There really is no place like Home…

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‘If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all’

Grrr. How this aphoristic bleat sets my teeth on edge. As if criticism has to be balanced to be valid.

No it doesn’t.

But, having returned last night from watching The Funfair at Manchester’s new arts super-venue, Home, I am overwhelmed by such extreme feelings of distress about pretty much every aspect of the production, that demanding some kind of positive, constructive response from myself seems essential for my own mental well being.

Ok… so the new theatre space is good. Sitting in the upper circle, it feels satisfyingly intimate. Acoustics are excellent. Sight lines aren’t bad. It’s nice to see a new theatre with a good high proscenium – and a balanced thrust that draws the proscenium playing space into the auditorium. All of these will be used to imaginative effect by designers in future productions. Great work WILL be done in this exciting new theatre.

The music is well executed. The sound is clear and well balanced… But what it has to with anything in the production, I really couldn’t say. Plus they’re dressed as clowns which seems to be confusing the fair with the circus, but, hey, what do I know?

Sad Clown

My theatrical alarm bells always start ringing when enigmatic clowns appear…

The design – set and costumes – is occasionally clever but alienatingly unattractive (whoops, starting to slip…) BUT on a positive note… both elements are well executed. There is a good standard of finish, and it sets the bar high for the presentation of future shows. A lot of people worked their socks off to make this look good.

And the cast….

Oh bollox. Now I’m really struggling. I absolutely don’t want to criticise a gang of actors, who, after all, are only doing what they’re told, but my merry ship of positivity has just run aground, holed below the waterline….

The thing is, who knows what this cast are capable of? I’ve no reason to think they are anything other than highly competent actors in their own right – but the play is so bloody dreary they are scuppered before they even set sail. And it’s the choice of material which is at the core of everything that dismays me about this show.

The Funfair is a new adaptation of a play called Kasimir and Karoline by Ödön Von Horváth, dating from 1929, which the programme and Home’s publicity repeatedly tells us is a twentieth century masterpiece.

No it isn’t.

The programme also tells us that Ödön Von Horváth is a truly great writer, on a par with – if not better than – Bertolt Brecht, and the only reason we haven’t heard of him is because he died when he was 37.

No he isn’t, and no, it isn’t. Although admittedly the age thing might explain why no one has ever heard of Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Christopher Marlowe, Joe Orton….  Director Walter Meierjohann insists in the programme that Horváth is funnier than Brecht, which, judging by the awful tumbleweed moments that greeted every gag last night, is a bit like saying that Myra Hindley was kinder to children than King Herod.

Actually, hands up, I am being unfair. The adaptation is by Simon Stephens and as I don’t speak German, and have never encountered the original, I suppose it is just possible that the brilliant humour and general ‘masterpiece-ness’ has somehow got lost in translation. And when I say lost, I’m talking major solar-storm-knocking-out-the-whole-GPS-system-the-day-after-every-ordnance-survey-map-has-been-burned-by-a-mad-map-burning-despot. That kind of lost.

However I normally like Simon Stephens – his adaptation of Curious Incident is superb, so I’m afraid I’m still eyeing the source material with suspicion.

What’s it about?

Ehm…. Well there’s a northern bloke in a string vest called Cash (Geddit???) who’s lost his job as a driver two days before the start of the play. The idea of looking for a new job seems to have eluded him, and instead he has been thrown into an existential crisis. Ok… so I’m not endorsing the Norman Tebbit ‘on your bike’ philosophy, but losing a driving job – when driving jobs, by their very nature, are rarely permanent anyway – hardly seems to be emblematic of mass unemployment. Are we supposed to take it as read that this man will never work again? He seems to have given up on page one. It’s hard to sympathise with such a useless self pitying git. But he is wearing a string vest, which makes him working class, and therefore some kind of hero.

Anyway, string vest northern bloke is at the fair with Caroline. I can’t tell you anything about her except that she wears a translucent frock and we can see her underwear. I have no idea who she actually is, what she does for a living, what class she is, what her dreams and aspirations are… She doesn’t appear to have any character whatsoever, apart from being Cash’s fiancée. However the change in his employment status seems to be jeopardising their relationship.

So clearly not much of a relationship.

Add to this a shouty sweary scouser in leather trousers and a leather pork pie hat. I have no idea who this guy is – apart from being an annoying stereotype. So, shouty scouser (who says ‘fuck’ – or ‘fochhhhh’ – a lot) has some kind of relationship with a miserable tall girl in silver hot pants. But he throws beer in her face randomly so that doesn’t seem to be going too well either.

Then there’s a nerdy Welsh bloke who looks a bit like Steven Merchant who gets involved with Caroline for a bit and eats ice creams. I say Welsh… for one whole scene he adopted a strong Liverpool accent. I have absolutely no idea whether this was deliberate or not.

Enter two more stereotypes – a middle aged comb-over northern capitalist, complete with cigar (straight out of a George Grosz cartoon), and a posh southern type. They eat fried chicken and letch over the women.

Once these characters, such as they are, are established, there is much shouting, and gurning, and chasing around; some stuff about a Zeppelin; some tin cans – a LOT of tin cans – fall from the flies; there’s a freak show introduced by a Baron Samedi figure where a blue gorilla woman with a giant Where-The-Wild-Things-Are head sings a song; theres a LOT of extremely bad ‘drunk’ acting: there’s some plot about Caroline going to Blackpool in the Bentley belonging to the Northern Capitalist; and then there’s some kind of fight where people get injured and sing Buddy Holly; and finally string-vest gets off with silver-hot-pants.

And did I mention the MC/ringmaster (Again with the circus/fair confusion???) who is a short actor and who occasionally narrates (and is actually the best thing in it)? Oh yes, and there are those musicians in their clown make-up…

Sad Clown

The clown guitarist kept wandering round the stage being sinister

…who play from a glass box and occasionally wander on stage for no particular reason.

And while I’m at it… The Funfair? Why are they at a funfair? What kind of fair is it supposed to be? It’s nothing I recognise – apart from being a really shit funfair no one would ever go to. Oh? What’s that you say?
It’s symbolic.
Symbolic of what? When you’ve got a moment…. In your own time….
Capitalism..?
Listen sunshine, for a symbol – a metaphor – an allegory – to work, it has to convince in its own right. We have to believe in the funfair as a real place in order for its symbolic meaning to have any traction. Otherwise it’s just a ham fisted device.

And where is this bloody awful funfair anyway? Germany with its Zeppelins and George Grosz caricatures, or Platt Fields in Manchester (as Stephens suggests in the programme) where the most aspirational thing the female lead can dream of is a trip to Blackpool in a Bentley?

We don’t aspire to much in t’north.

Finally…. It’s written in 1929, but it’s sort of set now with plastic beer cups, and a rock band playing Iggy Pop numbers (Did I mention the clown make-up? Oh God, did no one say lose the clown make-up?).

Sad Clown

Do you sense I have a problem with clowns?

Oh? What’s that you say? It’s timeless? It’s purposefully non specific and non realistic in its setting so as to draw together the financial and political instability of the 1920s with the social climate in the UK in 2015?

I beg to differ. I put it to you that its locational abstraction renders it incoherent, without relevance to anything in our time, and probably stripping it of its original relevance to 1920s Germany into the bargain.

The programme tells us that the recent UK election was decided by nationalism, which is a parallel to Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Ehm….. So are we supposed to compare the SNP with the Nazi party? Or are we selectively talking about UKIP and just bandying terms around randomly in the vague hope that something will make sense eventually. And are we really comparing the moderate successes of UKIP to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s? There are vague topological similarities, but to go further than that is to be simplistic and ahistorical in the extreme.

Stephens pronounces that the play demonstrates ‘a compassion for the poor and [is] a celebration of their capacity for poetry and wonder’. Not that he’s being patronising or anything. Nor did I spot much ‘poetry and wonder’ amid the gaggle of shouting stereotypes that populated the stage last night. But no, he insists that it’s ‘a working class play that examines the lives of ordinary people’; it’s ‘Manchester’s great undiscovered play’.  No it isn’t.  It may be a lot of things, but, objectively, neither of those descriptions are applicable.  Everything about this show is middle class – Ödön Von Horváth was the son of an Austro-Hungarian diplomat; Stephens is from Stockport originally but hasn’t lived here for a very long time; the production is artsy, knowing and oblique in its staging. I should add that as a fully paid up member of the middle classes myself I have no issue with my own roots, but I really object to people making bogus class claims to give their work added “credibility”.

I could bang on and on and on about this, but I’ll stop now and try to draw some meaning out of the whole uncomfortable mess.

The key issue is that the play itself is really very poor. And this frustrates me because this is the inaugural production of what ought to be an amazing new Manchester venue that speaks to the whole of the city….

It’s called Home remember!!

But what does it offer us? A German play from the 1920s, which may or may not be a masterpiece, crudely anglicised by transposing the characters to shouty northern stereotypes and presenting it as a piece of incoherent quasi expressionist pretentious misrerabilism.

Somewhere at the very heart of this artistic enterprise – which should be beating in time to the heart of the community who are paying for it – something has gone very wrong indeed.

I remember Ken Campbell once describing BBC Director General John Birt as: ‘…an alien, inadequately briefed’.

That’s how I feel about director Walter Meierjohann. His appointment is a piece of bold internationalism. I love Europe. I love European art, music, theatre, cinema. I will be voting to stay in the EU at the referendum. But the cultural Babelfish in Meierjohann’s ear is seriously taking the piss.

But hey, don’t listen to me, it’s garnered some wonderful reviews – five stars from The Times, four from the Observer…. And I can understand that national reviewers would want to look favourably at the opening production of a new venue, when we stand on the edge of what are likely to be horrifically lean times for publicly funded live performance. In that respect, I absolutely understand those who will no doubt balk at what appears to be the vociferous negativity of this blog. But art never got anywhere by developing a laager mentality, or pulling up the drawbridge on the fundamentals of its own standards.

I want Home to be better than this. I want coherence, content, excitement – and more than anything, I want it to be a palace of dramatic stories that actually illuminate the community where I live. You can’t just throw material at us and hope that a few northern accents, some tenuous historical cross-referencing, and a bit of tricksy video projection will make it “relevant”.

It won’t. No amount of clown make-up, or maniacally laughing grotesques, or posing super-numeries can paper over the worryingly hollow artifice of this production. The Emperor not only has no clothes, on this showing he is staggering around, punch drunk, in a pair of somewhat threadbare Y-fronts.

So – in the spirit of saying something constructive or shutting up – how to find him some nicer threads to put on…? I’m not a Mancunian, I’m an outsider of sorts, but I’ve spent more than half my life here, so maybe I have something positive to share with Mr Meierjohann.

What I love about this city is that, yes, it has its problems, but the reason it is spearheading initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse and is always changing and growing and leading the way is because it doesn’t waste much time sitting around feeling sorry for itself, or wallowing in simplistic political/class narratives. Manchester is steeped in extraordinary history – much of which has resonated around the planet. It’s not a city of victims. The meanings to be drawn from this history and the way its communities are constantly evolving, are complex and nuanced.

There’s a dry humour – driven by plain speaking, and a contempt for anything that smacks of pretension. It’s a humour that expects the worst – but is underpinned by pride, passion, ambition, self assurance and hope.

