Not about “Us”: What the Oscars whitewash reveals about some viewers

A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes (Tricycle Theatre)

A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes (Tricycle Theatre)

This column first appeared in the Big Issue magazine – Journalism worth paying for

It was one of the most exciting and original nights out I’ve had at the theatre in years – Moliere’s 17th century French satire, Tartuffe, about a swindling conman of a priest making fools of a degenerate aristocratic family, transposed to modern Atlanta and the world of gospel preachers and African American millionaires. A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes was very much playing on the ultra rich world evoked in the smash hit US TV show “Empire”. The audience in the London theatre that night happened to be mostly black. Which made it all the more noticeable when a group of 4 – two middle class white couples in their 60s – didn’t return after the interval. My (incidentally white) husband and I were bemused.

Marcus Gardley on Front Row

Marcus Gardley on Front Row

The play had a superb cast and staging and the most exquisite writing by Marcus Gardley. Those 2 couples may not have loved it, but we couldn’t work out why they wouldn’t have stayed to the end. We came to the one conclusion – they must have felt this isn’t for or about “us”.

That experience has come back to mind as I watch the Oscar whitewash row deepen since the 2016 nominations were announced. Whole strata of modern life – popular music, civil war in Africa, the excitement and drama of sport, lesbian identity, black masculinity – were virtually ignored in favour of costumed white period pieces some of which received many mediocre reviews. Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, Concussion, Creed and Carol aren’t just “worthy” films; they’re outstanding in terms of critical acclaim and crucially proved big box office.

Talking Creed with Ryan Coogler

Talking Creed with Ryan Coogler

The fact that their stars and writers and directors such as Ryan Coogler, Michael B Jordan, Idris Elba and Todd Haynes have won awards from other respected bodies, made the comparison between that ageing audience walking out and the overwhelmingly over-60 white male demographic of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seem more and more the logical explanation.

The Academy’s reliance on nominations from existing members perpetuates an appointing/rewarding-in-one’s-image culture that has marked every institution battling discrimination. But it is the refusal of a persistent group of privileged people to accept that their world view is not a neutral “norm”, to keep rewarding safe familiar material that stays in their comfort zone, and to regard other perspectives as “minority” ones that does so much damage. What happened to celebrating great stories and the talented women and men who make them on the basis of their skill not their background?

But this is not an angry column. I am inspired by Creed – which has only been nominated for Sylvester Stallone’s supporting role as Rocky Balboa, training the son of his original rival. Strangely for someone who can name 3 favourite Stallone films (Copland, Demolition Man and The Specialist in which he and Sharon Stone get steamy in the shower) I had never seen any of the Rocky films before I saw Creed.

Rocky is now a melancholy poet of a man. Writer director Ryan Coogler who grew up watching Rocky 2 all the time with his dad, lovingly re-imagined the whole plot arc of the original 1976 Rocky film and all the tropes – the training montage, the steps that he runs up, the romance and especially the drama of the fight sequences into which he injected such dynamism compared to the simpler original 40 years ago. It’s a celebration of kind-hearted masculinity with a really distinctive lead performance by Michael B Jordan, a young black man, the product of an adulterous affair – who regards himself as a “mistake”.

When Rocky won best Picture back in 1977 Stallone was the outsider. His character has never been properly understood. In the 90s his character John Rambo became a lazy shorthand symbol for militaristic neo-con arrogance. Yet Stallone is the man, I recently discovered, who stuck a joke about Rimbaud the poet into the Expendables 2. He also appreciates academic Susan Faludi’s feminist analysis of Rambo and Reaganomics in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. This makes me feel more positive about his recent Warburton’s ad, which I now see as a knowing riff on his on screen personae rather than a cry for help.

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Talented filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, are staying focused on making the best movies they can. But personal endeavour along isn’t enough. Stallone needed Coogler to write him that comeback. And the Academy has to fix its unintentionally discriminatory ways to ensure a generation of deserving heavyweights get a fair fight in the ring.

Further listening/reading

How can the Academy overcome the Oscars whitewash row? (BBC News feature Jan 2016)

Marcus Gardley on BBC Front Row (October 2015)

Ryan Coogler on BBC Front Row (Jan 2016)

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Newswatch class notes

With Producer James Mallett in the Newswatch studio

With Producer James Mallett in the Newswatch studio

Some further reading and viewing for Kingston University students at Tuesday’s class.

