Plankton of the midsummer air

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This week’s Something Understood takes its title Inebriate of the Air, from an Emily Dickinson poem about the insect heavy honeyed thickness of midsummer light and air. And insect and bird sounds (swifts) dominate this programme.

Entomologist Ross Piper helps us pin down the insects that make up the plankton of the air with the aid of a large net in his garden.


I was obsessed as a child with the diagrams of the earth’s rotational spin in the opening pages of my parents’ atlas, marking the solstices and equinoxes. John Agard’s poem about the tropical mixing with the regular colder clime fruits on the supermarket shelves and Purcell’s The Indian Queen – a English baroque reimagining of the heat of the Mayan world – are a bit of fun with the tilting of the axis  at the summer solstice.

There’s a Nordic/Midnight Sun flavour too, with readings from Tove Jansson and Moon music from Bjork.  The best thing about Midsummer in my youth was staying up late and heading out to parties and college balls.  Plus I get to share my love of The Zombies’  cover of Summertime. Totally English. Totally inspired. All the music and some extras are on this Spotify list.

Listen to the progamme here:

Something Understood: Inebriate of the Air produced by Natalie Steed is on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday June 21st (6am, 1130pm) and iPlayer for a month after.

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Only Connect: An encounter with Charles Correa and the power of the empty centre


(Jun 17th 2015) I was saddened to hear the news of Charles Correa’s death. An international name who declared he was proudly an Indian architect first, I was fortunate to interview him for Radio 3’s Night Waves in May 2013. You can listen to the interview online here. This is the piece I wrote then about meeting him:

I interviewed Charles Correa, India’s Greatest living architect at RIBA yesterday, which is holding a retrospective of his remarkable career till September 4th. He’s just given them his archive of papers and his story is a fascinating one. He trained at the University of Michigan and MIT in the mid 50s as modernism was starting to bloom. And despite some landmark projects in Boston, Lisbon and Lima, he told journalists at the press preview that he regards himself as an Indian, not an international architect.


We discussed the challenge of slums, city corruption, what he called the “slave ships” of 24 hour call centres to service Western financial services, India’s ambivalent attitude to its own architectural heritage, with its disrepair one of its great shames, and the aspirations and impact of the returning non-resident Indians from the West, as well as of the poor. Part of his legacy is his work in the early 1970s in planning the expansion of Bombay (Navi Mumbai) and building affordable low rise housing that incorporated traditional patterns of communal courtyard living.

The range of cultural reference in his thinking and his work is huge: Hindu, Islamic and ancient Greek philosophy in the “empty centre” concept are at the heart of many of his great designs such as the magnificent Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics University in Pune (top), referencing black holes, and the Big Bang theory in patterns laid out in polished black granite and white marble. He smiled as he remembered shocking some Cambridge dons with his observation that the quadrangles of Oxbridge had been inspired by the Islamic courtyards of places like the Alhambra in southern Spain.

In our conversation he compared his architectural choices to the literary ones of a favourite writer — EM Forster — as a professional pursuing excellence, rather than the equivalent of an airport blockbuster career.


His Tube House from Ahmedabad in 1961 (above) is breathtaking for its simplicity — using pure design not mechanical engineering as so many supposedly “green” buildings do today — to build a natural cooling airflow through the house. Sadly the original has been pulled down and it is sobering to see how many great ideas developed so long ago did not get taken up more widely.

Modest, charming and well worth a listen. We packed in as much as we could of our conversation into Night Waves last night:

Listen again here

This post was originally written in May 2013

All photos courtesy of RIBA/BBC

Further reading

Seoul: India’s Dream City




Posted in Culture, Design, Environment, Radio | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

We gotta get out of this place: Small town boys & the curse of pop stardom

“I used to scrump apples in the grounds here here,” says Jim Dale, smiling that boyish smile as we sit for our interview in a grand medieval manor house. Now a country house hotel it used to be a school when he was a boy in the 1940s. It’s a remarkable journey.


We think of Jim Dale as the young handsome one from the Carry On films, or if you’ve followed his subsequent career, as an award winning Broadway actor notably in Barnum. But before those films he was a huge pop star in the 1950s. And before that, he was a school leaver from Rothwell in Northamptonshire who turned up for work at a rundown, dark and depressing shoe factory in Corby with a view of a brick wall and realised he couldn’t bear it.


