At home with type: Alan Kitching – master of letter press

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All photos copyright Jerome Weatherald/BBC. No re-use without permission

To step inside Alan Kitching’s studio is to enter the past and the future present. The rich fragrance of ink and wooden trays transports you to a pre digital world.  This is the world of Sergeant Pepper-style retro font posters and design that mixed old and new to create such rich and beautiful images and book covers and products in the 1960s. For BBC Front Row producer (and photographer) Jerome Weatherald and I got to see round his world and his passion for making beautiful typographical prints for the modern world the old analogue way.

Kitching has proudly stood still as mass printing took over in the 1970s and drove small presses out of business. In the long term it’s meant he has a thriving business as a renewed interest in craft and analogue quality brings clients like Sky Media seeking physically textured designs to market their digital products. In this case, drying from pegs, a poster for a new season of programming, with each drama or film title picked out in a carefully chosen font and colours chosen to express the theme of each. Like vinyl records the niche for letterpress is an interesting part of modern digital based consumption. Though we talked about the strangeness of how the newspapers he helped redesign over the years including The Guardian, are disappearing from the physical world, while his old-style physical typography is increasingly valued and cherished.

But none of it would be possible of Kitching hadn’t kept, and in some cases, acquired further “obsolete” collections of typefaces. He bought up an entire theatrical poster letter press he and his late wife found housed in two medieval barns many years ago: “She told me do you want a pension or do you want this?” He still teaches new generations of students and still loves his work. What emerges from talking to him is that the art emerges from a joy in mathematical puzzle-solving. The physical pieces must be carefully slotted together, but an infinite number of combinations is possible. Details count. In digital formatting who notices that the tip of one letter doesn’t line up exactly with the base of the next one as they do in letterpress?

One of Kitching’s presses is at the graphic design exhibition of his work at Somerset House in London and you can visit to see him printing there for several days this week and next. More info on the link below. And there’s an exquisite book, too, on his career and designs.

My interview with him is on BBC Front Row Wed April 27th and here on iplayer after 

Further reading

Pick Me Up at Somerset House, London – tickets for the Alan Kitching Exhibition


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Up the Wellington Arch with Beatrice the Angel of Peace

English Heritage are doing a cleanup on the largest bronze sculpture in Europe – the quadriga of the Angel of Peace by Adrian Jones. Note the war booty in that chariot and the mixed message of the olive branch in one hand and the laurel wreath of military victory in the other. Producer Tom Sabbadini (who also took the photos) and I got a bird’s eye view for Radio 4’s Front Row. Historian Steven Brindell gives a wonderful insight into the creative genius of Adrian Jones, his obsession with this masterpiece and the level of detail far beyond any normally lavished on a work to be displayed so far above street level. He also gamely speculates on my wild suggestion that the golden Angel of victory above the Siegessaule in Berlin looks rather similar. Maybe there was a royal rivalry with the British King’s Prussian cousin? And how do we know she’s really called Beatrice? You can find out here on tonight’s programme and iplayer after.

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All photos copyright Tom Sabbadini and BBC. No reuse permitted

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The man who knew infinity: Difficult history & dreaming spires on film

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How do we re-visit history? Watching the continuation of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford I went to see The Man Who Saw Infinity with a greater consciousness of how our institutions choose to tell their own versions of the past.

My interview with Jeremy Irons on Radio 4’s  Front Row (March 31st)

The film about the self-taught genius Indian mathematician Ramanujan stars Dev Patel as the devout Hindu who believes his complex formulae are revelations from God, and Jeremy Irons as his atheist Cambridge don friend and champion G H Hardy – struggling to make sense of this exotic talent who speaks the same language of pure maths but interprets it through intuition, not the rigour of making proofs.