Newswatch website ( 1 year archive)

The origins of Newswatch and its mission (2004) BBC launch on website

Hutton Inquiry history (wikipedia)

BBC Trending website – Blog and World Service programme

Setting up the BBC’s College of Journalism 2006

Posted in journalism, Kingston University class notes, Media, Politics, TV | 3 Comments

I Dressed Ziggy Stardust – revisited

Boyfriend Magazine (1963) by Fiona Adams

Boyfriend Magazine (1963) by Fiona Adams

I Dressed Ziggy Stardust is getting a re-broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturday afternoon. Here’s a bit about why:

When I pitched I Dressed Ziggy Stardust to Radio 4 back in 2012 there was nothing more to it than a great story that fellow journalist Shyama Perera told me over a coffee when we finally met – 30 years after I first watched and admired her on TV; the story of her years as a David Bowie fan growing up in 60s and 70s London off the Edgware Road. I saw two British Asian girls growing up in 70s London with separate and very different lives but David Bowie as a common passion: One terrified but fascinated by David Bowie (me), the other older and bolder who hung around on his doorstep, blagged photos off his record company and had breakfast with his bandmates.

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We went around old locations, played old records, had a laugh and shed a tear or two. We found others like us – notably a Hindu priest who saw the Lord Krishna link with the androgynous beauty of Marc Bolan and Bowie. And people who’d known him: Costume mistress Suzi Ronson, former PR Cherry Vanilla and former girlfriend and fellow musician Dana Gillespie who turned it into a uniquely female view of the man who changed our world in ways we didn’t even realise at the time.

As we were finishing our edit in the early spring of 2013 came the surprise news that Bowie was to release his first new album for a decade. So it got “pegged” to the news, as if it had been planned all along. After he died a few listeners and BBC colleagues got in touch to suggest a rebroadcast. So here it is. A bubble of a moment and a mood, rather than a re-edit. If you don’t get Bowie, or you did, I think it’s an insight into understanding his impact in the 70s and crucially brimming with much loved music like a teenager’s bedroom. My brilliant producer Alice Bloch, far too young to have known him, says the process of making the programme converted her into a fan. She’s currently researching post war Kosovo for a master’s degree at Oxford University.

Since it was originally broadcast one of our girls, Rupa Huq has been elected Labour MP for Ealing – the Queen of the Suburbs, appropriately enough. In her previous life as a sociologist, specialising in the suburbs, she’s in here analysing the Loving The Alien video. Also since the original broadcast I have taken Shyama to see Labyrinth for the first time. She wishes I hadn’t (sorry, Shyama) but luckily is still my friend. It’s not for everyone, I know. She’s written her own great account of her Ziggy Stardust costume design that turned out to have a life of its own. Sadly she lost all her letters about it from Angie many years ago.

The programme was bittersweet even when we made it. And now that David Bowie’s died it takes on I hope a more joyous celebratory feel for how great it was to grow up with his secret siren call in a decade that is now a super trendy retro TV drama setting but was pretty horrible sometimes. I heard I Dressed Ziggy Stardust trailed on Radio 4 this week before The Archers and Gardeners’ Question Time. On the day his death was announced the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister publicly declared how much he meant to them. I suspect David Jones,”whose father worked for Doctor Barnardo’s homes”, as Bernard Falk once sneered on BBC Nationwide, speaking for the 1973 establishment of news men, religious leaders and politicians, would be rather amused.

I Dressed Ziggy Stardust is on Radio 4 on Saturday January 16th at 330pm and iplayer for ever after with any luck. The BBC World Service “The Documentary” version is quite harshly shorter, so I’d urge you to listen to the original R4 version. Thanks to everyone who helped make it.

Other Bowie stuff if you fancy:

From kitchen sink to Starman – (Little Atoms feature) David Bowie’s favourite books & the 50s inspiration of Billy Liar (Jan 2016)

To suburban British Asian kids like me David Bowie was an unexpected hero (Guardian Jan 2016)

Raise Your Children The David Bowie Way – the first thing I ever wrote for the internet back at Channel 4 News in 2007 to mark his 60th birthday

Shyama Perera on her Bowie odyssey (Jan 2016)

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Ice, ash and fury: A meditation on eruptions from Mt St Helens to the Temple of St Paul’s Cathedral

Since I made The White North Has Thy Bones a year ago about our obsession with the Arctic and the North West Passage I’ve realised January has become a favourite time of the year. For this Something Understood the starting point is the violent eruptions of pre-spring: The exotic floral extravagance of winter flowering Magnolias and Camellias. Neil Rollinson recently told me that it was his delightful poem about Magnolias that was his own favourite in his latest collection, not the sexually explicit celebrations of masculinity which got more attention. You can hear it in the programme.