Interviewing Jim Dale in Corby for BBC R4’s Front Row (May 2015)

Dale told the story on the opening night of his one man show in Corby, ahead of its current West End London run. The audience was full of people of his generation, including some who’d known him at school. Though he told the story with humour it was clear what a disheartening experience that first day in the factory must have been. Dale had a passion for comedy, and had already worked in music hall as a child so, remarkably, he quit that very day and went back on the stage.

Overnight before our interview Dale had been reflecting with modesty, on how many in the audience had been those who’d stayed. He felt maybe he shouldn’t have been so frank about how much he hated the factory. I sensed a real awareness – a humility even – in being the one who got away.

The Britain of the 1950s was changing and working class boys had new avenues in music and mass entertainment. In London on the BBC’s new show for teenagers the Six Five Special, Jim Dale got work as a warm up comic. When producers saw he could sing and write his own songs they transformed him into a popstar who got mobbed by screaming teenage girls.

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In Basildon – a postwar new town – 20 years later a different band of talented hopefuls were seeking a similar escape, with Top of The Pops in the place of the Six-Five Special, but offering the same outlet for teenage dreams. When I went to Basildon to cover the General Election count (it was sitting in 2 Ukip target seats) I realised how excited I was to finally have made it to the hometown of Depeche Mode. I can still remember seeing my first picture of them posing by the town sign on the bypass in my issue of Jackie. That’s the power of popstars on teenagers for you. Now the town looks like the wreck of a future world. All those roundabouts and crumbling mosaics on the modernist concrete shopping centres. Like Dale, Dave Gahan could have had an alternative small town life. He failed to get a job as an apprentice fitter with British Gas because he was honest about his juvenile criminal record. But after art college and with his bandmates he was to achieved great fame and success. Like Dale he settled in America where, despite some serious lows in his life along the way – Gahan finds himself a man who built a career out of doing what he loves, still producing acclaimed album after album.

Two days after the General Election I found myself brooding over Basildon and Jim Dale and what had happened to that escape route when I met the former NME journalist Paul Morley, who’d covered those glorious musical years of the late 1970s and early 1980s when Depeche Mode were starting out. Morley felt that pop music had become complacent and colonized by the powerful. The idea of it as an outlet for working class dissent had gone. I don’t think that was just about David Cameron choosing The Jam’s Eton Rifles for his Desert Island Discs though. More and more I wonder if pop music was always as much a trap for its stars as a potential escape route.

Jim Dale quit pop music after 3 years, describing it with real vehemence as “a sort of hell”. Not least because he’d been forced to keep his wife and family secret and hounded by the tabloid press. You can hear him talk about it in our Front Row interview. Talented art student Cynthia Lennon was to experience that horror too, trapped and forever defined by her broken marriage to a Beatle who treated her with cruelty as his fame grew.

Perhaps I’ve really been brooding on the strange business of success. And how ill prepared we are for its consequences.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine. On sale from street vendors or you can get a subscriptions here.

Further reading/listening

My interview with Jim Dale interview on Front Row (May 2015)

Depeche Mode UK fan site


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Young, British and Imam-in-Training: Who we met and why

There were two things producer Georgia Catt and I tried to do with this half hour documentary for Radio 4. One: avoid random isolated Muslim voices claiming to speak for a majority saying  “That’s not Islam” about anything problematic, like terrorism.   It’s something you tend to hear most of the time in discussions about extremism and radicalism. And the other was to  try and contextualise the bigger picture, with a sense of which ideological movements are big players in Britain  – notably the conservative Deobandi and Barelvi seminaries that are educating the imams who tend to go into the big city mosques.

Imran and Shaima Suleman: freelance Imam and Islamic studies teacher

Imran and Shaima Suleman: freelance Imam and Islamic studies teacher (copyright  Samira Ahmed No re-use permitted)

But we also hear really interesting voices from young modern-thinking imams such as Imran Suleman who are trying to break down old barriers. Imran’s wife Shaima had such an interesting perspective having grown up in Egypt and found many British Muslim attitudes far more conservative. Together they currently run Quran classes from their front room, as they’ve found working in mosques so difficult.

There are also interviews with people involved in new fringe movements – the Inclusive Mosques Initiative which is working on breaking down gender segregation and welcoming gay people. Souad Talsi – a community worker in West London – where Mohammad Emwazi (the suspected masked IS hostage murderer)  grew up, gave the important immigrant female and feminist perspective. She’s seen how Islamic conservatism has strengthened on the estates and thinks it’s no coincidence that more and more young people get involved in radical Islam. What was striking over the course of our recordings was how conservative first generation immigrant elders and young British born social media savvy Imams can often seem to share key separatist attitudes.