My plea to you Walter… take the dodgy Babelfish out of your ear…. and listen. You obviously know how to polish up a nifty bit of stage craft. Listen to the heart of the place you’re calling Home. Listen to it beating. And put that on your fantastic new stage.

If you don’t, you’ll drive us away, and it won’t be ‘Home’ to anyone. Please make it somewhere a lot of people are going to want to be, because if this is a taster of what’s to come, I’m genuinely worried that it won’t be.

Oh yes…. And lose the clown make-up. Please lose the clown make-up.

Sad Clown

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If A Racist Shouts In An Empty Forest…

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It being a sunny Easter bank holiday weekend – when Manchester makes its annual grab at looking fresh, clean and full of expectation for the summer ahead – seeking chilled out stimulation Gail and I took a long overdue trip to the recently refurbished and extended Whitworth Art Gallery.

The new Restaurant extension at The Whitworth – expect to see this featured in many a Manchester based TV drama

Firstly, I should say that walking anywhere in the vicinity of Whitworth Park in springtime does something to my head as it reminds me of a blossomy day in May 1981 when I, and a group of university chums consumed an ample quantity of magic mushrooms and wandered around giggling and touching things randomly. How appropriate that the same park is now dotted with abstract sculpture although in these days of stern realities, there is no space for hallucinated re-imaginings of anything.  Only a drug addled idiot could possibly mistake this sculpture in the shape of a climbing frame for an actual climbing frame.  Duh!

I’m so glad I took all my drugs before the age of Health & Safety

Inside the gallery, the architects and curators have done a fine job. The new spaces are inviting, beautifully lit… and full of interesting artsy STUFF. I could easily write a critique of the art and installations therein – seriously, if you’re in Manchester, make some time for a visit, it’s an excellent series of displays – some are better than others…

…but the thing that really caught my eye was this official ‘warning’ posted at either end of one of the new exhibition spaces:

My pulse quickens. My expectations are high. I am about to be SHOCKED.

So what is this piece of art so offensive that the gallery offers the services of its staff to guide you through it unoffended?

I’ve been known to rail loudly against gallery zombies who wander round with their iPhones taking pictures of pictures they are absolutely never ever going to look at again (the ultimate double fail – they didn’t look at the paintings then, and they’re not going to look at them later either), so I hope you’ll forgive my hypocrisy on this occasion, just to illustrate this blog.

Wandering around Low Tide Wandering

Schütte’s installation – entitled Low Tide Wandering (admittedly the sort of title that makes me sigh) comprises a sequence of prints/sketches/etchings, pegged to ‘washing lines’ across a gallery thoroughfare, through which the viewer has to weave.  The images are eclectic – portaits of friends, doodles (there’s one of a plate of Strudel), cartoons, satirical observations. My initial response is that it’s pretty good. Certainly it’s the kind of thing I enjoy, although Grayson Perry has a lot to answer for – 80% of new art I see these days is stuff with writing on. Enough with the scribbling guys!! But taken on its own it’s funny, smart, astute. A sort of artist-thinker’s mind map hung out to dry labyrinth stylie. It’s fun.

Gail has wandered off to explore it on her own. ‘It’s over here!!’ She calls to me merrily. I go over, and hanging in no particular pride of place, not far from the strudel, is a minimalist doodle of a black American jazz trumpeter, and the single algebraic supremo of racial slurs. The n word.

Now, obviously, the interpretation of any artistic piece – pretty much anything at all actually – is by its very nature subjective, but I would confidently venture that Schütte isn’t endorsing racial labelling. He’s clearly (well, clearly to me, anyway) juxtaposing the iconic imagery twentieth century music making with a racist label, and asking the viewer to explore their response to the disparity between the two.

Nearby, not far from the Strudel, there’s a cartoon of the Twin Towers, adorned by the caption: ‘Holy Shit’. Do I need to explain that here? Of course I don’t. I’m sure you get the drift. This is an artist who deals in multiple meanings. It’s hardly the stuff of a PhD on semiotics and irony.

Hmm.

I go over to the young, keen and highly articulate gallery attendant. I ask her whether anyone has requested, as the gallery plaques offer, to be guided through the installation avoiding the depiction of the racist word. ‘No,’ she says, ‘but I have had people come up to me asking for me to point it out so they can look at it.’

Whoa. Say that again. I mean, let me get this absolutely clear: The gallery are warning people that the installation contains images and words that may be considered offensive, and offering to assist people so that they don’t see this stuff, but actually what people are doing is asking the staff to point them out to them, so they don’t have to hunt for them or stumble across them as the ‘wandering’ part of the title – (see picture above) – clearly intends. And all of this after the gallery has explained the meaning of the work – the artist’s intention – in case they take one of the prints literally as a racist attack on a black jazz musician.

‘Uh huh.’

And no one has asked to be shown an inoffensive route through the exhibition?

‘Not from me, no.’  She explains that sometimes people come up to her, unsure which of the prints is supposed to offend them the most, and they just want to check with her to be sure.

Whoa, whoa, whoa!  Irony overload.

The Gallery attendant doesn’t see it as being in anyway ironic. She’s quite a serious soul. She then tells me that one of the people who asked to be guided to the ‘n’ word picture was an African American woman who had heard that there was a racist art work on display at the gallery.  She had come especially to check up on the piece, and demanded to be directed straight to the offending item, to judge for herself whether it was indeed offending.

‘What did she decide?’ I ask.

The attendant tells me that after lengthy consideration the woman had come to the conclusion that it was racist and offensive, because although the word was in the context of an artistic juxtaposition of ideas, and she understood that, and she understood Schütte’s intention, Schütte is a white German artist and therefore the word is not his to use.

Oh my pirouetting aunt.

Hang on a minute. So even if the viewer understands that the intention isn’t racist, and appreciates that the artist isn’t racist, the mere existence of the word on that piece of paper, put there by the wrong person renders it racist.

Was that a noisy tree I just heard falling in that empty forest…?

Well… in the eye of the beholder and all that, and I know that just as I find this whole thing beyond satire, equally one can’t tell someone not to be offended, you can’t tell them that something they find to be personally racist isn’t racist… but really, really?!?

The level headed Gallery Attendant is admonishing of my bewilderment.  ‘I get it,’ she says. ‘The woman was African American and the word is far more potent for her.’

My brain is short circuiting now, like a confused super computer in an episode of Star Trek. So are we talking about the wrong artist and the right viewer? Or the wrong viewer and the right artist? Or is it the wrong artist and the wrong viewer? Or is it the right artist and the right viewer and her offence is part of the art work as a whole?  I don’t think so (to that last one) because it seems to me that the Whitworth Gallery has completely lost trust in their visitors to simply look at stuff and make their own minds up.  Like you normally do with art. Suddenly we’re ‘warning’ people which creates a prurient attraction to a racist word – and then telling them how they’re supposed to respond. This is surely light years adrift from Schütte’s original intention.

The attendant tells me that the gallery’s first response to complaints about the picture (I don’t know who from, or how many) was to remove the print in question.  Then they had a change of heart – something of a censorship issue there I guess – and put it back and opted for the warning plaques.

Look, I get that it’s an offensive word, and that it’s incredibly potent… but I do squirm at the idea that words are owned by anybody (isn’t that how racism and prejudice kick off and are empowered to start with?). It’s about context. And that may not be a black and white thing. I choose that phrase quite deliberately, and in the spirit of Schütte’s ambiguity. I appreciate that context can be harder to justify when an ‘outsider’ starts to play artistically with someone else’s keyword of oppression. But hang on a minute – racism affects everyone, so everyone needs the space to talk about it – and that means that I should be able to type the word nigger right here if I feel I need to, and be trusted that I’m not endorsing Southern lynchings by doing so.

I feel the same about a word like yid. I hope I have the sense to understand that a non jew using the word may well do so for the best of reasons, and that if I understand it, and I understand the context of it, the mere existence of it on a piece of paper in an art gallery isn’t somehow validating the holocaust.

I’m aware that there are plenty of jews who don’t share my feelings – but I believe that, in itself, to be equally problematic. A sort of territorial clinging to the instruments of our own oppression. It skews everything. But perhaps that’s a subject for a different blog…

Back to The Whitworth’s artistic safety notices! The minute we stop trusting audiences to think for themselves, we kill our art stone dead. Ambiguity and context – and the pursuit of meaning – are at the heart of what makes art, art. But when I see an explanatory warning plaque in an art gallery I fear we’re developing a suffocating fear of ambiguity. Is this the stifling undertow of Charlie Hebdo – a literalist fundamentalism that turns everything to a frightened grey sludge?

It’s feeling like a new thing to me, but then I’m reminded of something that happened to me in 1983. I had just left Cardiff University where I had been studying for a postgraduate diploma in Theatre Studies at The Sherman Theatre, and along with a bunch of mates (not the mushrooming ones) we decided to sell-out every performance of a show for the Edinburgh Festival and actually make a bit of cash, by calling it Live Sex On Stage. Utterly shameless? Most definitely. But as satirical reviews about pornography go, this one was not bad at all. Here’s the poster:

Avert your eyes if easily offended!

Avert your eyes if easily offended!

Just to clarify, that’s the whole poster; a dayglo trompe l’oeil of a peeling tacky sex club poster pasted onto a brick wall emblazoned with the title ‘Live Sex On Stage!’ in crude lettering. Assuming people to be generally intelligent, making the poster a poster OF a poster, we modestly hoped it was clear that our poster WASN’T an ACTUAL Live Sex poster but a poster for a show ABOUT a live sex show.

Not so. In Hull, our show (which contained neither sex nor nudity, above the elbow) was closely scrutinised by two very disappointed members of the local Vice Squad (who had to watch from the lighting box because the performance was sold out, and to stand at the back of the auditorium would have infringed fire regulations).

In Worcester, moral panic set in a lot earlier. We were playing a council run venue and apparently there were complaints about the graphic nature of the poster. I’ve hunted high and low for the clipping so I could reproduce it here, but thirty years on it appears to be mislaid, so I ask you to trust my account of it. The gist of the article in the local rag was as follows: ‘Following complaints about the graphic nature of a poster for fringe theatre show, entitled “Live Sex On Stage!”, due to play at the blah venue next month, council officials have agreed that the word “Sex” be blanked out on all posters advertising the show displayed in council run premises. Councillors agreed that uncensored posters, with the word “Sex” fully visible, would be displayed openly at the Central Library.

To this day I cherish the thought of the good folk of Worcester trooping into the centre of town to look at a three letter word on a poster of a poster on a wall to decide whether they were titillated/outraged (delete where not applicable).

Wait a moment. Am I trivialising The Whitworth’s n-word controversy by comparing a vicious racist noun with a piece of ridiculous parochial prudery?

Well perhaps, but, equally perhaps the Worcester response gets to the nub of it. Terrified by the mere sight of the word ‘sex’, the authorities there decided that it would be permissible for the word to be seen in at least one library where, after all, the same word could probably be found in hundreds of worthy volumes. They trusted that people going to a library accepted that there were all sorts of words, with sticky connotations, which had a right to exist as part of the grand panoply of human experience contained (safely) within the walls of a municipal oasis of learning.

In a swimming pool, or on a bus stop a poster with the words ‘Live Sex On Stage!’ is just that. In a seat of learning, those who venture within are expected to search for deeper meanings.