Metallic cold resonates throughout in our music: The exquisite tremulous beauty of the much underappreciated clavichord; apparently JS Bach’s favourite instrument. Carole Cevasi in a practice room at the Royal College of Music revealed to me its intimate and precious subtlety. Like the harpischord it’s often thought of as cold for lacking the soft Romantic cushioning of a pianoforte pedal and echo.

A cabin in a snow bound mountainous Wyoming erupts with violence in Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight. Ennio Morricone’s Oscar nominated score, as Tarantino recently pointed out to me on Front Row, is not so much a reference back to his spaghetti Westerns, as it is the sound of horror. An eruption of blood that we know will come.

The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 which killed 57 people and devastated thousands of surround acres of land had a profound effect on my adolescence. It was the physical embodiment of all my generation’s nuclear war terror in the energy and the grey mushroom cloud released. Most disturbing was the fact that no one saw the red of lava; the massive heat wave which burned like acid through the forests was grey like a fog. Reading geologist Richard Waitt’s excellent recent book In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St Helens it’s striking how many survivors remember the silence of the eruption that accompanied the speed of the travelling ash cloud. Waitt worked on the volcano at the time of the eruption and many of the survivors had refused to speak of what they’d witnessed for 30 years.

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Rage is the human eruption that makes for 2 fascinating religious stories. In Indian Hindu  myth women’s worth is almost always measured in their obedience, humility and endurance of suffering. Which is why it’s all the more intriguing that there is such a rich vein of female rage in the scriptures: Goddess Durga the Demon slayer and her skull-wreathed dark incarnation Kali the avenger.  I’ve gone back to one of my favourite and unsettling (of course!) childhood stories – that of Kannagi, an ordinary woman who invokes her purity as a submissive Hindu wife in her rage. After her husband is wrongly accused of stealing the Queen’s jewels and beheaded she marches on the palace, proves his innocence, leading the King to commit suicide, then burns the city of Maduri to ashes with the curse of her own fury. She is still worshipped as a goddess to this day.

Photo by permission Jonathan Savage

Photo by permission Jonathan Savage

Giles Fraser came in to analyse the story of Jesus’ rage in the Temple – overturning the tables of the money changers. He pointed out that in 3 of the gospels the story takes place in Jerusalem, close to his arrest and execution – establishing him more clearly as a political troublemaker than in the gospel of St John, where the story is longer but carefully placed much earlier in his chronology. Giles reflected honestly too on his own eruption at St Pauls, from where he resigned over the Cathedral’s decision to allow the Corporation of London authorities to seek a police clearance of the Occupy protest camp that had set up in the aftermath of the banking crisis.

The omissions, sadly include Giles’ own brilliant observations about Bob Hoskins and the abattoir scene in The Long Good Friday: “There’s been an ERUPTION.”

And for time reasons we also had to drop a rather treasured section on the secret heat of Weimar Germany’s cabaret scene and a beautiful song from Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee – A winter musical play, which premiered in Leipzig 3 weeks after the Nazis seized power. There are 2 versions of the song of the Poor Relation –  Lotte Lenya’s and Ute Lemper’s  – on my Spotify list of music featured in the programme. It evokes for me the icy wind of January and my memories of how Berliners have long sought out the hidden heat and decadence of secret bars and clubs till it passes..

Something Understood: Eruption is on Radio 4 on Sunday January 17th and on this iplayer link for a month after.

Spotify list of music from the programme

Further reading/listening

Carole Cerasi on the clavichord- Bach’s favourite instrument (Front Row 2014)

Quentin Tarantino on The Hateful Eight (Front Row Jan 2016)

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The Danish Girl & the trouble with “real” women


This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine – journalism worth paying for. And here’s a link to Tom Hooper’s Front Row interview with me, revealing the extent of his research and discussion with transgender women in preparation for making The Danish Girl.

A New Year beckons and a chance to re-assess who we are and want to be. Watching The Danish Girl reminded me how much fun it is being a woman. Especially wearing bright red lipstick. But it was a rare moment of fun in watching the film. The real Lili Elbe a transgender woman artist – born Einar Wegener -– lived in liberated 1920s Paris. She kept a diary, published in 1933 after her death, but the film bizarrely chose not to offer any insight into her own point of view.