Invited to meet staff and students at Jamia Al Karam seminary (Nottinghamshire)

Invited to meet staff and students at Jamia Al Karam seminary (Nottinghamshire) (copyright Samira Ahmed no re-use permitted)

We conducted interviews in a range of towns from Plymouth, London, Nottingham, Leicester to Bury with significant Muslim populations – mostly south Asian, which make up 60% of Britain’s Muslim population according to the last census. Not all material is in the final edit, but it did inform what you hear with a sense of a bigger picture.  I’d like to thank the Markfield Institute near Leicester and the Jamia Al Karam seminary (and former secondary boarding school) in Nottinghamshire featured in the programme for welcoming us in and giving us extensive time for frank interviews with teachers and students. The chai and biscuits, incidentally, were excellent. It’s apparent in our interviews that there’s a real gap between what some Muslim seminaries and what some listeners will think is modern Islam and compatible with British values. It’s important to acknowledge that both these institutes welcomed us in to debate the issue on the record. Other Darul Ulooms – or Islamic seminaries – didn’t let us in.

As someone who first covered the rise of radical Islam on British university campuses twenty years ago as a reporter on Newsnight, I welcomed the opportunity to try and gauge just how much conservative and separatist attitudes have grown among Britain’s Muslims. They undoubtedly have grown especially in  some Midlands and Northern English towns and neighbourhoods in cities such as East London. Have politicians really been honest about the connection between separatist attitudes and the hundreds of British born Muslims getting involved in violent extremism?  Most important is the need to acknowledge that many conservative religious groups including Christian and Jewish ones – share similar beliefs to conservative Muslims about homosexuality and the role of women. So there’s a practical challenge in how to tackle radicalism (as given attention in  the alleged Trojan Horse row) without discriminating, especially in a political system in which all main parties support faith schools.We haven’t answered all the questions we’ve raised, but I hope you’ll find this programme was an honest attempt to address some of the concerns.

Young British and Imam In Training is on Radio 4 at 130pm Sunday May 24th and again on Monday May 25th at 8pm and is on iplayer for a month after.

Discussing the programme with Nihal on the BBC Asian Network


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Shylock: A Traveller in Time

Pryce (left) with Dominic Mafham as Antonio Globe Theatre Photo: Manuel Harlan

Pryce (left) with Dominic Mafham as Antonio Globe Theatre Photo: Manuel Harlan

The film producer Davina Belling once said of Jonathan Pryce that she always uses him as a lesson for actors “not to count their lines when they’re offered a role. He had 20 lines in the whole film [Breaking Glass] but the impact he made was extraordinary.”

Stealing Breaking Glass

Stealing Breaking Glass

Pryce’s power is apparent on stage too. I urge you to go and see him play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. He’s on stage in only a few scenes but his eloquent dignity steals the whole play.

Most of the plot is nonsense about cross dressing lovers and elopement and a fairytale like puzzle for would be with suitors who must choose between a gold, silver and lead lined box to win the hand of fair Portia. Staged in Elizabethan costume in that fantastically atmospheric wooden ‘O’, its music hall/vaudeville feel is maximized. The groundlings – the audience standing around the stage- get dragged up on stage for jokes and the battle of the sexes gets plenty of laughs.

Yet I found the comedy of the play almost unbearable to watch. For these jovial lovers and their friends that we are supposed to identify with and root for, just as in Shakespeares’s day, are all deeply anti-Semitic carousing posh boys. They jeer and mock and scheme to undo Shylock – the money lending Jew. Pryce knows what he’s doing: “Antonio and the Christians,” he recently told The Guardian. “I think they’re monsters – these Bullingdon Club types who’ve persecuted him for years, spat on him, kicked him. And suddenly they need him. It’s remarkable, actually, the play’s language: it’s totally contemporary.”



Pryce’s Shylock holds on to revenge and hatred as his only comfort in a society that loathes him. Shakespeare’s Venice wears a veneer of nobility, but takes his wealth under pretext of upholding the impartial law of the land. By having his daughter elope & convert to Christianity, Shakespeare tries to load our feelings against him further.

We can see through it now. By chance I saw the production the same day that Auschwitz survivors had been testifying in Germany at the trial of a camp guard. Over the years the Nazis had used both laws (starting with property – no Jews to own bicycles) and mass entertainment (the anti semitic 1940 film Jud Suss) to break down and dehumanize Jewish citizens.