Shouldn’t the same apply to an Art Gallery?

I would say so, but on the other hand I know those who would insist that that was an elitist view. The n word is racist in any context – stick Schütte’s picture on a bus stop and it’s a hate crime – putting it in a gallery doesn’t exempt it. To which I say, an art gallery is only elitist if you restrict those who might go there to an elite. The Whitworth is free to enter, and located within easy walking distance of the university to one side, and several deprived residential areas to the other.

Let’s not hijack social liberalism to say that it’s somehow wrong to hail our galleries, theatre and indeed central libraries as safe spaces for difficult, distasteful or even dangerous ideas.

And of course, there will always be an element of censorship and/or selection, but having agreed to display the thing, for god’s sake – for art’s sake, for humanity’s sake – please don’t put up signs recommending that people close their eyes.  It’s an art gallery! If there’s anywhere where signs should be crying out for people to walk around with their eyes – and their minds – wide, wide open, it’s here.

***

We headed downstairs, through Sarah Lucas’s wonderful and witty ‘Tits In Space’ installation, to where the gallery had regained its sense of irony…

 

…much to my wife’s disappointment.

Please Do Not Feed The Conspiracy Theorists!!

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It all began well enough, rather deliciously in fact, as most comfortable middle class left-of-centre dinner parties do. There were starters of carpaccio sliced fennel in oil and lemon juice with Maldon sea salt; two types of home made hummus – one with toasted pine nuts, the other with sautéed lamb, plus a side jug of lemon and mint to drizzle over it… and a particularly tasty conspiracy theory to get the ball rolling.

‘I knew someone, who knew this Soho madam…’ says the slightly hunched woman with the eighties perm who struggles with eye contact to my right, ‘…and this madam told me that in the 1970s, she regularly supplied Tory prime minister Edward Heath with Moroccan boys, who would be smuggled into the country for him to have sex with, and then smuggled out again.’ The pitta bread arrives. ‘That’s what Morning Cloud was for.’

Edward Heath at the helm of his sex hideaway

1970s UK Prime Minister, Edward Heath at the helm of his sex hideaway

‘Ah well,’ I’m feeling a little mischievous, ‘Moroccan boys were terribly fashionable back then, you know, Joe Orton and all that.’

‘Oh no,’ she sternly corrects me, ‘these were boys. Six or seven year old boys. With the full knowledge of Special Branch.’

A bowl of home made baba ganoush arrives, sprinkled with luscious pomegranate seeds.

Yummy conspiracy food

Yummy conspiracy food

I can’t help thinking that’s an awful lot of trouble to go to for a bit of child sexual abuse (not the home made Levantine hors d’oeuvres, the child smuggling. Doh! Keep up!), when most child abusers settle for easy access opportunistic satisfaction.

And I should have left it that – as a thought – but hey, when did that ever stop me?

You see, my problem is this: Clearly all sorts of truly awful, horrific, stuff went on – goes on! – but like most things in life, people are kinda lazy, obvious, banal. Jimmy Savile wore elasticated tracksuits so he could whip it out, and put it back at a moment’s notice.

Jimmy Savile favoured the banal convenience of the tracksuit

Jimmy Savile favoured the banal convenience of the elasticated tracksuit

(Sorry am I putting you off your tzatziki?)

Creamy levantine hors d'ouevre

Creamy levantine hors d’ouevre

The hard work generally goes into the set-up. You know the kind of thing, raising millions for charity, becoming a trusted priest, training to be a gifted music teacher… That gives you the access, and the status you need; after that it’s about maximising opportunity. The least work for the most gain.

A lot of professions are like that. It takes years to become a doctor; but hours and hours on the golf course await you once you’ve got there.

So I can follow the establishment paedophile ring narrative as far as Alderman Cyril Smith exploiting his role to gain access to children’s homes and variations on that theme. And I guess he had the inside on other high ranking types with similar proclivities, enough to blackmail them on an ad hoc basis to get himself unarrested every time he got more brazen and careless than normal.

For those unfamiliar with UK current affairs, this is the delightful Alderman Cyril Smith, Liberal politician and serial child abuser.

For those unfamiliar with UK current affairs, this is the delightful Alderman Cyril Smith, Liberal politician and serial child abuser.

But a shady cabal of senior politicos, security chiefs, with nothing better to spend their time on but the systematic and collective abuse of children, in organised child abuse events, sex parties or what have you…? Hmm… I start to struggle a bit. Not because I have a blind faith in our political class, nor because I can’t imagine terrible, terrible things being done to children by powerful people. But because…

There’s a reason I don’t hold parties. They’re such a bloody time consuming faff. And yes, I confess, the vast majority of parties I’ve organised in my life have involved children… and jelly… and party bags… and politically correct pass-the-parcel where everybody has to win something. Bloody exhausting. These days however, the sorts of parties I hold don’t require anything more risqué than a Tesco Mediterranean Dip Medley (I can’t be arsed slaving over home made hummus) and bread sticks; the crudest thing you’ll find at my place is a crudité. But god, the invitations, the shopping, the planning, the mess…! The ones with the kids are the worst!!!

I know, I know, I’m being flippant in fabulously bad taste – but I’m making a completely serious point too. Some of the events described in recent news reports sound extraordinarily, exhaustingly labour intensive – on a par with mounting a theatre event, or a day’s independent film production. You’d need an administrator, or a damned fine 2nd AD.  So let’s think about this in practical production terms.  

Currently under investigation as the alleged location of historical sex abuse by a cabal of MPs, security and military chiefs.

Currently under investigation as the alleged location of historical sex abuse by a cabal of MPs, security and military chiefs.

Procuring all these children in a collective setting requires personnel – lots of personnel. You need drivers, catering – for the parties – cleaning staff (presumably at Dolphin Square there would have been more than a little mess), and in the case of the smuggled Moroccan children, how are they being transported? Private planes? In which case that involves air traffic control, airfield staff etc. If they’re coming in on commercial jets then you need a whole infrastructure of people on the inside to escort them.  You’ve got to pay/bribe these ancillary workers. That involves negotiating each fee individually (I doubt there’s an industry rate) and providing an income stream, which will require some kind of crude accounting system. All organised crime tends to involve bookkeepers or quartermasters of some sort.  

By the way, if you think I’m beyond the pale with this line of reasoning, then let me tell you this delightful anecdote. Early in my career I worked at a well known english repertory theatre where the directors’ PA told me that she had regularly cleaned a variety of bodily fluids off the walls of the office after the directorial predecessor’s late night ‘casting’ sessions. I use the word ‘variety’ advisedly.

Too gross? Well….perhaps, but that’s my point. Working in a collective environment it was impossible not to involve the staff, and the more people who are involved with something, the less likely you’ll keep it a secret. Presumably that’s why the police investigation has made a public appeal for precisely these kinds of witnesses. It’ll be interesting to see what that throws up. A systematic, large scale, industrial conspiracy requires a large scale, industrial infra structure. The police are clearly looking for that infra-structure too. They also say they are challenged by a mismatch of victim numbers to corroborate the industrial abuse scenario. Again, hopefully the various promises of indemnities will ensure a greater throughput of witnesses to confirm things either way.

So back at the dinner table, a gargantuan Le Creuset has arrived filled with steaming aromatic chicken and artichoke tagine, along with a bowl of al dente oven baked couscous. Something of a Moroccan theme developing here….

With further bad taste, I’ve playfully – but seriously – expounded my infra-structure theory (look, I didn’t start it!) only to be countered by a stern, impregnable look of loathing from the woman opposite, for whom eye contact is a weapon. Surely I must understand that the very invisibility of this infrastructure, the sheer scale of secrecy is evidence in itself of the The Establishment at its conspiratorial best/worst!

Ah yes. The Establishment. That smoking neon sign hanging over the shadowy doorway in every conspiracy theorist’s paranoid imagination.

The Establishment...

The Establishment…

I’m never quite sure precisely what or who the establishment is – or even what The Establishment is! – but I know one thing about it for sure.

It’s a bit crap.

Those who hold power in our country – in the world in fact – appear to me more as somewhat nightmarish comedy fire fighters, clowns in the rattling fire engine of state, who botch their way from crisis to crisis – often self generated – trusting to luck with the economy, barely able to run the most basic of national infra-structures, squirting napalm in each others faces while the doors fall off and the poorest are squashed beneath the rubber wheels of government, their screams lost beneath all the hysterical honking of political horns. A glimpse at transport policy, health policy, defence policy, any policy you care to name, will surely reassure you that the only thing established in the establishment is… chaos.

...or the establishment?

…or the establishment?

Indeed, the same CTs (conspiracy theorists) who talk darkly of decades of highly polished, stiletto bladed conspiracy, will in the next breath bemoan the utter failure of policy or coherence emanating from the very same shadowy enemies who are somehow brilliantly machiavellian – and ostentatiously incompetent – at the same time.

Although, to be fair, I’ve heard it seriously argued that government is DELIBERATELY run in a chaotic fashion so as to distract us from the more sinister calculating agendas lurking under the surface. Oh yes, and apparently wars and terrorism are both fabricated for the same reason. Adam Curtis makes a tidy living producing sooth sayer TV documentaries about it. Well. You can’t prove a negative.

There’s a satirical part of me that wishes that the shadowy cabal theory of everything were true – because perhaps one day all the brilliant secret government conspirators will apply their talents to running the National Health Service, after which time no one will ever be ill again!

So back to Ted Heath’s yacht, and his smuggled Moroccan six year olds. I’m trying to satirise my way out of this in the face of my conspiratorial inquisitor, who is now looking at me as if I have a small Moroccan child stuffed down my trousers.

I joke: ‘It’s like that scene in Austin Powers about Dr Evil’s Henchmen. Mike Myers wonders – just like I always did as a kid – who are these henchmen? Where do they live? Do they have families? Should we care if they get killed? It’s a funny sketch because we know that the idea of building a secret base inside a hollowed out volcano is completely ridiculous. I mean, you couldn’t keep a great big thing like that secret, and that’s why there are no secret bases inside hollowed out volcanoes.’

Glary woman looks at me coldly: ‘How do you know there aren’t?’

This place definitely exists

This place definitely exists

I am forced to admit that of course I don’t. You can’t prove a negative – the WMD of choice for the conspiracy theorist.

‘And,’ she’s tasted blood, now, ‘It’s the collective thing that binds them in their secrecy; the fear of what will happen if they break ranks. I mean, what about Leon Brittan?’
What about him?
‘It’s a bit stange, isn’t it, him dying?’
He was seventy five and he’d had cancer for two years.
‘Just as the truth is coming to the surface??? It’s a bit convenient.’
Whatever Mr Brittan may or not have done, I am actually lost for words at this point.
‘Perhaps he killed himself,’ someone else pipes up, helpfully, as if that were a more plausible scenario.

I’m actually old enough to remember when left wing conspiracy theorists would earnestly argue that the rumours about Leon Brittan (which have been around for decades) were actually spread by MI6 for reasons that have long since eluded me and that despite looking a bit greasy, he was completely innocent of anything apart from being a Tory.

Conspiracy theories are like a game of consequences, random nuggets of paranoia that can be assembled in any order for your amusement.