Instead we were invited to gaze in pity at her suffering: Putting on lipstick (badly), blushing and blinking, and apparently getting very sexually turned on by stockings and silk nighties; a phenomenon that seems only to occur in representations of “deviant” men or transgender women in mainstream film and tv drama. And, as critic Rani Baker has observed in The Harlot magazine, with Lili’s terrible death as a result of pioneering gender reassignment surgery, “her story arc ties so neatly into a tragic little bow.”

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Fascinatingly, The Danish Girl is only seen for “real” in wife Gerda Gottleib Wegener’s daring paintings: Drinking, starring back at you with aggressive, shameless eyes. A confident transwoman who was not a conventional beauty and therefore challenged the viewer. I wanted to see THAT woman’s point of view.

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair shoot

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair shoot

The row that has raged around some older feminists’ wariness of transgender politics is not that they hate transgender women, but that they see a dangerous revival of the worst sort of misogynist ideas of “true” womanhood. While Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence through surgery to feel she is truly herself is to be celebrated, it is also right to feel deeply wary of the Vanity Fair glamour girl way in which mainstream media chose to focus on her. “This is a REAL woman worthy of attention”, the magazine cover seemed to say: big hair, breast implants, body-hair all removed, stiletto heels and sexy outfits.

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It’s the patriarchy, innit? we sometimes joke. But what else to make of the aggression channelled at feminist thinkers like Germaine Greer who for decades have been exposing the ideal woman as a male-constructed fantasy? They fought for our right to be unadorned, not defined by fashion designers’ ideas of the ideal shape or the “fruitfulness” of our organs. “I think misogyny plays a really big part in this,” Greer told Newsnight. ‘”That a man who goes to these lengths will be a better woman than someone who was just born a woman.”

Apart from a few daring fictional attempts, like Colm Tobin’s The Testament of Mary, or Patrick McCabe and Neil Jordan’s foul mouthed Mary in The Butcher Boy, Mary, mother of Jesus, the ultimate woman, has been kept mute & enigmatic in art. As a role model she is obedient and accepting; defined entirely by her ability to bear the blessed “fruit” of her womb.

So it is I find myself travelling back like Scrooge to Christmas Past to see myself sitting crying on that church hall stage, aged 3 in nativity play rehearsal. I am drapped in my signature colour of Marian blue, clutching a plastic baby and weeping that I want to be the Angel Gabriel instead who gets to talk and “annunciate” and seems to have some real agency. (Ok I didn’t actually say “agency” aged 3). The kind teacher explains, “but you’re Mary. It’s the most important part.” And so when it ‘s finally curtain up, everyone else processes up the aisle to kneel, actually kneel before me and lay gifts at my feet. What a feeling. If you’re the lucky one. But there’s only ever one, isn’t there?

The Danish Girl builds towards its inevitable tragic end. Unlike her wife Gerda who was clearly a huge creative success – I’d have settled for a proper bio pic about her – Lili has become the cliché of the feminine mystique. Being a woman seems to take up all her time and energy. She gives up painting altogether and sits around looking wan and thin. It’s disturbing watching Eddie Redmayne embody the stereotype of the self-absorbed hyper-feminine woman.

If only The Danish Girl had presented Lili’s perspective it might have made her real. In contrast Mary, a figure whose historical reality is tied up within the problematic faith terrain of a “virgin” birth, seems more real than ever. An ordinary woman. Who had greatness thrust upon her and suffered so terribly. And who was never allowed to tell her own story. Perhaps the greatest battle of feminism remains the fight not against how we should look, but to get women’s uncensored voices heard no matter how loudly others want to shout them down.

Further listening

BBC Front Row interview with Tom Hooper on the sexual politics of The Danish Girl


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Is there a transphobic equivalent to blacking up?