The TV drama Life on Mars stripped the racism from its evocation of the 70s to make its police hero more loveable; a dangerous airbrushing of our recent social history. There was no such concession at the Globe. On this fine spring night – the day after St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s own birthday – the audience experienced something rare: A thought-provoking night out and a riotously funny night out. Plus a simultaneous evocation of exactly how the play would have been enjoyed in Elizabethan times by an audience that would have been intrinsically anti-Semitic. In the theatre we sensed the continuum of prejudice that connects the glory of our greatest writer to some of the worst atrocities of modern times.

The conversion scene. Shylock far left. Phoebe Pryce as his daughter Jessica (Globe Theatre photo Manuel Harlan)

The conversion scene. Shylock far left. Phoebe Pryce as his daughter Jessica (Globe Theatre photo Manuel Harlan)

The Globe’s staging shows Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity – which has been agreed in the “happy ending”. Brought on in a white shift, like a martyr for execution, Pryce speaks only to recite the words of the ritual. We are witnessing the extinction of his very identity. How director Jonathan Munby dares to and manages to pull off both a comedy and a tragedy I do not know. I wonder what Shakespeare and his contemporaries would make of the Globe’s staging, if they could see it? Would they even understand it?

CARRY ON MATRONI was re-watching the old Carry Ons recently and was surprised to find them full of fabulous strong women and wholesome values. Check out how many feature cross dressing and end with a wedding Shakespeare-style. In Carry On Matron (1972) the wonderful Kenneth Cope in drag as a nurse, has to fight off the hospital sexual predator Doctor Prod. It’s a funny scene, that would have been unimaginable with a woman. Even in 1972 the film conveyed a sense of changing attitudes, by putting the issue of sexual harassment at the heart of a mass entertainment film.

Shylock may have been put on stage as a pantomime villain. But the power of a great piece of entertainment is in the truths that lurk beneath the laughs. Sometimes it takes a few decades – or centuries for us to truly appreciate them.

This first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine

Posted in Comedy, Culture, Film, History, Media, Theatre, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Desert worlds: JG Ballard, Lawrence of Arabia, Dune & the story of Ishmael

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 18.42.06My latest Something Understood for Radio 4 on Sunday April 19th was conceived as a sequel  to The White North Has Thy Bones, about our fascination with the Arctic and the North West Passage. Together with producer Natalie Steed we have, I think, sourced some beautifully evocative music and poems. And where else to begin but with a shimmering desert horizon and that first glimpse of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia to Maurice Jarre’s majestic score? Laurie Lee’s poem Scot in the Desert, which I found in an old school anthology, places the Antarctic hero in the heat and dust, quickly I hope taking us down a more subversive and less macho, Western-centric exploration of the desert landscape, its inhabitants and its heroes.

JG Ballard in The Atrocity Exhibition ponders why so many religious and political leaders emerge from the desert. And Frank Herbert’s Dune plays with the language and imagery of jihad, battling tribes and the geopolitics of a much desired buried commodity.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 18.21.18

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is the heart of the programme. It was one of the first Bible stories I was taught at Convent School and it disturbed me deeply and seemed to challenge even, at the age of 5, any complacency about the narrative of the Old Testament. Hagar is an Egyptian slave; cast out not once, but twice, to face death in the desert; saved only by an Angel of the Lord.

Camille Corot: Hagar in the Wilderness

Camille Corot: Hagar in the Wilderness

Her  son Ishmael is fathered by his own slave master. This mother and child form a parallel narrative in Genesis – saved by the same Lord of Abraham and he is blessed with twelve sons of his own, to mirror the twelve tribes of Israel. Ishmael has long had a special resonance with African American Christians for that reason, but is also revered in Islam as a prophet ancestor of Muhammad. His story is that of the black slave son, the perpetual outsider.  Hagar the African woman suffering such indignity and yet enduring. No wonder their place in scripture still unsettles and disturbs and that so many great artists have tried to capture on canvas the powerful emotions buried within a few Biblical verses.

A fantasy novel She Who Remembers – was a gift when I was a teenager. It introduced me to the lost world  of the Native American Anasazi whose abandoned canyon cities have left such a mystery about why they disappeared.

Anasazi abandoned city

Anasazi abandoned canyon city

The idea of sand as a force of nature, encroaching over the ruins of mankind continues to hold apocalyptic power over our imagination.  The ruins on Delos near Mykonos, which I visited a couple of years ago are now what comes to mind when I think of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.

Apollo: The lost Colossus of Delos island, Greece

Apollo: The lost Colossus of Delos island, Greece

But it was important to me to end the programme with Ishmael, married and settled, accompanied by Natacha Atlas and Jocelyn Pook’s exquisite Adam’s Lullaby. Atlas also featured on The White North Has Thy Bones. The image of Hagar at the point of despair,  failing to protect her baby son from the cruel sun and the thirst of the desert contrasted with the reality — that to millions of people — this environment is no sterile wasteland, but to those who know how to live in harmony with its unique ecosystem, a place called home.

Further listening/reading

Listen to Something Understood: Deserts on Radio 4 on Sunday April 19th and on this BBC iPlayer link for a month after

My Spotify list of Desert music from the programme with extras – including a particularly lovely and less known Frank Sinatra track we couldn’t fit into the edit.

Mystery of the Anasazi by American West historian Adam James Jones

The White North Has They Bones – companion Something Understood programme on the Arctic (January 2015)

Posted in Culture, Film, Music, Radio, Religion, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments

Serial killer stories: From Burke and Hare to Tales Of The Grim Sleeper

It was late, I was tired and I needed cheering up and I found this great comedy on TV that I’d never seen before which did just the job. Burke and Hare, directed by John Landis in 2010 and starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, is a rollicking love song to Edinburgh’s architecture, its Gothic medical pioneering past , its lowlife and its ghosts. But crucially it’s a fantasy black comedy about a real life pair of murderers who killed vulnerable people to supply fresh cadavers to a renowned surgeon who asked no questions but paid well. While I grimaced with the joy of a horror movie fan at the old fashioned physical special effects that created worm ridden corpses and snapped rigor mortis hardened bodies to fit herring barrels, most critics it seems turned away with distaste. Was there something fundamentally, morally unacceptable about making a screwball comedy about such men?

The question was on my mind the next day when I interviewed Nick Broomfield about his new film Tales Of The Grim Sleeper for Front Row on Radio 4. It’s about the case of the man thought to be America’s worst serial killer. South Central LA is where Lonnie Franklin Junior, currently awaiting trial, was, it seems, able to prey on vulnerable drug addicted prostitute women for 25 years because, in the LAPD’s own slang code, the police labeled the corpses they found as “NHIs” – No Human Involved. They didn’t bother to do proper forensics or to alert the public. More than a hundred women are thought to have been tortured and murdered by one man.

The film is beautiful to look at, though in a completely different way to Burke and Hare’s Ealing comedy Edinburgh. Instead of the Gothic drama of those windy cobbled streets, Broomfield shows how South Central LA can be at first glance as beautiful as the rest of Los Angeles. The skies are as blue, the palm trees as tall and the street architecture as cool. Only when Broomfield drives close to the pavement with Pam, the former prostitute who helps him trace survivors of Franklin’s violence, do we see that the young woman they’re talking to isn’t properly dressed, because she’s touting for trade to pay for crack.

Broomfield shot the film using a big camera normally only used for major feature films. “I wanted to make the people and the situation look as beautiful as I could,” Broomfield explained. “I didn’t want to make a dingy film about poor people. So I think the imagery, if anything, celebrates the dignity of the people and their beauty and their incredible articulate way of talking about themselves and their situation. And for a subject that’s pretty tough there’s a great deal of humour in it. There are some very sparkly wonderful people in it.”

Pam is the heart of the film. Broomfield talks of her having a kind of Richard Pryor-esque motormouth. After our interview I told him of my unease about watching Burke and Hare. There are so many dramas and even comedies about fictional serial killers. Can you, should you do that about real murderers? Is it just about enough time passing? In 50 years could the equivalent of Richard Pryor make a jokey Burke and Hare comedy about this apparently funloving guy who could with his big stash of porn and his not untypical attitude to prostitute women?

Stephen Sondheim’s musical of Sweeney Todd, the mythical demon barber of Fleet Street is back in the West End in its latest revival. Is a musical ok, like all the Sherlock/Jack The Ripper Victorian murder culture, because the theme is still dark? Is prurient fascination superior to comedy using the names of real killers?

Burke and Hare life and death masks in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (photo copyright Samira Ahmed No reuse)

Burke and Hare life and death masks in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (photo copyright Samira Ahmed No reuse)

If you go to Edinburgh the city’s grisly past is central to its tourism. There are dozens of ghost tours that promise a fright night around Fleshmarket. The Edinburgh Dungeon has a special Burke and Hare attraction with a couple of rakishly handsome actors posing with shovels on the website.