At this point, I should make something clear. I have no problem with accepting the reality of conspiracies – they’re banal, messy, dirty and fundamentally obvious things – it’s conspiracy theories I feel the intense need to ridicule. For they are just that – theories. Conspiracy theories are, generally, a manifestation of collective paranoid psychoses; constructed dystopian narratives that stand apart from reality. Mostly they are pretty harmless – perhaps they are a social mutation of an ancient collective fear reflex – but the reason they annoy me so much, is that at their heart they are arrogant and egotistical – saying more about the theorists than the theorised – and they belittle everyone involved – the real victims, and the perpetrators too.

Hang on, what am I talking about there? Belittling perpetrators?? What on earth are you on about Jameson? Pass the harissa, this tagine needs a bit more spice.

Ok, so I have a relative who lives in the United States, to whom I can barely talk these days because it’s so hard to manoeuvre around what is, in effect, a psychotic reinvention of world realities. To be fair, there appears to be a substantial tranche of the US left for whom, I guess, their political isolation has led them to share a collective disbelief/distrust of everything, apart from their own ever more extraordinary scenarios. This disbelief appears to be mirrored in the American far-right as well. Perhaps there’s a sense of safety in sharing these mystical beliefs. But that’s odd, because the US hardly hides its propensity for political manipulation or the tendency for its foreign policy to wreak global havoc. I’m always amazed why the CTs feel the need to invent another layer of it.

Before I learned to laugh at this nonsense, I once found myself in a ridiculous discussion on the New York subway where my rellie tried to convince me that the reason the National Union of Mineworkers lost the 1984/5 miners’ strike is because Arthur Scargill was placed there by MI5/CIA in order to discredit the British labour movement and deliberately lose this important industrial dispute. It got so heated we ended up out in one of the boroughs, when we were only going to the Carnegie Deli to eat huge pastrami on rye sandwiches.

Now, as it happens, it has since been confirmed that there was indeed an MI5 informant at the heart of the NUM (it was suspected at the time) passing strategical info on to Special Branch. But Arthur Scargill a CIA agent? I know these pages are read by good people from all around the globe, who may be unfamiliar with the man, but trust me on this, Arthur Scargill the CIA infiltrator is a brilliantly amusing idea…. conjuring up a sort of Yorkshire Jack Bauer with extremely bad hair.

CIA Super Agent Arthur Scargill

CIA Super Agent Arthur Scargill

But. It’s also insulting. It actually says that miners are idiots; blind, naive fools suckered by an evil cabal of political agents provocateur. And perhaps it’s poor old Arthur’s final humiliation to be written off by the american left as a CIA stooge. And then think of the organisation… Did Thatcher know? The Iron Lady and Special Agent Scargill ‘pretending’ to be at war with each other whilst secretly sniggering at the the rest of us poor fools behind their backs?

More recently my relative has announced on Facebook that Anders Breivik was a false flag operation instigated by Mossad in order to punish Norway for its support of the Palestinians. This one did make me angry. There’s something about hijacking that awful bloody tragedy just to serve your own self-loathing-US-centric agenda that absolutely trashes the memory of all those young people. It is, in itself, a form of obscene political colonialism.

And of course she believes that 9/11 was a Mossad put-up job. I’m not going to rehearse those arguments here, but when, today, she also adamantly advertises that ISIS is a CIA/MI6/Mossad false flag organisation, I actually start to feel sorry for the terrorists. I imagine them in their camps, reading this stuff online and screaming at their screens: ‘Oi! Conspiracy theorist!! No!!! We’re trying to fight a holy war here you arrogant egocentric bastard!! We’re genuinely oppressed and extremely pissed off and we’re prepared to kill for it!! We don’t need Mossad’s help thank you very much.’

I love the Mossad thing – CTs who believe Mossad is behind EVERYTHING. They’ll happily list all the terrible things that Israel, the USA and the UK have done to the Middle East, but then they decide that the shat-upon-people of that region somehow don’t actually have the organisational ability to mount their own Jihad. Oh yes, by the way, did you know that Charlie Hebdo was a false flag operation by Mossad to frighten french Jews and get them to move to Israel? Yeah, well you do now.

Like I say. It insults everyone. Good guys, bad guys (you can allocate the labels as your politics determines, I’m easy).

Back to the dinner party and a mouthwatering desert of caramelised apple tart arrives.  I’m informed that I’m obviously not as left wing as my conspiracy chums – as if belief in unsubstantiated conspiracy is directly proportional to radical political thought. Which is both wrong, and philosophically paralysing, in the most arrogant of ways.

We’re on to coffee now, a sweet and delicious vietnamese blend, which takes us away from conspiracies, thank god, and Glary Woman is talking about her passion for Doctor Who.

Must be all those parallel universes.

But I suppose that’s why I find fantasy fiction so tedious. The real world does it for me. Vulnerable kids were, and are, abused all over the place, in the most ordinary of ways, and mostly in private dark, lonely locations. Powerful men will have paid for sex with under aged boys – as they have done for centuries. They ducked and dived. They pulled in favours. They used their status and their contacts, and people’s fear of putting their heads above the parapet, losing their jobs etc to get away with it…

…but if we discover that it was all a lot more random and seedy than the more lurid scenarios suggest, I hope we won’t feel “disappointed” that it was all so run of the mill.  Let’s make sure we don’t fall prey to needing the victims to be six year old Moroccan kids smuggled in by a vast establishment cabal. Let’s make sure we don’t find ourselves needing all the victims to be prepubescent children, as if the exploitation of a fifteen year old rent boy isn’t bad enough.

Let’s not make this about the dark recesses of our imagination and our hatred for authority, and forget to be shocked by the way exploitation and terrible pain is too often so bloody ordinary.

But, as I have said several times now (this Moroccan cuisine does rather repeat on you), I can’t prove a negative, and although I’m as rationally as sure as I can be that the most likely place we’ll find the now-middle-aged collective of Heath’s Moroccan 1970s sex victims is inside a hollowed out volcano – that is no reassurance at all.

For me, it is the conspiracy theories that are the distraction.

And that’s why I, for one, ‘Do Not Feed The Conspiracy Theorists’.

empty plate

No, really, je suis un proper Charlie

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The instant I heard about the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week and saw the hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’ – I had no hesitation in posting the slogan as my Facebook cover photo. It was an angry and emotional reaction.  I’m a writer – I deal in ideas, words, satire – the attack felt personal.

A week later, and the papers and the internet are full of counter headlines:
‘I am not Charlie!’; ‘Ok, well I might be a bit Charlie, but only on these strict conditions…’ ; ‘Some of my best friends are Charlie’; ‘Charlie isn’t my darling’; ‘You’re a racist, repugnant, free-speech fundamentalist, hypocritical ignoramus if you jump on the Charabanc de Charlie…!!’; ‘You’re the kind of Charlie who doesn’t care about massacres in Nigeria or what the west has done to the middle east, you bastard (did I mention that you were a racist?)!!!’; ‘Ehm…. has anyone got any Charlie?’ (Sorry, that last one was a flashback to a conversation I heard in the Groucho Club about fifteen years ago).

It’s a shoal of shifting opinion, caught in a sudden flash of light; a million panicky, quivering fish, all changing direction together.

Well, I’ve read lots of this stuff (and let’s be honest, it’s getting pretty tedious), and now, for your pleasure, The Ninja Marmoset is going to ride headlong into Charliegeddon.

The thing is, last week I was unthinking, emotional, angry, affronted Charlie. But now, the more the shoal tugs at the current of opinion, fogging the water with opinionated silt…

…the more I feel clearly confident that yes, I am, in the most considered of ways, l’homme qui s’appelle Charlie, a proper Charlie (as opposed to ‘un Charlie propre’ which would be something else altogether).

I’m wittering, but that’s because this whole debate is wittering…. it’s turning into a sequence of rants and semantic squabbles, and competitions as to who can worry the most about the offence caused (mainly) to other people; and what is offence; and over-the-garden-fence like a gaggle of neighbours at war. It’s apparently complex and nuanced…. I mean WHERE DO WE DRAW THE LINE???!?!?!?!

But I’m starting to wonder if it is complex and nuanced at all.  Isn’t it really quite simple? What’s the big deal?

Haven’t we got it covered anyway?

Ok.  Take offence…
What?  You want me to take offence?  You haven’t said anything offensive yet.
No, no, no, I mean ‘take “offence”, for example…’
Oh right.  Does that mean you’re not going to offend me, but you’re going to lecture me on the nature of offence instead?
Yes.
Do you have to?  I think I’d rather you were rude to me.
Shut up and listen!The thing is, we’ve already got laws about this stuff.  Essentially it goes something like this: sexuality isn’t a choice; race isn’t a choice; gender isn’t a choice; disability isn’t a choice; age isn’t a choice. So we have laws that protect people against discrimination, hatred, violence on the basis of what they actually are. Excellent. It’s taken a while to get here, but I’d say we’re doing pretty well so far…

Religion, however, is an idea. It is a choice. When you choose that faith then you choose everything that comes with it. The religion itself has no inherent rights of its own – Gods in a secular society are in the mind of man, or if, perchance, they turn out actually to exist, omnipotent and can look after themselves. However a religion’s followers do have rights to worship in peace, without fear of violence or intimidation, and not be discriminated against. Other than that, like any idea, it is fair game.

The right to worship in peace is a crucial idea that goes two ways. No one must threaten you with violence or prohibit your worship – and neither must you use your worship to intimidate or threaten others.

The same goes for the right not to worship by the way – which covers apostasy, in case anyone thought I was forgetting about that by glibly declaring that religion is an easy choice.

So what about mockery?  As long as it adheres to the basic laws of discrimination outlined above, which are already established in our society, as Adam Ant once warbled: ‘Ridicule is, ridicule is, ridicule is nothing to be scared of….’

Crucially, mocking a religion, or the deeds of its followers, is not racism, nor is it any kind of excuse for racism. It just isn’t. And by the way, if individuals choose to use the religion/race distinction to cloak their own inherent racial prejudices that’s extremely frustrating, but it doesn’t undermine the logic of this vitally important distinction. Anyone with kids will know the difference between telling a child ‘you’re naughty’ and saying ‘that was a naughty thing to do’. The first degrades and belittles; the second may simply be a statement of fact, however hard for the child to hear.

In the case of Islam, the majority of Muslims are probably brown or black skinned – and if they are mocked on the basis of their colour, and for the simple state of being Muslim in the first place, then that is racism. But criticising a religion, its prophets (who are dead and legally beyond libel – no, seriously they are, I’m not being flippant…), the deities (see above for omnipotence or non existence) or people who do shite things in its name is not racism. Because Islam is largely associated with a couple of racial groups it’s easy to see where the conflation creeps in, but it is just that, a conflation. I’ve looked at quite a few Charlie Hebdo cartoons and covers – and they’re tough, uncompromising, arguably unpleasant, certainly lacking in taste at times – but I don’t get that they are crossing that line.

But, the argument runs, just because you have the right to offend, it doesn’t mean that you have to?  Isn’t the act of depicting anything that you know will offend, even in a satirical cause, deliberately targeting a group in order to hurt them? Isn’t that at best a fundamentalist aggressive use of free speech, or at worst the ‘r’ word again?!

Well it would be if you ran into a mosque waving the cartoon ‘A Star Is Born’ around.