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I wrote a piece for the BBC News website today, originally commissioned about the idea of white actors playing black roles, but I wanted to explore further issues Juliet Jacques had touched on when she came on Front Row recently to review the much acclaimed Tangerine. 10 years after Felicity Huffman, a straight woman was Oscar nominated for Transamerica, were we getting closer to the end of “impersonation” or is that unfair on actors? What is authentic when it comes to gender as opposed to race? And what about disability? How does it compare to the Daniel Day Lewis type physical transformation to play disability as in My Left Foot? Eddie Redmayne by coincidence has  followed up an Oscar nominated performance as Steven Hawking with The Danish Girl.  The Zoolander 2 trailer furore especially prompted me to ask if the Cumberbatch throwaway caricature was an  equivalent to old style mocking “blacking up”.   I haven’t written a post answering all those questions, but here is the full version of the thoughtful answers Juliet Jacques gave me about some of the issues for my BBC piece:
1. What do you make of the news headlines around portrayals of trans characters (e.g. the non-professional performers in Tangerine and the instant controversy over Benedict Cumberbatch’s cameo in Zoolander 2)? Is it just a coincidence, or is something changing in general public awareness?

Trans people are entering the mainstream media, and are challenging some of the ways that we have traditionally been portrayed (or appropriated) by outsiders. In film, this means questioning the ways that trans characters have been played by cisgender actors: sympathetic representations of trans women have often been clichéd, with lots of discussion of hormones and surgery as well as visual tropes (putting on make-up in a mirror, wearing pink). There is a long history of underground film getting trans actors to play trans characters and moving beyond these stereotypes, showing far more realistic individuals. As trans writers have broken into newspapers and magazines, we have been able to start a dialogue about the limits of using cis actors, and the possibilities of casting trans ones.

2. Crucially, with your long term perspective as a critic how far has there been real change in representation on screen? If you have any examples that would be great.

Recent films such as Gun Hill Road or Tangerine, which use trans actors (in both cases, non-professionals picked specifically for the role) draw on a tradition of semi-improvised movies that draw on the actors’ lives to form the characters. This spans from Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s films with Candy Darling and others in the 1970s, Rosa von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls (1983) to Sébastien Lifshitz’s Wild Side (2004). At the same time, higher-budget studios more reliant on ‘star’ actors are still using people such as Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne at trans characters, and lots of the discourse around them focuses on how good they look, or the challenges of playing the role – the humanity of trans people gets lost in that, I think. That’s before you get onto the use of trans bodies or identities in films from Ace Ventura (1994) to The Hangover: Part II (2011), that get laughs out of the idea that trans people are undesirable, and/or that having sex with one is shameful – the jokes about our genitalia in the Zoolander 2 trailer are nothing new.

3. Will cis actors playing trans characters become like “blacking up”? I haven’t seen The Danish Girl yet, but I wonder if in 10 years such a performance will seem odd in the same way?

I don’t like the ‘blacking up’ analogy – trans people have different issues with ‘passing’ and ‘stealth’ in a transphobic society than people of colour in a racist one. But many of the contemporary portrayals of trans people by cis actors look dated now – I think they’re only going to look worse in a decade’s time.

Further reading/sources quoted in my BBC article:
The Mountaintop white Martin Luther King casting controversy (November 2015):
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The search for TV’s first interracial kiss and why it matters

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This is the story behind the BFI’s news today that it may have found the earliest TV interracial kiss. Though in response there are already suggestions that it may not be the first.

A few months ago the team behind It Was Alright In the 60s found the 1964 episode of Emergency Ward Ten in which a rather touching love story between two doctors featured a beautiful kiss. They interviewed Joan Hooley, who got sacked as a result of the outrage generated.  Her character got sent to Africa and bitten by a snake. Yes. Actually that.  You can watch the episode on 4OD and listen to her talk about it on the BBC World Service here.

John White, Joan Hooley

John White, Joan Hooley

I suggested to the BFI we should show the clip in a panel discussion I’m chairing on race and romance as part of their Love season. Especially as this episode seemed to be the earliest interracial kiss on TV anywhere, as found by series producer Simon Harries and series editor Adam McLean. And not a forced performance for degenerate aliens  — the much cited but rarely understood Kirk/Uhura kiss in the Plato’s Stepchildren episode from Star Trek in 1968.

The BFI did its own digging and came back to me last week with the news that they’d found a clip from 1962 which seemed to move the seminal moment of that first kiss back even earlier: You In Your Small Corner. What’s more it was live. What’s more the character of the male protaganist is a Cambridge student. And that’s a whole discussion about what sort of background we give characters on TV today.

Drawing attention to race in romance feels odd now. But we know it still stirs negative feelings among some people and in the USA, the memory of interracial marriage being illegal in states such as Mississippi is very much a living one. Ask Alice Walker.

The panel features Adrian Lester, Art Malik and director Gurinder Chadha, whose Bhaji on the Beach tackles many taboos with warmth and humour, including racism within the Asian community in its portrayal of a black-Asian couple with an unplanned pregnancy. I should admit: That’s my mum incidentally as Asha, getting  a light, middle-aged flirtation with Peter Cellier as an English charmer in a boater and blazer.

Why does it matter? There is a tendency in modern retro TV to want to airbrush racism out of collective public memory. I take the opportunity yet again to cite Life on Mars. It Was Alright In The.. was marvellous for doing the opposite, and reminding us of the tension between older conservative viewers (the high ratings for The Black and White Minstrel Show) and those, increasingly younger people, who embraced social change. Through it all actors, writers, film and programme makers and citizens of every background, have fallen in love and sometimes tried to put such stories on screen. The role of TV in reflecting and driving social change and acceptance is important. Here’s a rare chance to celebrate and discuss it all with people who were part of such stories. We’ll be showing a lot of clips. And there’ll be a December 13th public screening of You In Your Small Corner, too, for a chance to watch the whole thing for the first time since transmission. Tickets via the BFI website:

You can buy tickets to the BFI Race and Romance event on Tuesday November 24th here

You can buy tickets to the BFI screening of You In Your Small Corner on  Sunday December 13th  here

Granada TV 1962. Dir Claude Whatham, With Lloyd Reckord, Elizabeth Maclennan, Ida Shepley, Charles Hyatt. 81min.

First presented at the Royal Court, Jamaican dramatist Barry Reckord’s ‘You in Your Small Corner’ is one of the earliest attempts to represent the Afro-Caribbean migrant experience from a non-white perspective on British television. Through the story of the relationship between Dave, a young middle-class West Indian (played by the writer’s brother, Lloyd Reckord), and his white, working-class girlfriend, Terry, and drawing on his own experience of attending Cambridge in the 1950s, Reckord brilliantly subverts the class expectations of the day – Dave’s mother strongly disapproving  of a girlfriend she regards as his intellectual inferior. It is this aspect of the play’s nuanced dissection of class and racism that the press picked up on at the time of its transmission and therefore remarkably the explicit portrayal of the physical relationship between Dave and Terry went largely unmarked, however this is indeed believed to be the world’s first interracial TV kiss including a marvellously unselfconscious post-coital scene. This fact alone however does not do justice to the quality of the play’s writing and all credit must go to Director Claude Waltham and Granada TV for holding their nerve so magnificently. Do not miss the opportunity to see this massively significant play in the history of British TV drama.

Further viewing

ITV News At Ten report Nov 21st 2015 on the discovery (watch from 27 min 40 sec)

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The Teen Within…

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This week’s Something Understood gives voice to people who I reckon are rarely heard on radio. Teenagers. The readings are all done by young actors and much of the music and poetry you’ll hear was written by them, or about that remarkable time in our lives.

We reflect on the surprisingly enduring template of the original teenager: There’s the 50s/early 60s dawn of the teen as captured in John Waters’ original, self-aware and comic Hairspray and its forerunner Girl Trouble as much as James Dean’s earnest Rebel Without A Cause.

Janis Ian’s anthem for ugly ducklings everywhere At Seventeen is no surprise, while Cat Stevens’ The Wind captures the solemnity and earnestness of young poets and musicians. But I’ve enjoyed re-visiting Claude Tardat’s Sweet Death – the acclaimed French satire I first encountered as a teenager myself, about a brilliant young student rebelling against her mother’s bourgeois perfection by – quel horreur – gorging herself to obese death.


Novelle Vague’s version of Teenage Kicks keeps up the French presence in our exploration of le Teenager. And Maxim Leo’s Red Love – gives a fascinating insight into an East German coming of age just before the Wall fell. It’s been one of my favourite non-fiction books of recent years and an important reminder of the power of state brainwashing on impressionable minds.  I take the opportunity to recommend it highly again now. But America – home of the Hollywood teen also offers up  John Steinbeck, a rare adult permitted in this story with his delightful advice to his son.

Time constraints meant we had to lose a great section on the Harlem Renaissance  with music by Chick Webb who came to New York at the age of 17, and a reading from a teenage school story with a difference: – Jessie Redmon Fauset’s  Plum Bum about a girl who “passes” for white.