Tombstone in Greyfriars graveyard, Edinburgh (photo copyright Samira Ahmed no reuse)

Tombstone in Greyfriars graveyard, Edinburgh (photo copyright Samira Ahmed no reuse)

 Perhaps all I’ve learned is that the cruelty of a few horrifies us so much, that sometimes we don’t know how to respond. We collect the relics, like Burke’s skeleton still on public display in Edinburgh, which is the final shot of Landis’ film. But investigating the crime properly is crucial; something the police failed to do in South Central LA. And the unease we feel at the way such stories are told is probably something to cherish.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. On sale weekly from street vendor or you can subscribe here.

Further listening/reading

My Front Row interview with Nick Broomfield (23 Mar 2015)



Posted in Comedy, Crime and Justice, Film, History, journalism, Media, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sixty years on: Has Cinderella on film got trapped in The Valley of the Dolls?

I rather enjoyed the new live action Disney Cinderella. We’re reviewing it on Front Row on Monday Mar 23rd. But the issues raised here still stand.

Imagine Cinderella as a anti social tomboy with cropped black hair who acts well, just a bit too weird..actually unlikeable. Imagine that when she’s transformed for the ball, her dark exotic beauty means the palace guests all think she’s an Egyptian princess; like, actually, North African. Now imagine the fairy god mother is the mad old village tramp lady that everyone avoids. This isn’t PC gone mad. MGM actually made this film The Glass Slipper in 1955 with one of its brightest new stars, the young Leslie Caron. That was five years after the Disney animated version.

Since childhood Ella has been boasting to everyone about how one day she’ll live in the palace. Compared to her beautiful, elegant feminine stepsisters this girl is well, frankly emotionally disturbed. You can see why in this 1950s retro Europa, the village all feel it’s quite generous of Step mother Elsa Lanchester to have agreed to keep this weird creepy child at all, even as a servant.

MGM’s The Glass Slipper was made to capitalize on Leslie Caron’s early film success. There’s a lot of ballet in it, but the trailer misleads. What intrigues is its strikingly modern heroine. A lonely neglected orphan who’s put up an amazing hard front. She doesn’t try to be liked. She gurns and stomps around. It’s quite uncomfortable to watch at times, giving the film an unexpectedly real emotional power despite the super pretty sets and dancing. Her waist is not the point. You’re embarrassed by some of the thing she does and says. And when she goes to the ball, aided by her old tramp lady – the only friend she has – transformed by the power of a beautiful gown – everyone thinks she’s an Egyptian princess.

Compare that to the sickly sweet, ditzy girls of Frozen or the headlines being made by film critics over the new superblonde wasp-waisted Cinderella. Every time a new Disney princess film comes, out, and they’re churning them out at the moment, I am surprised by how dated its heroines can seem, compared to films make 20 to 60 years ago.

The romances have changed too, though perhaps in more complex ways. Modern princes tend to be the same age as their princesses which perhaps is more comfortable viewing. Early 20s. Caron’s Prince Charming is a grey-haired Michael Wilding. Richard Chamberlain was about 40 when he charmed Gemma Craven’s Cinderella in The Slipper and the Rose, though it doesn’t jar; credit to Craven’s sweet but not sickly performance. And Richard Chamberlain responds to the campness all around by playing his part superstraight. It’s totally charming. There’s a lack of adulthood about the modern films combined with a really concerning off-the-shoulder sexiness. Listen to the voice characterisations in these old films and some of the cartoons, such as the 1950s Disney Sleeping Beauty. There’s a physical maturity to the voices, which conveyed adulthood and adult relationships.

When writer and comedian Meryl O’ Rourke and I got talking about our mutual loathing for Frozen for The Big Issue last month, she pointed out how Disney films, perhaps just practically focused on monetizing that Disney Princesses demographic to the max, show heroines who barely look more than teenagers themselves. 8 year old girls given an 8 year old’s idea of a being a grownup. They are not shown adult role models.

What the hell, they’re only kids’ films right? Does it matter? I think it does. Mulan was on TV on International Women’s Day. I’d like to think the scheduler at Channel 5 did it deliberately. Meryl observed every song in it is about mocking and challenging female and male gendered roles. Three men drag up to help Mulan get into the Palace for the climax of the film. The guards mistake them for “concubines. UGLY concubines.” Mulan then jumps one and starts strangling him. Do you think Disney would ever make such a film post Frozen? I was similarly stunned at the Casablanca-comparable depths when I re-watched Lady And The Tramp a couple of weeks earlier with its rowing lovers and Tramp’s womanizing past. (He is a dog, after all?)