For a film that is mostly ploddingly predictable and cosy in its construction and imagery, to its credit, it does not play down the racism – Ramanujan was denied a fellowship by Trinity College Cambridge dons who called him a wog as much as the louts who beat him up on the street. Like many other modern screen dramas it has a plot arc that sees the maverick outsider talent (female, black, gay, working class) admitted at last, despite the narrow mindedness of the time and the men in charge (see all those US military films like GI Jane, Men of Honor and in its own way Trading Places with Eddie Murphy). The optimistic momentum of all such films is that exception is always made for special talents and eventually the social climate changes too. To its credit that idea doesn’t wash here. An exception is made for an exceptional mathematician. There is no sense that Cambridge as an institution was willing to consider Indians as true intellectual equals. It’s worth remembering that the University denied women degrees till 1948. In a parallel plot Bertrand Russell is fired for his pacifism as the First World War erupts and reveals the confidence of the ruling classes. As Hardy sees him off, expressing regret for Russell’s treatment, he asks where he’ll go. “Oxford,” declares Russell, played with a rakish moustache and a twinkling eye by Jeremy Northam, “and wait for them to ask me back.”

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It’s interesting to see that The Man Who Saw Infinity does play fast and loose with the truth to make his story more palatable in different ways to a modern audience. GH Hardy was in reality in his 30s, only a few years older than Ramanujan, not the 60 something we see on screen. Jeremy Irons, who plays him says he thinks there was something Charles Ryder-like about his fascination with the Indian genius, and points out that Hardy went on to have a homosexual relationship in later life.

Apart from making the pudgy Ramanujan into the handsome Dev Patel the film imposes a parallel plot about his relationship with his young wife Janaki. In the film she’s an adult and their love is sincere. Her mother-in-law hides his letters to her, to prevent her going to join him in England. In reality Janaki was married to a man 12 years her senior and was only 13 when she moved to live with Ramanujan. For 5 years they were apart while he lived in Cambridge. When he died a year after his return to India she was only 21 and remained unmarried (another traditional Hindu custom) till her death at the age of 94. Status, recognition and a decent government pension only came to Janaki in the 1960s as his posthumous fame grew.

Does it matter that the touching romantic plot line is a modern invention? Or does it legitimately help a modern Western audience relate to him?

So I come back to Rhodes Must Fall. How do we choose to view our history and where do we put our sympathies? Portrayed in much of the British press as a battle between a sensible calm institution and trigger warning-obsessed ungrateful immature agitators, what was shocking was how Oriel College, Oxford, having promised a consultation on whether to keep the statue, speedily shut it down when anonymous wealthy donors threatened to stop giving. Where was the process then? The real outrage is the selective application of “rules” and open process when it comes to privileged institutions refusing to face scrutiny. The Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri observed in The Guardian that Cecil Rhodes in his will talked of “the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world”. A key reason student objectors want to take down his statue is to say we should not celebrate the attitude his bequest was linked to. Like slavery – so integral to much modern institutional wealth – privileged institutions would rather not talk about that history anymore. In which case it’s not the students who are trying to selectively erase history.

Even posh tweed coated period dramas are starting to look little harder at our own past. Perhaps it’s time our institutions did the same.

My interview with Jeremy Irons on Radio 4’s  Front Row (March 31st)

This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors or subscriptions here

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Why Obi Wan Kenobi is pure evil & why R2 D2 is Moses

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An excellent panel of minds got together at Conway Hall’s latest #LondonThinks event last Thursday to discuss the theology and ethics of Star Wars films. You can watch it in full here on Youtube (below). Or open it in another window so you can scroll through the slides, made for the night out of Lego on my son’s Death Star, to illustrate various scenes of ethical conflict. And let me know what  you’d like to see in a future discussions. Thanks to Andrew Copson (British Humanist Association), Dr Matthew Sweet (cultural historian and broadcaster) and Professor Francesca Stavralopoulou (professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at Exeter University).