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But Alom Shaha – author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook and Peter Capaldi’s Letter To My Younger Self (a terrific Big Issue feature when celebrities reflect on themselves at 16) are the highlights. Shaha generously agreed to talk to me about taking responsibility for his younger siblings when he was just 13, after his mother died.


He’s a wonderful example of how keeping in touch with one’s inner teen makes for the best kind of grown up. And Capaldi’s honest reflections on how he burned all his geek treasures as a teen, including signed photos and memorabilia from Peter Cushing “because I didn’t want to be a geek and I regret it to this day” – is a moving reminder that plenty of bullies may have jumped on the geek-chic wagon, but there is an inherent cruelty against the young, the sensitive and the different that mainstream society continues to reward.

There’s a Spotify list of music here used in the programme, plus a few extras to get you in the mood to get back in touch with your own inner teen.

Something Understood: The Teen Within is on BBC R4 on Nov 22nd at 6am and 1130pm and on the BBC radio iplayer for a month after.



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Marriage, Margaret Thatcher & the closet of female expectations

Image from:

Image from:

This article first appeared in The Big Issue. Journalism worth paying for (subscriptions available)

For years my mother kept an entire cupboard where she used to save up things for my trousseau; the old fashioned concept of a bride’s personal belongings collected to take to her new life. She came back from trips to India with saris – formal silk ones to impress my future in-laws, elegant jewellery to wear to wear to parties, or attend business dinners with my future husband like a good corporate wife. There was even a beautiful velvet lined wooden canteen of Sheffield silver cutlery and I used to look at the Hostess food trolley in the corner of the dining room and wonder if it was destined to be mine. I was fascinated by her single minded believe in this imaginary grown up future me that never became.

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But then I look at my secret cupboard and I realise I’ve been doing the same for my teenage daughter, but buying duplicates of my favourite things that I want her to want: Identical mint condition paperback copies of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Simone De Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, a copy of Three Degrees’ singer Sheila Ferguson’s wonderful Soul Food cookbook, a full set of discontinued Revereware copper-bottomed pans I sourced on eBay. Talk about conflicting messages for a young woman.

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Even though I’ve bought identical cookware for my son, the messages one generation of women hand down to the next feel different. We pass on some internalised traditional expectations of what women should be, but we know what was harder for us in the past. We would like things to be fairer in the future. Which is why I felt such surprise that the outgoing head of a leading London girls’ school chose to declare: “I’m sorry I’m not a feminist.” I can imagine a lot of working mothers spitting teeth to have that thrown back at them by a teacher who couldn’t even be bothered to look up the rather humble standard definition of feminist as a believer in equal rights for men and women.

Yet I contend that Vivienne Durham’s broader point was misunderstood and I’m on her side when she says there needs to be more honesty about the reality of the “glass ceiling” and that combining career and motherhood isn’t straightforward: “Young girls have massive options these days and some of them will make a decision that they don’t want to combine everything and that is as valid as making the decision that you do want to combine everything.”

So many of the brilliant women I’ve met in the course of my work- politicians, scientists, writers and educators like Durham – did not have children. They didn’t have corporate wives at home like the men. In most cases they made a choice not to, based yes on the world and the men they lived amongst, but also on the work they loved. They take pride in their achievements. And they pushed the doors open for a new generation of women to come in behind. What they couldn’t have known is how many younger men have proven they are keen to be different to their fathers too and embark on parenthood with a less rigid mindset about male and female roles. And how much easier it is to live openly with different sexualities. But being in a relationship and having children does not define a fulfilled life.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 17.06.20The irony of Durham’s comments is that Margaret Thatcher – the first and only female prime minister to date – was married with children. She did, arguably, “have it all”, though she was equally the exception that proves the rule, because of the key support of her millionaire husband in pursuing her ambition.

Thatcher’s adult children are now auctioning off her wardrobe, turned down it seems by a low-ranking decision maker at the V&A. It’s a sobering reminder that our children have their own ideas about the values of what we hold on to. Though I don’t imagine Lady Thatcher was the type to have bought them a trousseau. She lived for her work and was bereft at the loss of it. And whatever your politics, what sane person wouldn’t be fascinated to see an exhibition about her she took control of her image, practical about the challenge of sexism in forging a career in politics?  She was a woman who, by her very success, made it possible for others to come after.

I told my daughter about my mother’s cupboard, and my own. She thought it hilarious. I may not be a corporate wife, but I am touched by my mother’s planning & her hopes. The cupboard is a repository of ideas of what we think we were and ought to be as women. Maybe the thing to do is dip into it now and then, and not be afraid to have a clear out.