Mohammed: A Star Is Born

Tough, tasteless, unpleasant. Yes, I know some may question my use of this cartoon at this point, but please stay with me…. there’s a payoff later, I promise.

That would be just plain rude, and you’d rightly get a punch in the face, or worse. However…

The rule not to depict Mohammed is one that applies (as I understand it) to Muslims, and that’s absolutely fine. But since when did we enter a world where one religion’s rule applied to non believers? Jews don’t expect non Jews to abstain from pork…. Or Catholics insist that Anglicans abstain from contraception or not have terminations (they may protest against abortion, but mostly adhere to the democratically accepted law of the land)… I could go on at length. Obviously, when I go into a mosque I remove my shoes, because I am a guest, and I cover my head in a synagogue, and take my hat off in a church… I can equally understand the logic that says that a public broadcaster paid for by everyone and going into their homes might choose to respect this edict (I understand it, although I don’t personally agree with it)…  But no one reasonably expects that any religion can dictate my diet or clothing in the secular public arena.  I simply don’t understand why Muslims alone among all religions should dictate what other people can draw or look at?  After all, there are 1.6 billion Muslims world wide and only 30,000 people paying for the privilege of being offended by Charlie Hebdo in a normal week. And it is a privilege – one I doubt that many of those who might be offended need encounter if they don’t want to. It’s hardly an act of bullying or oppression.

Yes but yes but yes but yes but… what about a cartoon depicting Jews in the holocaust, or someone falling from the Twin Towers, or a black man with a banana in a tree…

This is always said as if there’s only one answer to it, but there isn’t.  A cartoon is a form of art, and so the answer is: ‘It depends’. If you say in your cartoon that ‘all Jews are hook-nosed money grubbing bastards and isn’t it funny they all got gassed mwah ha ha’ then you’re into the realms of racial hatred, and incitement to genocide. If, however, you draw Benjamin Netenyahu building a wall, reminiscent of the nazi ghettos, to imprison the Palestinians, you are evoking the holocaust in order to comment on the behaviour of a modern Jewish state… and it’s fair comment about someone’s behaviour.

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Many Jews find this sort of thing highly offensive, but it’s rightly not illegal, and speaking as someone who is (half) Jewish I have no problem with that. There’s no problem using any stereotype in a cartoon – or in any work of art – it’s all about context. If we take context out of the equation suddenly we’re applying a literalist set of rules to satire which is anti humour, anti satire, anti art, anti intelligence…!

Yes but yes but yes but yes but!!!!  Who are you to decide what’s acceptable, Charlie-chops, you self satisfied white secular slightly Jewish Guardian reading liberal?! Even The Guardian doesn’t support you these days – spinning on its moralistic tail and disappearing up its own comment columns in a puff of semantics!! This free speech fundamentalism just won’t wash!! It’s a form of cultural arrogance! It’s impossible to come to any kind of judgement that doesn’t offend someone who lives round the corner so let’s grab the magic marker of fear and draw that mythical line RIGHT BACK HERE!!

Ehm.  Actually, we do already know how to do this.  Every day, Ofcom, The British Board of Film Censors, BBC Editorial Policy, the itv Compliance Unit make considered and rational decisions about things loitering on the grey and shifting boundaries of taste, decency and acceptability. It’s not so hard really.

Then there’s Billy Bragg. Remember him? The voice of solidarity. He was a miner apparently, and a docker, and a railway man – no really, he was! – but it turns out he’s a bit wobbly about being a Charlie. His reasoning goes, that Islam is ‘plagued by extremists’ (his words) and the non muslim world needs to extend the hand of friendship and agree to self censor in order to secure the help of moderate muslims in fighting the aberrant forces within its own ranks (I paraphrase).

Really? Is this some kind of trade-off of values? Who agreed the exchange rate? I mean it’s big of him and everything, but did he check first that ‘moderate Muslims’, or potentially extremist muslims were up for this swap, or did he just decide on his own that this would sort it? ‘They’ll be happy with that – where’s my guitar, I need to write another song about freedom and solidarity…’

I’ve got a feeling that the causes of young muslim alienation might run a little deeper than this.

We know they do, because hundreds of people are dying in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and apparently we’re all trivialising hypocrites because we’re getting wound up about a few french cartoonists.

Racist.  Fundamentalist.  Hypocrite. It’s so easy to throw these words around, isn’t it? Extremely easy to call anyone a hypocrite because no one is entirely consistent – especially a line of world leaders who look like they’re doing a bizarre hokey cokey.

Hebdo Hokey Cokey

It’s also extremely easy to accuse people of protesting against the wrong thing – there’s always a list of stuff more important you ought to be protesting about. It’s an easy accusation and just a bit meaningless. Why are you eating carrots???? You should be eating peas!!!

No. We’re not marching about Nigeria – not because we don’t care about Nigeria, but because we’re marching about what this attack represents, which does embody some fundamental principles.

And, crucially, having fundamental principles does not make a person a fundamentalist in the knee jerk pejorative sense of the word; just as failing to adhere precisely to a fundamental does not make a person a hypocrite. All principles are inherently aspirational. The declaring of principle is important because we publicly declare a benchmark against which we can be judged. The scornful cry of ‘hypocrite’ is a cry of defeat. Like all the other labels it closes the discussion down. No one can stand up for anything – and no one is fit to lead. Isn’t the world shit?

Well, actually, no it isn’t.

I’ll leave the last word to Charlie Hebdo. This week they came back with a commemorative issue featuring a front cover depicting Mohammed holding a Je Suis Charlie placard, a tear falling from his eye, and above him, the legend: ‘All is forgiven’.

All Is Forgiven - or is it?

By and large this was reported positively – including by the BBC. A moving response by the surviving members of the Hebdo team… provocative in its insistence on depicting the prophet, but reconciliatory in tone.  Awwww….

But hang on a sec. Flick your eyes up this (lengthy) blog (sorry!). Take a look at the “A Star Is Born” cartoon. Notice any similarity? Yup, Mohammed’s family jewels in all their glory echoed in the prophet’s headdress – the penile drip now a mournful tear.

As yet I’ve not heard Huw Edwards on the six o’clock news describe this as a picture of the prophet Mohammed with a cock and balls on his head – and that’s probably wise – but ignoring it altogether is a lost opportunity. It is cheeky, scurrilous, mischievous. Some might see it as a spiteful slap in the face. Personally I read it as saying: ‘Yes, we must forgive each other, but we’re still going to rip the shit out of you, because that’s what this is all about’.

I think it’s brilliant; it’s smart, it challenges the viewer to look with intelligence and think about a whole narrative that extends over years. It demands that you look at it with a sense of context. It is funny…. and it is art.

It has many different things to say and like all good art it acknowledges that more than one thing can be emotionally true at one time.

The right to do this without fear is why I am – fundamentally – Charlie.

 

In which a raddled old leftie feels bewildered because surely holding Islam to account for the behaviour of extreme elements within it is what Socialism is all about.

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Yes, I am going to post something about Charlie Hebdo.  If you’re sick of the whole thing, look away now.

But I am bewildered.  Almost everything that can be said, has been said, however there is something being repeated – mainly by those on the liberal left – which seems to go unchallenged, and sends my little head spinning.

Ok, so I will paraphrase, and I hope that no one feels I am misrepresenting the thrust of this, but when there are calls for a more forthright response from the Muslim community, there’s a chorus of: ‘Why should ordinary Muslims be held accountable for the actions of a few nutters?  Extremist Islam, Jihadism etc is a perversion of the true faith of Islam.  This has nothing to do with Islam.  To ask for this is to be Islamophobic.  Why should ordinary Muslims even have to justify or dissociate themselves from these psychopaths? And as for apologising? That’s just a ridiculous offensive thing to expect…  And, yeah, why do people keep going on about it?  How many times to ordinary mainstream Muslims have to say this is nothing to do with them and condemn it?’

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The comedian Mark Steel wrote a piece for The Independent about this last week.  He wryly commented that Norwegian Christians weren’t expected to apologise for the massacre carried out by Anders Breivik; moderate Geordies weren’t expected to denounce the actions of Raoul Moat; and as for Americans, they can talk, he commented ironically, after all you can’t imagine someone going berserk with a gun in a public place there.

It was these comments – and similar that I heard elsewhere – that sparked my reaction, because, hang on a minute Mark Steel et al, the notion of a moderate community being asked to hold the actions of its transgressors to account applies in all three of those cases… and there are lots and lots and lots of other examples to add to it.

Ok, so Anders Breivik.  The week after his terrible killing spree, there was endless soul searching.  How could such a poisonous ideology be allowed to vent itself in our society?  Was he psychotic or idealised, or both?  Were there signs that should have been spotted?  Were their things in his upbringing, in Norwegian society, that provoked his dangerous state of mind?  What should Norwegian society do to prevent this from ever happening again?  It would have been easy to simply write him off as a lone nutter and not even bother talking about it, but they, and we, did, because in western democracies we think collectively.

And then there’s Raoul Moat. I’ve read a lot about him because I wrote a play a year or two back based largely on his awful end story.  Did Geordies feel accountable for him?  You bet they bloody did.  Acres was written on the subject, phone-ins on Radio 5 were jammed with calls, much of it similar to the Breivik debate, but with a slightly different spin: Was Moat a phenomenon rooted in white working class culture that needed to be addressed?  And in Moat’s case all sorts of people are considered culpable for what happened for not doing enough to check his growing madness and paranoia.  Again there is very strong evidence to say he was simply an extremely disturbed individual, but yes, still, the community from whence he originated engaged in some lengthy soul searching (and sadly, in another parallel there are still some people in that community who view him as a hero and a martyr to this day).

And lastly to spree killers in the US.  What happens every time one of these awful atrocities occurs? Soul searching, that’s what.  America is held to account collectively, condemned for its veneration of personal gun ownership.  The NRA repeatedly protest; ‘It’s not guns that are at fault – it’s gun owners! How many times do we have to tell you?’ And anti gun lobbyists (many of them cut from the same lefty cloth as me and Mark Steel) come back and say: ‘That simply isn’t good enough.  This keeps happening.  You need to bloody well DO something about it.  You need to take responsibility for your own community.  Although these are a handful disturbed individuals in a country of 400m, you clearly have a cultural problem which must be addressed.’

Let’s spread the net a bit wider.  Let’s look at another religion.  Catholicism.  As we all know it has recently been rocked to its core by hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse  by male priests.   Are all catholic priests child abusers?  Of course they aren’t.  Is Catholicism itself a source of evil?  I would definitely say not (although I know people who would!).  But should the Catholic church take responsibility for the crimes of child abuse committed under its cloak of authority?  Of course it should (and finally it is – hurrah!).  Should the Pope take responsibility for this, even though I imagine he has never abused a child in his life?  Yes.  And crucially, should ordinary Catholics bear this weight as well?  Well of course they bloody should. And they have.  How can I be so sure of this? Because for years, everyone tried to pretend that this wasn’t happening.  It was only when it got into the public arena, and ordinary catholics were empowered so that they could collectively work together to make sure that the decency of the majority of believers prevailed over the exploitation of their church’s hierarchy that (hopefully) such systemic abuse started to become thing of the past.