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How the Space Shuttle Broke My Heart

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This weekend’s Radio 4 Extra Floating In Space 3-hour special (9am and 7pm Saturday Mar 1th and iplayer after) with Simon Guerrier explores the history and the fantasy of manned space exploration from the cosmonauts to dreams of Mars colonies. It was the idea of producer Luke Doran who even got me to put on a space suit, not realising I would find myself revisiting all the powerful emotions I’d explored five years earlier when the Space Shuttle programme ended for  a newspaper feature in July 2011.  (Space suit photos by Luke Doran copyright BBC. All others are copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted.)

“When will we be able to live in colonies on other planets, like Mars?” 

It was an obvious question for an 11-year-old, perhaps. When my parents took me on holiday in the 1970s to Cape Canaveral and Houston’s NASA Mission Control Centre, the campuses were abuzz with excitement about the new “reusable” spacecraft. In 1979 I wrote my question on a visitor enquiry card, dropped it into a wooden box outside the tourist cafeteria and waited.

The promise came three months later in a white envelope with the new 1970s “worm” Nasa logo, an arrow of hope through the letterbox into my dull suburban life. In thick purple ink from a manual typewriter, a Nasa employee had typed a personal reply.

The gist of it was:”Dear Samira, we all dream of deep space travel and living on other world.s We believe our new Space Shuttle programme is a very exciting sand important next step in the development of manned space exploration, enabling astronauts to make frequent missions and develop a permanent space station in orbit.” I didn’t keep the letter. I didn’t need to. They’d answered my question. The Spade Shuttle was a logical step in the evolution of manned space exploration.

It’s hard for anyone under 30 to appreciate just how much optimism my generation had about the future of space travel because of the Space Shuttle and what an essential dream it was against the chilling nightmare of the Cold War and terrorist hijackings. The Cold War had fuelled the Space Race, had put men on the Moon, but on Earth it fed, to children like me, a grinding deep fear of nuclear war. Many of the SF movies playing in the cinema or on TV were set in a post apocalyptic world, like Logan’s Run, Silent Running or Beneath the Planet of the Apes. My mother seemed to delight in making her children watch every TV programme about the effects of a nuclear blast. “We need to know this,” she would insist, sitting us down to watch yet another documentary on the effects of radiation sickness. Most of my school compositions of the late 1970s and early 1980s featured nuclear apocalypses or me being kidnapped and held hostage by Italian and German Red Army Brigade guerrilla groups.

The Space Shuttle was,  like its 1970s predecessors, reported regularly on Newsround and the evening news, and a vital counterbalance to the violence and threat of geopolitics. There was even space diplomacy – the 1975 linkup between the Russian Soyuz space station and American Apollo mission, and Skylab – America’s first experimental manned orbital space station, launched in 1976. Most important, our young minds were encouraged to think on a cosmic scale – we absorbed the philosophical wonder of the Voyager probes, launched in 1977, carrying messages from mankind as they headed off towards the edge of our Solar System.

And if the cinema was mostly full of apocalypse, the Shuttle was white and properly “futuristic”; yet, like the Pan Am shuttlecraft to the orbital wheel space station in 2001:A Space Odyssey, familiar-looking. It was also linked to the warmth and grand, optimistic vision of Star Trek repeats and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series, which visualised with real science, the idea of going where no one had gone before. I can still remember the moment he rolled a ball across a blanket to explain space warps and worm holes – the theoretical possibility of a “fast transit system” to our nearest stars. The Shuttle would be a step to getting there.

Many of the Nasa scientists working on the Shuttle programme had been inspired by Star Trek, naming the first orbiter Enterprise. At the heart of its creation was the idea of democratising space travel. The 1970s vogue for what was rather unsexily termed “unisex” styles (matching big hair and top-to-toe denim) was actually the realisation of the 1960s civil rights dream of equality. The Shuttle was the first unisex spacecraft. As a journalist in the 1990s I was to interview Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek’s Lt Uhura) all those years later about her landmark work as a recruiter for Nasa astronauts.