Further reading

Third Act Troussau: Fabulous vintage trousseau adverts’ blogpost

Posted in Books, Children, Culture, Design, Food/Drink, History, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bye Bye Baby: The Bay City Rollers & the lost innocence of the 70s

Three ageing rockers are holding up big glasses of milk in a toast. There’s always something poignant about seeing how teen stars have aged, but the Bay City Rollers really were angelic faced teeny boppers, and I am stung by a feeling of something darker when I see the image all over news websites announcing their (partial) reunion.

Pretending they only drank milk was the idea of their manager Tam Paton, who would have it on the table at news conferences. Paton is now regarded as the Jimmy Savile of Scotland for his predatory abuse of vulnerable young boys over decades. Though he served jail time for gross indecency, the scale of his abuse was never confronted. Only after he died in 2009 did it emerge that the NHS had strong evidence putting Paton at the centre of an alleged paedophile ring.

It was also Tam Paton’s idea that the Rollers always left the top button undone on their trousers. Rock journalist and erstwhile super-fan Caroline Sullivan (author of Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With the Bay City Rollers) remembers seeing them – a “weird mix of street gang and strange tartan dolls” at a shopping mall in her native New Jersey: “I was almost face to face with Woody and I said, ‘do you know your top button’s undone?’ And he was going to do it up. Tam was a couple of feet away and said, “leave it alone”. I thought he was an incredibly intrusive person. A big burly guy. Quite an intimidating presence.”

Sullivan at the time didn’t see anything sinister. She and her teenage friends thought it was just silly; smart enough like most teenage girls to see a “sexy” marketing gimmick.

Having spent time with Rotherham abuse survivors, and reexamining the Yewtree decade of my own childhood, I see something different; linked to why this band, who influenced The Ramones, and sold up to 75,000 records a DAY at their peak, are still pariahs in the rock world: They are a visual proxy for the sexual predator culture of that decade. Baby faced working class boys and their girl fans – innocence in the arena, and bemusement from male news reporters at the female hysteria of “Rollermania”; but “jailbait” for powerful movers in the entertainment business. It’s because they were so hideously exploited and no one wants to admit that. How much easier for the rock industry to continue to mock them and look away.

Lead singer Les McKeown and fellow band member Pat McGlynn say they were both raped by Paton while drugged. Drugs were a big part of the party culture that Paton cultivated to prey on teenage boys. In 2005 McKeown told Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian: “Tam Paton was constantly, constantly, constantly ramming the concept that women were dirty fish, dirty, smelly fish, you don’t want any of them, you want to be one of the boys… In one way what he said was kind of true; if you toe the line you reap the benefits.”

But the Rollers didn’t reap the benefits. They’re still struggling to recover their royalties through the courts. They fell out with eachother. On the internet you can see for yourself the Dante-esque hell of the US kids’ tv show they were forced to appear on thanks to their enduringly wretched management. Some ex-members have battled addictions. Caroline Sullivan wonders if there’s a comparison to Linda Lovelace – the 70s Deep Throat actress whose abuse was only subsequently revealed: “Once she was no use to her manager/pimp she was left floundering.” When Paton died McKeown said: “I can’t imagine a man nor beast who will be mourning his passing.” When I contact him for this article he very politely declines an interview, writing:

“I am in the process of completing my second autobiography and like the first one it is pretty graphic about TP [Tam Paton]. I am compiling a Bay City Rollers book to be on sale on our upcoming tour. I wont be doing any interviews that cover this topic. It’s all Rollermania for a while :)”

I go back to that photo with the glasses of milk held up to the fans. I see three men in their  fifties and sixties determined to reclaim ownership of their youth. The tour, they’ve said, is all about the fans.

Caroline Sullivan says: “My experience doesn’t feel tainted now. It was the best time in my life.” If anyone has a right to reclaim the innocence and joy of the 70s, it’s the Bay City Rollers. I wish them well.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine – journalism worth paying for

Further Reading/viewing

Rollers announce reunion concerts (Sept 2015)

Why was Scottish Savile ignored? (July 2014 Sunday Express)

The Krofft Superstar Hour TV show (1978)

Former Bay City Rollers’ star claims Radio 1 DJ abused boys at parties

Former Roller can continue nursing (BBC News 2001)






Posted in Crime and Justice, Culture, Music, TV, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments