility of everything else was only matched by the presence of every cliché of the genre: the old-school, rule-breaking copper; the naive, rookie constable; the psycho prison bully; the shambling, maverick defence solicitor; the old lag teamed up with the first-time prisoner. The last was like Porridge but without the jokes.
This expensive, pretentious epic stole five hours of my life, but I've only myself to blame for that.
The real tragedy is that by presenting a miscarriage of justice through the distorting lens of a fictional and imbecilic TV drama, it missed the chance to give a genuine insight into the banality of the regular wrongful convictions that occur in real life, leaving the impression 'this was so bloody silly it could only happen in a TV drama'.
For the vast amount of money that this must have cost, the BBC could have brought back Rough Justice which investigated real cases and which it shamefully axed a few years ago.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Beyond Parody

Rowan Williams, speaking to the General Synod:
'If Jesus were at the Synod he would be with the traditionalists............he would also be with the gay clergy..........'

I thought that Jesus was killed by crucifixion, not by being impaled on a fence.