With Nasa promoting broader recruitment, the idea of more routine space travel within 30 or 40 years seemed actually plausible for the 11-year-old me.

Presenter Maggie Philbin left children’s TV to join Tomorrow’s World in 1982, the year after the first Shuttle space launch, where her enthusiasm inspired many viewers. “The promise was that it was ushering in a new era of routine space travel,” she says now. “O sometimes wonder if it was down to the design itself. it looked like a plane. We could imagine ourselves strapped in there.” The name “Shuttle” suggested a mundane public transport system, like Freddie Laker’s SkyTrain, which had just brought affordable trans-Atlantic airtickets to travel-hungry Britain.

Perhaps therein lay the seeds of its doom, marketing-wise. For all the 1970s loveliness of its white curved, wings, it was just a plane. Piggybacking on a jumbo jet infantilised it. Applying some amateur psychoanalysis might the orbiter’s domestic shape – like an iron – have made it in the public subconscious “weak” and “female” compared to the phallic rockets upon which it relied? Within a year it had been lampooned in Airplane II.

Physicist and science author Marcus Chown was a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena in 1983 when he drove out with friends to watch one land at Edwards Air Force base: “I remember staring into the bright sunny sky until someone shouted excitedly: “There it was, a tiny black speck, a spaceship returning to Earth. Immediately I lost it in the glare. It was coming down far faster than a plane – 26-times the speed of sound – and in an arc. It was impossible to follow it. Double supersonic bombs rocked the desert. The next thing I knew, it had landed.” Most of the crowd immediately got in their cars and drove off. But Chown waited and was rewarded: “Real spacemen, in their blue astronaut jumpsuits…were walking towards us across the shimmering desert.”

The Space Shuttle was the next in a remarkable line of energy-hungry, super-noisy, ultrafast engineering marvels that every 1970s British child knew. Thanks to Sir Christopher Cockerell, my generation got to experience the vomit-inducing rollercoaster delights of hovercraft daytrips to the strange otherworldly civilization of France. Rocketing over the choppy waters of a stormy Channel was a reasonable substitute for the G-forces of take-off.

We all stopped in my south London school playground to look up in wonder and desire, everytime we heard the roar of Concorde as it powered up from Heathrow Airport on its transatlantic mission.

As a Channel 4 News reporter  I found myself writing and broadcasting the obituary of each Concorde with a lump in my throat. created just a few years before the 1973 Oil Crisis, their fat was, like the Shuttle’s linked to their unalterable thirst for fossil fuel. And the Space Shuttle had been compromised from the start. It was supposed to be re-usuable, gliding in to land, in contrast to the massive rockets of the Mercury and Apollo programmes. There was an early eco-promise in that. As Marcus Chown points out: “Instead we got a sorry compromise, with solid fuel boosters which had to be replaced and giant fuel tanks that had to be collected from the sea.”

In 1993 the Star Trek-spinoff show, The Next Generation which had brought empathy counsellors and a creche aboard the Enterprise, found that warp speed travel itself was damaging the fabric of the universe and would have to stop. It seemed a metaphor for what had happened to the space programme.

So when did I know that the Space Shuttle was a broken promise? The 1986 Challenger disaster, the year I left school, was, with hindsight, probably the watershed. It was suddenly old. Precious Nasa resources had to be spent on making it safe again, not developing the next step to the stars.

The video gaming that emerged in the early 1980s seemed connected at first to the space programme. But the internet, games consoles like the Wii , the iPad, the handheld shopping scanner I use in the supermarket — all science fiction made science fact – have grounded us in consumerism. An atomised generation, we can play fabulous simulator games, but the grand vision of joint human endeavour and facing a new frontier has gone.

The best hope an 11-year-old today has of making it into space is to become a big shot in the City and save up $200,000 for a rid on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft. it’s like we’re back in the pre-SkyTrain age.