It’s relevant that The Glass Slipper didn’t make back its production costs on release. Though considering when it was made, it’s a fascinating outlier for feminist revisionings of old fairytales. The Feminine Mystique wouldn’t be published for 9 years. It was written by Helen Deutsch, whose first screenplay was for National Velvet and who wrote such rollicking adventures as Kim and King Solomon’s Mines. Her first film for Leslie Caron was Lili – an original screenplay, which we can also credit for inspiring John Waters’ early pre-film career as a pupeeter. She wrote it after seeing rushes of Caron in An American In Paris. It earned Deutsch an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe. As the new Frozen Fever short and Disney’s live action Cinderella open in the cinemas, it’s a shame she isn’t around to give us her view on the landscape of modern fairytales and female characters onscreen.

Incidentally once you’ve noticed the giant Japanese cartoon style eyes of the female characters in Frozen Fever compared to the men, it’s impossible to forget.  With one early review in Vox claiming the 1950 animated Cinderella character had more energy and assertiveness than the new Cinderella,  it seems only too appropriate that Helen Deutsch’s last screenplay was for the Valium-era Valley of the Dolls.

Further reading

Front Row review of Cinderella (March 23rd 2015)

Frozen? That’s not feminism (Big Issue column)

Letterboxd review of Cinderella

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The Bronte heroine who hated bouquets

Lillies planted by my mother

Lillies planted by my mother (All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted)

For this week’s Something Understood producer Lucy Dichmont was keen to explore the elaborate Victorian coded language of floral bouquets. Unexpectedly I found myself pulling out memories and stories that I’ve been carrying around for decades. I’ve also created a Spotify list of music from the programme plus some extras.

At 16 I read my first Charlotte Bronte novel; Villette. And I’d never forgotten how her repressed plain heroine Lucy Snowe, stuck teaching vain little French coquettes in a Brussels finishing school described her dislike of cut flowers, on the day the whole school was supposed to bring in posies. What self-loathing and secret desire burned in Miss Snowe’s lonely repressed heart.

My Passionflower

My Passionflower

My suburban garden was supposed to have been the starting point for the programme — specifically the giant passionflower that sprawls all over the front door — that I was given 25 years ago.But the plant’s astounding visual structure, symbolism  and origins meant we began the journey in South America with the Conquistadors and the Jesuits and the haunting Ennio Morricone music from the film The Mission.

Rhododendrons in my garden.

Rhododendrons in my garden.

Asian and South American exotica soon took over as they have much of southern England’s suburbia. Rhododendron bushes and bamboo glades are presided over by flocks of cawing Himalyan parakeets, which are rumoured to have been breeding since some escaped from the Isleworth Studios set of The African Queen.


A cursory search for poems to celebrate the suburban garden will always  find John Betjeman and rhododendron poems rather too obsessed with hearty school girls, which we did not go with. However Sylvia Plath’s The Rhododendron Stealers offered a more intriguing female take on school girls and passion, rather  like Villette.

A child's eye view of a the flowers in our garden

A child’s eye view of a the flowers in our garden

Dave Brubeck’s Alice In Wonderland music, inspired by the Disney animated film, enabled me to remember the childhood magic of being the same height as flowers, and peering into the wildly patterned blooms of foxgloves, tulips and hollyhocks  like giant sea shells, with a kind of animal power. Most of these photos were taken by my daughter a couple of years ago, giving the the anthropomorphic effect of a child’s height view.


Growing up in with Indian parents, there are still flowers that I know only by their Indian names – like the Champa – or in their much more powerful Indian forms — the fragrance of Indian gulabs (roses) and jasmine. Rabindranath Tagore and the music from the film Monsoon Wedding capture some of that intoxicating fragrance and beauty. But we can also allow surrender to the French orientalist fantasy of the Flower Duet in  Delibe’s 19th century opera Lakme — about the doomed romance between an Indian Brahmin maiden and a British imperial officer. A famous brand of Indian cosmetics is still named Lakme after her.

Ice Cream and Savoy tea roses in my garden

Ice Cream (white) and Savoy Hotel (pink) tea roses in my garden

But if I have a favourite piece of music in the programme, it is the Ben E King version of the much covered Spanish Harlem. I originally planned for it to run immediately after I talk about planting roses that remind me of inner London. And it’s that song I think of when I reminisce about the cracked concrete of those long hot summers in the city and the welcome escape of the parks and the shared joy of the flowers within.