How about a pop at the Jews. I’m half Jewish by the way, which informs this. Should Jews be held accountable for the actions of the state of Israel?  Of course we bloody should.  We can’t pretend that what’s going on with the Palestinians isn’t anything to do with being Jewish, or collective Jewish history.  Of course it is, for reasons that should probably be the subject of another blog – and the relationship between being Jewish and the State of Israel is highly complex, and full of sensitivities, but to pretend that somehow the actions of right wing Zionists are divorced from Jewry as a whole is ridiculous. That doesn’t mean ‘all Jews are right wing nationalists’ but we all have a responsibility in some small way as to where the narrative goes.  And the world won’t stop holding Israel and Jews to account until the problem is resolved.  I’d go as far as to say that the constant refrain ‘this has nothing to do with being Jewish as such’ isn’t helpful at all!  If we keep saying that then we’ll never solve anything.

And one last religion? Football. No one would deny that football has, in the past, been intermittently plagued with violence and racism. Of course it would be ridiculous to posit that all football supporters are racist and violent. But it would be equally ridiculous somehow to pretend that violence and racism weren’t endemic in the British game, and certainly it was the case in the 60s, 70s and early 80s that the whole of British Football was tarred with this brush (and outraged supporters would ring phone-ins proclaiming: ‘But these thugs aren’t real football supporters!’).

Sooo… here’s the question. Was it wrong for the general public to look at football as a whole and say: ‘We want you to clean up your act’? Whether the answer to that is yes or no (a different debate perhaps), in the end it has been up to the football worshipping community as a whole to make sure that these patterns of behaviour are banished from within their own ranks – and indeed that process is still ongoing.

I could go on and on and on – the British Empire (constant calls for reparations and apologies), apartheid, slavery, Bloody Sunday (many aspects of the war in Northern Ireland) etc etc etc – all aberrations of society which require people from the top and bottom of society to take collective responsibility, to apologise, to recognise the need for change, and to work collectively to effect that change.  And they all start with a group of people saying – even if they are not the perpetrators themselves – it was us; it is our responsibility to put things right, it is through collective responsibility that society IS society and communities have the ability to change.

I don’t see the Muslim community as exempt from this.  And as Mark Steel drew that comparison with American spree killers, let’s run with that.  We keep chewing at America’s heels about their terrible gun laws because it keeps happening, because the problem seems to be getting worse not better.  It’s not a direct equivalent, but there is a striking similarity with Jihadist violence.  It’s not getting better.  There is clearly something within the Muslim community that needs addressing.

But, runs the counter argument to that, it’s all of our problem.  Why land it on the Muslim community?  That’s Islamohpobic, that’s racist!

No, it’s not racist.  It’s specific.  I, as a white, British, half Jewish, non Muslim libertarian lefty intellectual can no more get to the heart of how to steer young Muslims away from violent Jihad than I can really lecture a Mid West NRA advocate on the merits of gun control.  In the end both these groups, like many others, do have to sort this stuff out themselves.

After all, the non muslim west has tried to intervene on the behalf of moderate Islam for the last however many years… and I’m sure we’re all agreed that that has hardly been a success.

So, yes, as a raddled old leftie, I DO want the Muslim community to get its act together to fight extremism.  A few spokespeople on Newsnight or Channel 4 is not enough. I am repeatedly assured that of course this internal dialogue is going on, but I reserve the right to keep asking until I see some change, just as we hold all sorts of bodies and communities to account until we see change.  I will keep writing to the Israeli embassy about Gaza; and I will still view the Catholic church with wariness; and demand of myself and everyone I know that we take responsibility for the basics of human discourse.  If I hear someone being racist, I challenge them about it, and see it as a personal failure, if I bottle out.  And I feel particularly responsible for my own communities – British, Jewish, Middle Class, White, Male…  I know I have added responsibility for the actions of my own and I expect to be called to account when those communities fail. I don’t expect a free pass because it’s one of my own letting the side down. Collective responsibility is at the heart of socialism – but it isn’t evenly spread – all of us have some people for whom we are more responsible than others.

Or as some people might put it satirically….

image

Mohammed is overwhelmed by extremists. He says: ‘it’s tough to be worshipped by idiots…’

My TV Chef Bum Grope Horror

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Back in the heady pre-austerity days of 2006, when the BBC was still flashing the cash and could throw a party and actually mean it, I was downing the canapés by the dozen (writers always eat as much food as they can, especially if it’s free) at a swanky ‘BBC Talent’ party somewhere only moderately posh in London.  Over there was George Alagiah; over there was Graham Norton, chatting to him animatedly was Simon Amstell; Michael Buerke was looking a little miserable….  And isn’t that Michael Portillo in the corner?  Gosh, his head seems disproportionately large in relation to the rest of his body.  Should I go over and say that I don’t dislike him half as much as I did when he was in office?  Maybe not.  Instead, I find myself talking inanely about my daughter’s dance classes to Anton du Beke and Arlene Phillips.  They do a very good job of looking vaguely interested.

bum gropeI could go on.  This was name-drop central.  A strange out-of-body experience where anyone and everyone from BBC Television was out guzzling and chomping their way through your precious license fee.  If you’re a writer, you are essentially anonymous, and so although you have earned your right to be there, it’s not quite on an equal footing.  You recognise pretty much everyone in the room – you feel like you know them personally, they are so familiar to you – but no one has a clue who you are.  It’s a slightly surreal feeling of privileged powerlessness.

And then it happened.  I’m chatting to one of the script editors from Holby City, when I feel a strong hand enclose itself around my right buttock, and give it a firm squeeze, one of the fingers most definitely engaging with the central crevice.  Sorry.  Too much information.

I flip around, startled, and find myself looking into the beaming face of an extremely well known TV Chef.  He grins at me, enjoying my moment of surprise, his eyes twinkling, and says: ‘Just off to the loo’.  He winks, and trots away.

Was that…?   Yes it was.

Ok.  So, obviously I knew who this guy was, but I had never met him before, I certainly hadn’t been talking to him, and had only cursorily noticed his presence earlier in the evening. The point I’m making is that this bit of hand-to-bum engagement came totally out of the blue.  No flirting, no sexy come-ons across the vol-au-vents.  Needless to say, I didn’t follow him to the loo, and had no further contact with him all evening.  And, to be honest, I thought it was extremely funny.  FFS I was 46!  I texted and emailed my friends about it.  I have dined out on the story.  My Best Man quoted the tale at my wedding last year.  Everyone laughed.

And look, I really, REALLY, don’t want to get po-faced about it.  But recent events – Savile, Harris, Clifford, Stuart Hall – have made me re-evaluate it, just a bit.

Of course, I’m not traumatised by what happened one tiny bit.  I genuinely thought it was extremely amusing. But there was something else going on.

Why did this man think it was ok to grope a complete stranger’s bum in such a very public place?  Ok, so I’m 46 at the time, and this guy has no power over me, so there’s no threat as far as I’m concerned, but then on reflection… he doesn’t know that.  If I’d been a dyed-in-the-wool homophobe, I could have turned around and hit him.  I could have been a younger, more vulnerable BBC employee and felt incredibly compromised.  What is it that gives him the sense that he can do this?  Well, presumably he’d had a few to drink, but it’s more than that.

He’s famous, and I’m not.  Even if I was inclined to grope mens’ bums at BBC Talent fests, there is absolutely no way I could randomly hook on to a well known celebrity’s arse in full view of everyone in the room, while they are talking to someone in what is, at least partly, a professional context.  If I had, I would probably have been summarily ejected from the venue.   This does say something about the ‘power’ of celebrity.  I cringe at that phrase, but I can’t see a way round it.  He knows I’m not going to make a fuss.  It’s a media ‘do’ so I’m certainly not going to be openly homophobic!

And interestingly, although women experience such gropings as commonplace (although hopefully less so these days) I doubt very much whether any man would have groped a woman in that way at that particular industry function.

I’m not going to name this person, because I don’t want to cause any unnecessary embarrassment to a man I have no other knowledge of.  I have no gripe with him.  Like I say, it was trivial and did me no harm.

But even there…  if, in the future, something more serious were to be associated with this individual (and I’m definitely not saying it will be) would I become complicit in not having done something to check potentially predatory behaviour?

I want the world to be fun.  I don’t want to live in a world where we’re afraid to touch each other. I don’t mind being groped by the occasional TV Chef. But the line between fun and friendliness – and something darker that uses power for self gratification – is blurry.

Normally I end these blogs with some kind of pithy conclusion, but in this instance I’m floored. I suppose the answer is quite boring and dull.  It’s about respect.  Simple as that.  The problem is I don’t want the world to be boring and dull.

So we’ll all have to  work hard at being mischievous and cheeky, and occasionally flirty – but in a respectful way.

How’s that for a punchline?

 

 

Bloody Students (or why the hippy dippy liberal educational values of the 1960s and 70s were fantastic – and tax efficient)

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As the nation clocks back in after the UK Mayday bank holiday, a small band of fifty-something artsy types are heading in to work with their heads spinning with rediscovered memories, friendships resumed, and a strange feeling that someone just ‘switched us off and switched us back on again’ and the last three decades are re-booting on the flickering green amstrad of our dusty middle aged minds.

For this weekend marked the thirty year reunion of the graduation classes 1982, 83 and 84, of the Manchester University Drama Department.

Mancheser Univeristy Drama Department Class of 1982/83/84

Mancheser Univeristy Drama Department Class of 1982/83/84

Of course, it was wonderful to see old friends, and even to see people to whom one hadn’t been particularly close, to share stories, anecdotes, long hidden secrets, wonderful news of the the intervening three decades – relationships, careers, children – and to put that formative time into some kind of context.

Class of 1982 - in our first year production of Oh What A Lovely War

Class of 1982 – in our first year production of Oh What A Lovely War

When Tony Johnson (now a highly regarded teacher) addressed the gathering in the bar of Contact Theatre (now majorly refurbished since the days of Richard Williams’s actually rather exciting repertory company – by today’s standards), one of the first things he said was ‘sorry’ – and there was an almost unconscious, but cathartic murmur of recognition.  For my part, I’d started dreaming about this reunion about a month ago, because mingled with the visceral excitement of digging out old photographs of the shows I’d directed and acted in, and cassette tapes of the songs I’d written, came some toe curling memories too; of mistakes made, petty jealousies, pointless rivalries, obsessional love affairs (bordering on the dysfunctional) and general bad behaviour.

But in that moment – that ‘sorry’, that murmur – also came the realisation that there was no point apologising for, or punishing, or actually feeling any kind of regret for the mistakes of one’s 19 year old self.  Because, cliched though it may sound, that’s what mistakes are for.  And as Tony said, at 19, he felt out of place, frightened, excited, fucked up – and the great joy of getting older is that you realise that everyone else was as frightened, excited and fucked up as you were.  It was that maelstrom of post teenage angst and ambition that made us what we are.

Tony Johnson: 'We were all fucked up'.

Tony Johnson: ‘We were all fucked up’.

Of course this is true for all generations; we didn’t invent growing up, and we see our own kids, or young relatives, going through many of the same things.  But there was something about our experience that was absolutely unique to that time, and that has something to say about the state of university education today. A lot of people spoke on Sunday about the loose form the degree took, whereby one could mix and match how much of the course one actually engaged in, as long as you traded it for creativity in other areas.  So in my own three years at Manchester, I skipped an awful lot of lectures, and busked an awful lot of essays and tutorials, but I wasn’t just getting stoned, I was also out with the rest of the gang writing, directing, acting, composing, lighting for dozens of shows.  When I got back from the reunion I tried to count them up… I reckon I did about thirty in the three years I was there.  I work with students today who boast that they’ve done three shows in a year.  Maybe ten in their whole university career.

The creative jewel in Manchester Drama Department’s raggedy paper crown was Monday night studio group, whereby the very basic Stephen Joseph studio was at the exclusive beck and call of the drama students, to put on any kind of drama events we wanted.  Many were terrible, some were great, but they were all ambitious… it was our playground.  It was the root of everything I do today.

Richard Sandells in Cloud Nine (and in a dress)

Richard Sandells in Cloud Nine (and in a dress)

Imagine trying to sell the idea of such a ‘playground’ to an academic establishment today?  How could such a shambolic approach possibly be justified?  After all, the students are paying £9000 per year, plus borrowing through the nose just to live.  There are targets, modules, highly regulated contact time (academics, please supply your own jargon here)…. and how can you justify a performance space that doesn’t have at least some commercial income stream… not to mention health and safety.  And even if you did provide some kind of fantastic romper room for creative students, they couldn’t actually use it because any time they’re not studying, they’re working in bars til two in the morning trying to support themselves. And weekends aren’t available to rehearse (as I discovered recently directing at The Arden theatre School) because everyone’s working in retail.

Of course, in our salad days (strictly iceberg lettuce, you understand – rocket hadn’t been invented) there were no tuition fees, and there were also full maintenance grants, and, get this, in the holidays you could claim housing benefit if you didn’t go home.  These days – if such a thing were possible, which it isn’t – you would be labeled a student scrounger.  Why should students get ANYTHING?  After all, having a degree will add tens of thousands of pounds to a young person’s annual earning capacity.

Thank you for that, Tony Blair, you war mongering philistine twat.

War mongering philistine twat

War mongering philistine twat

How sad that that era has been demonised in the public consciousness as ill disciplined, liberal failure.

The truth is, for a few extra grand from the tax payer (which I have repaid many times over since then) I worked (and played) harder than I have ever done in my whole life.  It was a system that produced hundreds of wonderful theatre and arts practitioners, and Manchester alone can boast from that period Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmonson, Actor Paul Bradley, BBC Radio comedy supremo Caroline Raphael, Theatre Director Lawrence Boswell, Actress and writer Meera Syal, director Polly Teale, Trevor & Simon, Comedian Tony Hawks (although he only stayed for a few weeks), Arts Producer Rachel Clare, Doon Mackichen, an assistant to Doctor Who (Sophie Aldred), music journalist and writer Nick Coleman, playwright Charlotte Keatley, James’s front man Tim Booth, and many, many, many more… teachers, drama practitioners, poets, producers, film makers, therapists, lighting designers, costume supervisors… and ME!!!

Me telling one of my contemporaries to 'oh sit down'!

Me telling one of my contemporaries to ‘oh sit down’!

Of course, I’m not saying that today’s crop of students won’t produce many significant players – they will – but I do know – because I work with them – that today’s graduates emerge from university with far less hands on experience, far less ability for guerrilla problem solving, with even more left to learn than we did.  They’re paying a small fortune, and getting less for it.  The Blair government pursued an entirely reductive argument that the bit of paper that says ‘BA Hons’ is somehow the point of going to university.

It isn’t.  It’s the very least important thing – especially if you are pursuing a highly lucrative, tax earning, exchequer boosting career in the arts.

They really don't write 'em like that any more...

They really don’t write ’em like that any more…

The most important thing to do at university, is just that…. ‘do’.

And god bless our lecturers and tutors from thirty years back – Viv Gardner, Nick Roddick, David Mayer, George Taylor, Tony Jackson, Ken Richards, Wylie Longmore and all the rest – for just letting get on with it, teaching us some stuff, and giving us a prod in the right direction when we needed it, and every now and again, letting us fail….  and all of it on the taxpayer’s tab.

Because believe it or not, the taxpayer has been the net beneficiary.

In thinner days… wearing tax efficient Y-Fronts

In thinner days… wearing tax efficient Y-Fronts

(check out what my old housemate, Jacqueline Saphra has to say about it in her lovely blog…)

Tony Blair’s Heart of Darkness

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My good friend and experienced blogger, Ming Ho, advised me, when I started this blog a couple of weeks ago, to stay on topic…. ‘Living With Prostate Cancer’ or ‘TV Writing’ or ‘NinjaMarmoset, Media Commentator’.   But whatever you do, she said, don’t flit around, blogs like that never work. Ehm, sorry Ming, you’re probably right, but today, it’s politics time.

My justification for it is that I have long been fascinated by Tony Blair and once wrote a play about him for Radio 4 called Can You Tell Me The Name Of The Prime Minister?. As part of my research for this, I managed to wangle myself a ticket to see him testify at the Chilcott Enquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War, back in 2010 (FOUR whole years ago, and still no published report!!). It was an electric experience on a damp February afternoon in London… at which the former PM batted his pathetic interrogators away with charmingly earnest, yet simultaneously arrogant, self aggrandising ease.   He was brighter than the lot of them put together, and I was on the edge of my seat, desperate to shout out a few decent questions, and to berate the committee for being so easily waylaid by his lawyers’ diversionary tactics.  I didn’t say anything however.  All spectators were sworn to silence, and there were armed security there to enforce the rule.

Fast forward four and a bit years and yesterday Tony Blair delivered the following speech about his take on the West’s response to Islamic Extremism in the Middle East.

http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/04/full-text-tony-blairs-speech-on-why-the-middle-east-matters/

Tony Blair delivering Bloomberg speech

Tony Blair delivering Bloomberg speech

I doubt that many, if any, passing blog visitors will have time to read the speech in full (I only do because I’m laid out in the closing stages of a course of radiotherapy – see Ming, I’m back on topic!!) but the text of Tony Blair’s speech about the Middle East and Islamic Extremism, and his prescription for the West’s role in it, is well worth close scrutiny. It is actually quite an extraordinary document. For a start, there’s much to agree with, some informed analysis, some frank speaking about things that need to be said.

But.

It is also mind bogglingly self deceiving and self aggrandising. It is a manifesto that cries out in Old Testament fashion: ‘Behold ye minions, the dam is about to crack and we shall all be drowned!!! Heed my words!! Stay and fight!!’ whilst forgetting to mention that he was part of the guerrilla raid that put a ton of TNT under the whole thing in the first place.

And whilst in one paragraph he continues his increasingly lonely assertion that history will treat the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan favourably (I wonder why???), he then goes on to state that it is in the West’s interests to support the murderous regime of President Assad in Syria.

Go figure, if you can.

Rarely has a document made me nod in agreement and gawp in heart pumping, smacked-gob incredulity almost simultaneously. There are important issues being discussed here, but, having read the whole thing, I find myself seeing not the haunted, careworn Bambi we’ve all grown to groan at whenever he appears on our TV screens, but the confused, bloated, mumbling form of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now trying to rationalise the bloody chaos over which he presides.

I feel as if I’ve learned little about the Middle East and a lot about Tony Blair’s fucked up Heart of Darkness.

Blair's alter ego

Blair’s alter ego

(I’ll be back talking about soap writing and telly next time, promise!)

 

 

What she said – or ‘the crazee world of TV, and how (not) to survive it’

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I think this might break another rule of blogging, but for anyone interested in TV writing and what the job truly entails I commend this terrific blog to you, written by someone else – ! – my good friend Lisa Holdsworth – entitled They Say The Darndest Things, which decodes the tooth jangling, eyeball exploding double speak of the everyday pitch/commissioning meeting.

She's right, they do talk b*ll*x

Writer, blogger and media pundit, Lisa Holdsworth

Click here to read Lisa Holdsworth’s terrific blog.

And when you’ve stopped laughing/cringing/screaming… well what more can I add except a few choice, related anecdotes, just in case you thought Lisa was exaggerating in any way. However, sadly, and unlike brilliant Lisa, in most of my stories, I was left completely lost for words, gulping like a beached goldfish…

‘We LOVE this, but what if….

Quite a few years ago I wrote a treatment for a psychological thriller about an ageing, failing Detective Sergeant, who becomes obsessed with a serial killer and ends up murdering his own daughter. The treatment was sent to a major broadcaster, and three days later (which is quick) I got a call to say that they LOVED my treatment and would I come down to London for a meeting. Suitably excited, I hopped onto the next Pendolino and soon found myself sitting opposite a senior and well known Drama Producer and, by her side, her eager and enthusiastic assistant.

‘Yes,’ they said. ‘We LOVE this!  We absolutely LOVE it. But… what if… what if…

Me, cautiously: ‘Yes?’

‘No, really we LOVE this, it’s amazingly written, and especially the relationship between the father and the daughter, it’s so truthful, but what if, what IF… he didn’t kill his daughter?! What if instead of killing her, they formed a father and daughter detective partnership?  And instead of it being so dark, there were jokes and banter…?’

Sigh.

‘What THEY want…’

A few years later, I was at a pitch meeting for a project I had been developing.  I think it was pretty coherent, well-rehearsed, pithy, but layered too… I do my best not to bore people, but I could feel the producer’s attention wandering.  She was staring at the venetian blinds over my shoulder. I stopped.  ‘Something…. wrong?’

‘No, no…’ she said. ‘I mean, it’s a nice idea, but the reason I asked you here is because what they want….  what they REALLY want – the HOLY GRAIL – is…’  She leaned forward as if sharing the actual location of that elusive, sacred object. ‘The HOLY GRAIL… the thing they REALLY WANT… is… William and Mary.’

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t assemble a form of words that made any kind of sense.   My mental rolodex was whirring, and for the briefest of moments I thought I as about to be offered a commission for a historical drama about the co-regency of William III and Mary II from 1689-1694. Clearly accusations of dumbing down were unfounded!!  Then of course sanity returned and I realised that she was referring to the popular itv comedy drama starring Martin Clunes and Julie Graham.  But having got the right William & Mary I realised that I was still none the wiser…

‘William and Mary… with, erm… Martin Clunes…’ I intoned vaguely trying to sound as if I was on her wavelength, but failing miserably.

‘Yes.  We thought with your experience you’d be the ideal person for this.’

‘What…?’ I was riding the fine line between question and statement – sometimes the Australian interrogative has its uses. ‘You’re making a new series of it..?’

Even as I said this I realised how bonkers it sounded.  For a start, this producer had no connection to the aforementioned itv ratings hit. Also there was the small matter of William & Mary already having an extremely good writer of its own. Not to mention the fact that I had, to my shame, never watched more than twenty minutes of the show.

‘No, no,’ said the producer impatiently as if I were one of Mr Gradgrind’s slower pupils, ‘We’re thinking of developing something LIKE William and Mary because THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT.’

‘Ah, right’ I said dimly, wondering what had happened to the idea I had been pitching not five minutes ago, which tragically for me, bore no relationship to William and Mary, either historically or comedically. ‘Only it’s a bit different from… I mean to say, I’m not sure that it’s really where I want to be going right now.’

Ouch ouch ouch ouch.

‘I mean, that’s erm, that’s why…’ I’m stammering like a fool now,’…that’s why I came to you with this idea…’ I flap my hands vaguely in the direction of the pitch document, ‘which I’m afraid isn’t really in William and Mary territory. Sorry.’

‘You see,’ the Producer’s assistant piped up, eyes shining. ‘What they want – WHAT THEY WANT – is stuff that’s a bit like things they have already… only different.’

I could see the brilliant, undeniable logic of what he was saying, but in that moment I could think of nothing either witty or devastating; I just parroted like a fool.

‘Something they have already… but different… hmmm.  Interesting.’

‘The One Thing We Don’t Want is any more Cops or Docs’

They do.

‘No One Is Interested In TV Shows About actors, writers or the television industry.’

This is undoubtedly true.  There are no successful shows about TV writers, TV comedy actors, impressionists eating fine food, extras, people trying to get shows commissioned, people writing soaps, advertising or newsrooms.  They just don’t happen.

I gave your script to a friend/my kids/the girl who does my nails to get a second opinion.’

Well of course Lisa Holdsworth is one quick thinking and smart cookie, so she wisely responds with: ‘It’s always good to see things through a fresh pair of eyes’.

My resemblance to the mythical cookie, however, extends only to the crumbs at the bottom of the packet.

A long time ago in a script meeting far, far away…  myself and a few writers – and an executive from a large broadcasting organisation – were summoned by a famously powerful producer for a first draft meeting on a block of scripts that were due to headline a new prime time TV series.  The producer turned to me and started with: ‘I showed your script to my driver…’

‘Oh yeah?’ I said brightly, happy to respond with a suitable platitude, with all the wisdom of She That Is Holdsworth.

But the producer reached into his jacket and pulled out a neatly folded sheet of A4, covered in dense scribbles. ‘And these…’ he unfolded the sheet slowly, deliberately, ‘…are his notes.’  And he proceeded to read to me, and to everyone else in the meeting (which included the script editor), the detailed notes of the company driver.

After about a quarter of a page of the ‘chauffeur edit’, I tentatively raised my hand. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, just a little tightly,’I’m sure your driver is a great bloke and everything.  And I’m sure he has some very genuine and useful opinions about what he sees on the television, but this is a first draft, and we do actually have a highly trained script editor here, and really, if your driver has the skills to shape these scripts that we’re trying to develop, perhaps we’d better ask him to leave his car and come up and exec the series, and [the executive from the major broadcaster] can go down and start a new career as your driver.’

The producer paused.  He narrowed his eyes, and refolded the paper… very slowly, and put it back in his jacket pocket.  I had the sense that I’d better check under my car from now on.

I lasted another three months on the show, and when we finally parted company, it was, believe it or not, a happy day.  Sadly I have to report that the series was not a success, and as far as I know, the driver is still plying his excellent motoring skills on the streets of our fine capital.

Reader – they do say the darndest things – but I make this plea to you – heed The Word Of The Holdsworth. Heed it, I tell you!

 

 

 

 

My Confession: ‘I Have Killed – And I Will Doubtless Kill Again’.

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I realise that I have broken the first rule of blogging by posting once and then leaving it for ages.  I could pathetically blame the radiotherapy which has laid me out (it’s that or the medication) or take this opportunity to tell the world about my crimes, and my guilty conscience.  I could try to lay low, pull my hat down low and my collar up, but seeing as 4.4million people tuned in last Tuesday 1st April 2014 and collectively gasped (it trended on Twitter for about the length of a gasp) as a regular character was brutally mown down in her nuptial prime, I think the best thing I can do is confess that not only was I the author of the narrative that drove that truck (and not jealous love rival Jac Naylor as some Twitter wags have suggested) but feeling rotten as I was, it cheered me up no end.  Which possibly makes me some kind of psychopath – and a serial psychopath at that (Serial?  See what I did there?).  And like all serial killers I seem to be developing an MO.

Holby’s Bonnie Wallis about to meet her doom…

I first got the taste for blood back in 2000 when I was asked by Kieran Roberts, the then producer of the itv Yorkshire village soap Emmerdale, to deal Butch Dingle a lethal blow, courtesy of a seventeen ton truck which would conveniently land on top of a minibus full of much loved characters – and Malandra Burrows (NO!!  I take that back!  Malandra is lovely, just couldn’t resist a cheap gag). Admittedly it was left to my brilliant writer friend Karin Young to dispatch the (very good) actor Paul Loughran unto the great post-soap panto-contract in the sky, but I was the one to give him the deliciously terminal injury.  I can’t even argue that it was a crime of passion.  No, this character assassination required meticulous planning.

The seventeen ton truck on top of a minibus thing was a given.   I was never quite sure why… perhaps there was a job lot of heavy duty stunts available that year.  However, having handed me a seventeen ton murder weapon, the production team then revealed that the most obvious bit of road through the exterior Emmerdale lot at Harewood House was unavailable to us because it had been built above a primary water main and because the road was only a pretend road and did not conform to public highway building specs, dropping said truck upon it would most likely fracture the pipes and deprive the north of Leeds of its water supply.  And so, a convoluted chain of events, a bit like a plot line out of Final Destination, had to be constructed in order to get the truck and the minibus to interface fatally somewhere vaguely recognisable as our primary location.

The minibus was another problem.  Why were all our characters in the minibus in the first place?  The story office obliged with a plot line about Alan Turner running a minibus service into the local town (can’t for the life of me remember why) which would have done the trick, apart from it being well established that all the characters had their own cars and rarely used public transport.  So, the first half of the episode consisted of a lot of scenes of people complaining about their cars needing to go into the garage.

Back to the truck, whose brakes had failed (What??  It happens!!), which needed to leave the main road and drive around a tight corner at speed (in order not to linger over the water main) in order to leap into the air and then fall upon the unsuspecting Emmerdalians. So a few strategically placed children were all that was needed to encourage the driver – Kirk Smith – to choose the path of destruction rather than the safer one of the main road to Hotten straight ahead though empty fields where he could crash with impunity. ‘Leap into the air…?’ I hear you repeat uncertainly.  We all know that trucks do this quite naturally, especially when the load hasn’t been secured properly inside and sways about a bit.  Should this happen then the truck will fly over as if a compressed air concrete pile driver has been ejected through a specially pre-fabricated hole in the bottom of the chassis in order to ensure the vehicle tips exactly on cue.

There was only one opportunity to film this, and so five cameras were rolling as the stunt was executed meticulously, and the truck landed as planned on a minibus occupied with suitably attired dummies (insert your own joke there about ‘why didn’t they use a stunt bus?’ – I’m not going to do it!).

It was actually a genuinely exciting stunt to watch, and when the dust had settled a burly technician commented that it was a good job that the bus was full of mannikins because clearly all the characters inside would have been killed instantly.  You can see here for yourself:

Later the same year, Kieran met me under a canal bridge at dusk to give me the details of my next hit, Emmerdale farmer’s wife, Sarah Sugden, who was to be having an affair with her toyboy, Richie, in the barn, just as her adopted son, Andy, decided that it would be a good idea to burn the place to the ground in order to collect on the insurance and sort out his adoptive dad’s financial problems.  Given this fatal confluence, you would have thought it unwise to leave a LARGE CYLINDER OF ACETYLENE by the door, which, should it explode, would send yet another soap actor hurtling towards panto land…. You can imagine my glee when I heard that the explosion had to be re-shot to make it more explodey!!   You can see the final result if you join at about 16 minutes into the episode:

I now had the smell of pink diesel on my hands… and it’s easy to forget that there are real consequences to these joyfully cathartic screen murders.  For a start – panto jokes aside – it usually means that someone has lost a steady income stream, which can be a scary thing for an actor, especially if they’ve been on a soap for a long time.  Hopefully though it’s a natural end to a contract and they’re happy to go out with a bang.  And if they’re iconic enough there’s always the chance that they will return from the dead, like Kim Tate in Emmerdale and Dirty Den in EastEnders.  Conversely, they can make the mistake, as one well known (but unnamed) soap actor did, of getting drunk at a party and insulting both me and the series producer, after which he and I looked at each other and said, simultaneously, and without prompting: ‘Over a cliff.’

Fast forward 13 years – and having written regularly for Casualty and Holby City – I’ve seen off countless guest characters who I dispatch with the callous disregard of a drive by shootist – even if I feign sadness for them at the time.

If you stop to think about it, this is majorly dysfunctional behaviour.

But just when you think you’ve killed so much that it has become no more than an itch to scratch (my daughter says that you can always tell when a Holby patient is going to die, because they have the holiday of a lifetime planned, or they’ve just planted something in their garden that’s due to bear fruit next year), someone offers you a contract that truly stirs the blood again.  Last year I was commissioned to write Episode 25, Series 16 of Holby City in which love torn senior Nurse, Jonny Maconie would finally prise himself free of icy, damaged cardiothoracic consultant, Jac Naylor, and marry Bonnie Wallis, the nurse who has held a torch for him ever since they met at Nursing College.  Just as everyone starts to think that he has jilted her at the register office, Jonny turns up in a taxi, short of a fiver.  As Bonnie crosses the road to give him some change, wondering if this is what it’s going to be like for the next forty years…. BAM!

So here’s the interesting thing.

Conventional writing wisdom has it, that to kill a character randomly at the end of a story is a cheat – a deus ex machinae – that will leave the audience frustrated and annoyed.  If you’re going to kill them randomly it has to be at the beginning of the story, as an inciting incident, or else their death needs to be earned through a suitable confluence of plot so as to be narratively satisfying.  However, in this instance, the good burghers of Holby City editorial team had decided that Bonnie’s demise needed to be a cruel and ironic twist – and most importantly, embargoed to scare the willies out of the audience.

This created a genuine challenge. How to seed the event enough to earn it, but still to have it seemingly come out of a clear blue side road?

The solution seemed to be to suffuse the whole episode with a sense of impending doom… from calling it ‘The Cruellest Month’ (it was transmitted on April Fools Day – irony and a literary reference all in one, folks) to peppering the script with casual references to car crashes and collisions – to building up the expectation that Jonny and Bonnie’s wedding was ill fated from the start.  Except that right at the last minute, we solve the problem that has been dogging Jonny throughout and hit the couple with a truck instead.  Yes it IS a narrative cheat, but it doesn’t feel like one because the audience have been building up to something for 55 minutes, and so it’s actually both satisfying and surprising when it happens, but not in the way they expect.

The other trick is to make sure that the ‘surprise’ death fulfils the story imperatives of the narrative – e.g. Jonny has been saving up saying ‘I Love You’ to his bride to be until after the wedding, so it’s satisfying that when he finally gets to say it, it is to her dead body – and it becomes an inciting incident for more story.

So in many ways, counter to all my normal instincts, this has to be the most satisfying, least contrived and genuinely shocking death of a TV character I’ve had the privilege to write.  I hope the lovely actress who played her, Carlyss Peer, can forgive me.

And much as I resist such cheesy notions, it’s hard to avoid the fact that I wrote the script while going through scans and biopsies for life threatening health condition, so perhaps the idea if being hit from left-field felt more real for me than it ever had done before.  Which does go to show, that although, as writers, we play with the lives and deaths of our characters like careless puppeteers, life can play with us just as carelessly.

If you haven’t seen it – Holby City – The Cruellest Month – might possibly still be lurking round on YouTube…

Until next time….  take care crossing the road.