It is no coincidence tha the most stimulating and innovative area of science fiction and fantasy in the USA and Britain now is steampunk – a retreat into a benign Victorian vision of the future. This engineering-focussed Jules Verne and HG Wells’ fantasyland is powered by infinite amounts of black smoking fossil fuels and unashamed romantic derring do.

My son, now 11, himself, and his 9-year-old sister – like many modern children – devour Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines novels in which Victorian cities fly through the air on coal-fuelled steam. At the steampunk exhibition at London’s Key Bridge Steam Museum this summer (2011) many lovers of space travel will be watching 19th-century Cornish beam steam tubines at work, or taking part in tea-duelling. There is nothing in the sky to look at from the playground.

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The Nasa administrator and former Shuttle astronaut, Charles Bolden, was on the defensive at the time of Atlantis’ last launch on 8th July 2011, insisting: “We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking necessary and difficult steps today to ensure America’s pre-eminence in human space exploration for years to come.”

But we feel in our hearts that Nasa’s grand dream has been scuppered by political reality. The Agency was pushed to divert resources on a wild mission-to-Mars project by President Bush in 2004, then informed by post-credit crunch Barack Obama that no, we can’t.

So what do I have left of the Shuttle era? There’s my T-shirt with the 1975 Nasa “worm” logo, bought on a trip to the Huntsville rocket centre in Alabama; its streamlined shape, like the Shuttle, designed to suggest a “modern” vision of space travel. That logo was abandoned in 1992 for a return to the 1950s motif – Nasa itself trying to channel a kind of Right Stuff nostalgia. I have a small rubber fridge magnet of the Shuttle. I bough it at Cocoa Beach in Florida, where my husband and I took our infant son to watch the Mars Odyssey probe launch in 2001. And there’s the giant print of Saturn, one of the many tantalising glimpses into deeper space taken by the Hubble Telescope that hands in our house – images that were only made possible by the engineering feat of those brave astronauts who fixed it in the Shuttle bay; mechanics, not new world explorers.

I follow Nasa’s Voyager 2 Twitter stream, which updates its distance as it moves towards the edge of the heliosheath, at the furthest boundaries of our solar system. It epitomises the gulf between the dream and my domestic internet-enabled entrapment.

When Atlantis touches down for the last time I will do what I have always done.Stop, listen to the understated calm Nasa TV commentary and watch in silence and awe as the supersonic bird arcs down for the last time. When it does, it will indeed, for me, finally, be childhood’s end.

A version of this article was originally published in The Independent in July 2011

Radio 4 Extra Floating In Space  produced by Luke Doran is on BBC Radio 4 Extra Saturday March 1th 9am and 7pm and iplayer after. 






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The men are weeping in the Oval Office…


Lucy Dichmont and I have made a Something Understood for Radio 4 about Weeping. I knew I wanted to talk about the Wailing Women in the Bible and especially that I wanted to talk again to award-winning poet Andrew McMillan about his poem The Men Are Weeping In The Gym.

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He has so many fascinating observations about the gendered value judgements used against people’s weeping: About how women like Adele are described as “losing control” at the Brits, when a man would be said to be “fighting back tears”.  In our conversation we talked about how men can be mocked for crying for political reasons – George Osborne at Lady Thatcher’s funeral – but also how male politicians can deploy them strategically in a way a woman couldn’t. Take Obama’s tears over gun crime. Now imagine how Hillary Clinton’s tears might be commented on.

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Another favourite poet Grace Nicols reads live from her great work about Picasso’s Weeping Woman – Picasso I Want My Face Back. Among my personal memories drawn on in putting together this programme are a recollection of the physical extremes of mourning in Shia Islam witnessed in Iran, and a conversation at a VJ Day anniversary commemmoration 11 years ago when a daughter told me how most of her father’s generation never talked about their horrific experiences in Japanese  POW camps; until for some, JG Ballard’s book and the film Empire Of The Sun gave some the confidence to open up for the first time.

But I had the idea of starting with Debussy’s La Mer and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in her pool of tears – surely the disturbing but also playful idea of the overwhelming possibilities of extreme emotions. Along the way we have Nick Cave, The Byrds and of course Julie London. There’s a Spotify list of most of the music in the programme here and some of the extras that didn’t make it into the final edit; notably an extensive section on Crocodile Tears. Dido’s lament about her faithless lover Aeneas by Purcell is particularly gorgeous and poignant.

Something Understood: I Sat Down And Wept is on BBC Radio 4 this Sunday March 13th at 6am and 1130pm and on iplayer for a month after

Spotify list of music from the programme

Further reading/listening

Andrew McMillan website





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Inside the world of Angels: the secret history of film & TV costumes


All photographs copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted

The chill hits me and a slight tang of…meat. I’ve entered the Fur store room at Angels Costumiers. We stand in silence. There are racks of fur coats – like a multiverse of Narnia entry points. Fox stoles are piled high to the ceiling. Tim Angel, the 7th generation boss of a family firm is giving me a guided tour. “A lot of actors refuse to wear fur, of course,” he says, “but we feel we have to keep them”. And there is the dilemma and fascination for Angels – a family firm since the 1800s which just won a special BAFTA. There is a sense of keeping an essential archive of lived history and documenting changing social taste. But they’re also in the “what if?” business and so almost nothing is thrown away.

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Angels’ giant warehouse in North London, is a library of culture like nothing I’ve ever seen. Think of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with every treasure not boxed, but on open racks and rails so your eyes are bombarded with imagery. Exotic ethnic costumes from Bond films – African fabrics, Japanese samurai armour. History and fantasy before your eyes, racked up to infinity points in every direction.


On the upper floor uniforms and helmets dominate. I glimpse an infinity of headless Michael Caines – thousands of ‘em in the distinctive red jackets that evoke Zulu. Alec Guiness’s Obi Wan Kenobi costume once got lost in the “brown monks” section of “religious” and been hired out of the fancy dress business that still operates from the big store on Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s West End. They are more careful now.

The fancy dress business is still going strong. Tim shows me the streamlined system packaging up and posting out online orders and not just for Halloween. “Young women aged 18-30 love dressing up and they buy costumes for their boyfriends,” he explains. “And they want to look sexy.” Hence the infinite variety of sexy witches and flapper girls. There’s a whole sociology thesis there.


Back in the screen hire side, the uniforms continue: At first I mistake racks of maroon and green for military dress, but Tim points out they are the smart liveries of cinema doormen and cigarette girls: “When cinemas started they needed to build a sense that they were respectable places of entertainment.” Many of these Angels bought up in bulk lots as the film palaces died away in the 1960s. The transition through changing modes of entertainment goes back to 1840, when Morris Angel founded the firm. He spotted a demand from the growing world of theatre for actors for their own signature costumes as part of their marketability and with his son transformed the firm from a simple second hand clothes emporium to an essential part of the entertainment business. When cinema and later TV each in turn became the cutting edge of entertainment, Angels moved with the times, buying up or merging with rivals such as Berman’s. And when each entertainment world declines, it is here that their imagery survives; social history embodied in the livery of the long gone cinema houses and theatres and TV shows, waiting to be brought back to life. It is remarkably poignant.

It’s only when you go round that you appreciate how much of the skill of 0f the costumier is in seeing the re-use potential in racks of indistinguishable garments. In the workrooms upstairs where seamstresses sew, snip and steam away,  a French pale blue polyester 1960s traffic warden uniform is being transformed into a Pan Am stewardess with great success. The businessman in Tim is essential to the firm. Down one long aisle  racked 20 feet high I see nothing but grey padded jackets and trousers. These were made for the late 1930s Shanghai crowd scenes in Empire Of The Sun. Not long after Tim says the Robin Hood Prince of Thieves production came calling. “They didn’t have much money,” (what?)  “so I came up with the idea of reusing the trousers to make a uniform for the Sherriff of Nottingham’s men.” Nice one Tim.