Something Understood is on Radio 4 on Sunday March 8th and iplayer for a month after.

Further reading/listening

Music from the programme (Spotify)

My Secret Hollywood Garden  

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Frozen? That’s not feminism

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My daughter finally got me to watch Frozen recently. I think she’s sorry she did. Though I sense 13 year old girls are watching it with a sense of irony and a  kind of knowing detachment in the way my generation used to watch Sex And The City:  knowing better than the young kids who lapped it all up at face value. Still, I have been a brooding outcast in my castle ever since. Reduced to throwing icy blasts from my fingertips at the telly and the computer where slebs and men – especially men say that I’m the freak, I’m weird. That film I loathe is actually a feminist masterpiece. Imagine me now in a horn-ed head dress as I raise my bony fingers and curse you – curse YOU all – for bowing down to Disney’s Frozen and its puny idea of “empowerment”.

My evil cohorts agree. “It’s pants,” says broadcaster Muriel Gray. “The song’s awful too,” adds historian Tom Holland, while acknowledging he’s “not the target demographic”.

“It’s very fashionable now to call almost anything feminist because it has a leading female character,” observes comedian and writer Meryl O’Rourke. “But women doing things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s feminist.”

In this story of two sisters – the older Elsa has magic ice powers but her parents just get her to wear gloves. And this is a film in which the gloves never really come off. She is chased out of her kingdom as a witch – wait she is a witch who has the power to create living snow men – but fails to do anything useful with it. Where Maleficient would have raised an army of snow warriors or turned herself into a dragon, Frozen’s Queen Elsa, merely mopes around singing a Bonnie Tyler style power ballad.

It’s striking that Disney’s princesses are now most frequently placed without irony in a late 19th century European aristocracy – surely the most degenerate inbred, useless time to be royal – when they didn’t even go into battle anymore. My favourite Cinderella film, the non-Disney The Slipper and The Rose (1976) at least joked about Euphrania/Britain as a pointless tiny nation with nothing but its heritage industry to keep it going. And talk about fantasy; it even made me believe the handsome Prince, lovely Richard Chamberlain was straight.

In fact the most intriguing aspect of Frozen is how a crowd of ageing princes descend on Finlandia like a cabal of CEOs at the Davos Economic Forum muttering about opening it up to free trade. But that’s never really developed. Instead we have vague platitudes about bad men and the “rightful” ruler of a hereditary monarchy.

There is a sidelined tribe of magical “ethnic” trolls and Olaf, the camp, urban snowman which reveals much about the superficiality of Frozen’s empowerment agenda. Baroness Floella Benjamin told me how often over the years she challenged children’s writers and publishers about the lack of diversity in their stories and got told “but it’s a fantasy world”. I’ve heard the same on Frozen. We have trolls, living snowmen and a princess with ice-throwing powers, but one father told me it would be “unrealistic” to have a less vanilla lineup of main characters in this fabricated aristo retro Europa.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 16.09.41Contrast it with Marvel’s equally icy Asgard in Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful Thor movie, which proved you can do effortless diversity in the Nordic lands if you can be bothered.

Most of all I think of Mulan (1998) – a personal favourite of mine and Meryl’s. Disney’s version of a famous Chinese legend follows a daughter who disguises herself as a man to fight in the army and save her family’s honour. Though done with charm and humour, there a constant sense of how our heroine is fighting against a cultural norm in which women are regarded as worthless. Mulan voiced by Ming Na Wen (currently playing an equally ass-kicking adult Agent of Shield) enjoys a most satisfying romance with an equal — fellow warrior Shang. As Meryl O’ Rourke points out: “They have an adult relationship. They meet at work!” Adult relationships are what have entirely disappeared from Disney princess films. I watched Lady and the Tramp the other day. It was practically Casablanca compared with Frozen.

What bothered me most about 50 Shades of Grey was that the sex fantasy bought by millions of adult women was about a protaganist of just 21. In fact probably about the same age as Anna and Elsa in Frozen. Meryl O’Rourke notes how often we give our little girls heroines just a few years older than them and nothing else. It’s a sad coincidence that Made In Dagenham the musical is to close, when what we need more than anything are celebrations of genuine sorority and adult romantic relationships, not dungeons of eternal little girlhood.

This column is adapted from one that first appeared in The Big Issue magazine

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