At the far end of the aisle my eye is caught by striped pyjamas. They are red and grey. From Papillon. I am impressed that Tim has even visited Devil’s Island. But I catch my breath at the identical stacks right next to them Identical but for the blue stripe; and the occasional stitched on yellow patch or star. Angels founded by a Jewish family that came to London from Frankfurt, costumed Schindler’s List. “They’re obviously costumes, but they are accurate,” Tim tells me. “The people making The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas said they wanted to change the design. But we said this is the accurate uniform.” When Tim went on a prospective buying visit to the old UFA studios in Potsdam after the Wall came down he was horrified to be shown a room full of real concentration camp uniforms and immaculate 1930s children’s clothes, each piece stamped with a swastika. All those decades that the East German film industry had just kept them without a thought. It is another moment to stand in silence.

I stop Tim by the LE racks – LE Light Entertainment – a whole costume department the BBC controversially sold off in the 1990s. I am glad to find it’s safe at Angels. “We don’t really know if this will ever be wanted again,” observes Tim, “but I feel it’s important to keep it.” There are strange pantomime costumes worn on shows like The Generation Game, Kenny Everett and Russ Abbott. I even spy what looks like an It’s A Knock Out “giant” costume in a back shelf like a felled Titan. Tim and I muse on how space fantasy has changed. Angels outfitted Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. Tim costumed Blake’s 7, remarking on how SF in the 70s and 80s tried to be bold and exotic, where now it tries to look gritty and realistic.

Everywhere I spot wheeled trolley rails with special orange labels, where costume designers are pulling together looks, as if in a supermarket, for major film productions.

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A huge part of the ground floor is racked up with tea dresses and suits from the 1930s to 1950s; a period much in demand right now in drama commissioning. Everything is organised by decade. There is a whole floor of military and police uniforms – many of them authentic; like a history of empires. The racks of riot shields and batons genuinely unnerve me, like I’ve wandered into the locker room of a 70s future dystopian thriller like Conquest of The Planet of the Apes. Tim reckons they have wearable pieces going back to about 1911 and worries about how long they will last. In the 1970s the custom was to make new copies of old outfits for shows such as Upstairs Downstairs, whereas now the parallel likes of Downton Abbey want authentic, original pieces. We pass a member of staff sorting through a bin of dozens of  stiff white collars for Edwardian gentlemen’s dinner suits.  All original. They have so many of everything, but they need them as many of these objects aren’t made any more. And there’s another challenge still, as time passes, Tim remarks: “There are only about 2 places left in the whole of the country that still do the starching they need.”

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Finally there is a room marked “Principals” – a kind of sanctum for special pieces. A plum velvet Victorian smoking jacket catches my eye in amidst hundreds of suits. I have a gut feeling… It is. It’s Peter Cushing’s from a Hammer horror; The Creeping Flesh. I smile, and I put it back. Tim has to get back to work too, with a rack of “to sort” items waiting for him to decide their fate: Peter O’ Toole’s green waistcoat from Bright Young Things, stained Bullingdon Club coats from The Riot Club. Before I go I can’t resist asking Tim what were his favourite places as a young child visiting his dad, when the business was all run from Shaftesbury Avenue? “Actually,” he admits, “when I was 7, I loved nothing more than playing in the lifts.”

I step out into suburban London, knowing that within these vaults a treasure of culture is quietly, silently resting.

This is a longer version of an article that first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine – Journalism worth paying for. On sale from street vendors or subscriptions available at this link

My thanks to Tim Angel and all the team at Angels Costumiers for their time. 

Behind the scenes at Angels – Listen to my Front Row special feature here (Feb 2016)

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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)

Posted in Culture, History, Music, Radio, Science Fiction/Fantasy, TV, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments