Page 3 and pushy feminists


The weird argument being wheeled out over how feminist campaigners somehow made The Sun keep Page 3 just to spite them reminded me of this Radio 4 programme I made about Procrastination and what Martin Luther King had to say about “pushiness” and social change. The layout above  from The Times on Jan 9th featuring a lingerie ad pretending to be news (read the caption) larger than an actual positive news story about a woman, is an interesting reminder of the bigger picture around representation.

Script below from Something Understood – Procastination (broadcast July 2013):

It was to true Christian values that Martin Luther King appealed in challenging the endless excuses from Southern US authorities to put off granting full civil rights to African Americans. Eight white bishops and rabbis in Alabama had urged African Americans not to join Dr King’s peaceful street demonstrations. But to pursue their rights more slowly through the courts and local discussion. In Birmingham jail, arrested for demonstrating, Dr King wrote this letter in response in April 1963.

 EXTRACT: KING’s Letter from Birmingham Jail April 1963

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”

…when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

Posted in Culture, journalism, Media | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Enter the Octopus: The beauty of the Hong Kong metro system

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted.

I wrote a column for The Big Issue magazine (wk of Jan 26th) about what Hong Kong’s history reveals about British identity. You can buy it all this week. One interesting difference is the cost of public transport on the city’s underground system. I fell in love with the 70s SF The Andromeda Strain-rainbow hued futurism of Hong Kong’s magnificent, super efficient underground system on a recent trip. Armed with an Octopus card – a much cheaper and more widely used payment system than London’s Oyster – I took photos of as many stations as I could to capture the visual pleasure of its spread of colour. And here they are.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The truth about true crime: A crime reporter’s qualms about Serial

I’ve reported on violent crime for 25 years including the OJ Simpson case. I consider it a privilege to cover trials. Strip away the glamour of celebrity and a very large proportion, such as the OJ Simpson case, are about domestic violence. And I’ve never understood why so many people love to watch it as fiction.The prosecutor in the case of Adnan Syed recently said it was a classic domestic violence murder too.  Unsettled by the championing of the NPR podcast Serial by the very highbrow cultural critics who often sneer at ordinary crime on the news I chaired a discussion on Front Row with crime journalist turned novelist Laura Lippman  & Panorama reporter John Sweeney , and wrote this column for The Big Issue magazine.

I have a little BBC News app on my mobile phone. It sends an alert when something big has happened. It doesn’t ping me all day. But if I’ve been asleep, or in a meeting, or watching a film with my family, when I choose to look I am reliably told if something big has happened or resolved: A massacre, a hostage crisis, a political resignation, or a major criminal conviction or charge. From such a trusted source, it’s genuinely helpful to those who want to stay informed.

But what has been the flipside of what the internet has done to news? It’s turned anyone one who wants to be into an investigator, without the responsibility of sourcing or balance. Often I meet people randomly circulating stories that have been trending on social media. Sometime they turn out to be years old; a quirk of the way search engine algorithms work, like the churning of deep oceans. More disturbingly they can be from unverifiable websites, given power just by the act of sharing them, such as that hoax photo purporting to show Osama Bin Laden’s corpse after the 2011 Abbottabad assassination raid.

It was a tweet by a Abbottabad resident, wondering why there were helicopters hovering over his small Pakistani city in the middle of the night, that alerted the world to the raid, when it was rapidly re-tweeted and spread. Such first hand accounts can, through crowd-sourcing, be the most liberating but also unsettling aspect of how social media is changing news and our relationship with the truth.

Take the recent National Public Radio podcast series Serial which become a global phenomenon. The presenter Sarah Koenig wondered whether Adnan Syed, a Pakistani American teenager had been unfairly convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend 15 years ago. In a series of musings, that unfolded over real time week by week, she reexamined evidence, chatted for hours on the phone with the man himself, speculated with criminal justice professionals and even interviewed anonymous friends and acquaintances of Syed who thought he was a nice guy. The family of the young woman who was murdered, Hae Min Lee, have refused to take part, and the victim is almost completely missing from this thinking-out-loud exercise. Sometimes Koenig laughed and joked about her frustration over whether she thought Adnan was a psychopathic murderer or innocent. It’s striking how ignorant she is of and “fascinated” by “immigrant” culture. 

Let me let you in on a not-so secret secret. Crime reporters sit around speculating. We do it in court recesses, in bars and in newsrooms. It can be an outlet for some of the appalling things we’ve heard. But we know better than to put it out on the air when real people are affected. I’m not the only reporter unsettled by the reckless self -indulgence of Serial. As veteran US journalist Brian C Jones has blogged: “A developed story like this obligates the reporter to know — before going public — why it’s worthwhile, other than it’s “interesting.” Without an answer, it’s a little like digging up a coffin just to see what’s inside.”

It’s certainly been interesting to see how many of the middle class British fans of Serial sneer at the “depressing” nature of criminal reporting on the news, but love Scandi-noir thrillers despite their sadistic, usually anti-female serial killing plotlines and the jazzy-music layered, soft-toned musings of NPR.

In 25 years of reporting yes I’ve seen some appalling sensationalized crime coverage. But much more often I’ve seen reporters carefully listen to the processes of a trial and present an accurate contemporaneous account of evidence and argument day by day up to conviction or acquittal. Many miscarriages of justice have been uncovered the same way, with careful research and fact checking. I’d urge everyone to sit in on a crown court trial in the public gallery. I always feel great awe for the dignified process of the law.

The thousands of discussion threads that have been spawned by audience fascination with Serial reveal the same human fascination with storytelling and sensation as Dickens’ serialized stories. There’s nothing wrong with that. The longtail of the internet has opened up the possibilities of exploring the minutiae of evidence, of seeing the same transcripts and raw data as the investigators and judges. It’s liberating and I wouldn’t turn the clock back. I certainly admire the way the podcast has engaged a mass audience with the workings of criminal law. But remember these are real human lives. And sometimes it’s only news reporting with its focus on facts that does them justice.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine

Further reading

Serial and white reporter privilege (The Awl Nov 2014)


Posted in Crime and Justice, journalism, Media, Radio | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The White North Has Thy Bones: Ice stations, submarines & the woman who swam the North West Passage

FRANKLIN ICE SHIPHere’s a programme to listen to huddled by the fire, like Jane Eyre with her book of polar wildlife as the wind howls outside. Producer Kevin Dawson came up with the idea of our latest Something Understood  programme about the North. You can listen to the music on the Spotify list I’ve compiled with some atmospheric extras

The icy North of the Arctic was the inspiration and he suggested the title  “The White North has thy bones” from the Tennyson epigraph to the Victorian explorer Sir John Franklin at his memorial in Westminster Abbey. Franklin never returned from a mission to find the North West passage via Canada to Asia. And the North West Passage ended up a constant obsession in our journey. I added some Hammer horror music, images from my lifelong obsession with and haunted dreams about submarines under icebergs – yes, I regularly dream about being trapped under icebergs in a Russian submarine – and we had the makings of this very romantic adventure for these cold midwinter nights.

Still from "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" 1994 (Kenneth Branagh)

Still from “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” 1994 (Kenneth Branagh)

The programme features reading from Jane Eyre and Frankenstein and the mysterious, thrilling title poem of Philip Larkin’s first published collection The North Ship, which I still remember reading, mesmerised, cover to cover as a student at exactly this time on the cusp of the year in the winter of 1987-8.

NORTH THE NORTH SHIP LARKINThe James Taylor song, The Frozen Man was inspired by the discovery of a body from Franklin’s voyage in the ice. Jules Verne’s Captain Hatteras – obsessed with retracing Franklin’s steps – offers a glimpse of polar madness. Kevin Dawson had recently interviewed Inupiat tribesmen in the far north of Canada about the impact of whalers and empire on their communities and the interviews he did in the programme are a powerful balance to the imperial drive of western explorers.

Ice station zebra

Ice Station Zebra film poster

I drew on my memories of climbing aboard a German World War Two U-boat captured intact and now on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Though it didn’t make the final edit, this extract from Alistair Maclean’s novel of Ice Station Zebra captures the magical romance of the ice cap:

It was a landscape–if such a bleak, barren, and, featureless desolation could be called a landscape–from another and ancient world, weird and strange and oddly frightening. There were no clouds in the sky, but there were no stars, either: this I could not understand. Low on the southern horizon a milky, misty moon shed its mysterious light over the dark lifelessness of the polar ice cap. Dark, not white. One would have expected moonlit ice to shine and sparkle and glitter with the light of a million crystal chandeliers: but it was dark. The moon was so low in the sky that the dominating color on the ice cap came from the blackness of the long shadows cast by the fantastically ridged and hummocked ice; and where the moon did strike directly, the ice had been so scoured and abraded by the assaults of a thousand ice storms that it had lost almost all its ability to reflect light of any kind.

This ridged and hummocked ice cap had a strange quality of elusiveness, of  impermanence, of evanescence: one moment there, definitively hard and harsh and repellent in its coldly contrasting blacks and whites; the next, ghost-like, blurring coalescing and finally vanishing like a shimmering mirage fading and dying in some ice-bound desert. But this was no trick of the eye or imagination; it was the result of a ground-level ice storm that rose and swirled and subsided at the dictates of an icy wind that was never less than strong and sometimes gusted up to gale force, a wind that drove before it a swirling rushing fog of billions of needle-pointed ice spicules.

Rawlings and I stamped our feet, flailed our arms across our chests, shivered non-stop, took what little shelter we could from the canvas wind-break, rubbed our goggles constantly to keep them clear, and never once, except when the ice spicules drove into our faces, stopped examining every quarter of the horizon.

Somewhere out there on those frozen wastes was a lost and dying group of men whose lives might depend upon so little a thing as the momentary misting-up of our goggles. We stared out over those shifting ice sands until our eyes ached.

But that was all we had for it: just aching eyes. We saw nothing, nothing at all. The ice cap remained empty of all signs of life. Dead.

I was lucky to have interviewed Jude Law about his film Black Sea, who spoke with such passion about the camaraderie that keeps alive a submarine crew under the ice. Our submarine adventure features my favourite track from David Arnold’s magnificent Shaken Not Stirred James Bond remix album, the sonar ping-tinged version of From Russia With Love. Even better than the original, I think.

Lynne Cox

Lynne Cox

But the real star of our programme is the endurance swimmer Lynne Cox, who helped thaw the Cold War with her open water ambition. I’d remembered hearing her interviewed about 20 years ago on the radio about swimming the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia in the 1980s in just a swim suit and goggles. I traced her thanks to Simon Watts, a colleague on the BBC World Service, and she was generous with her time down the line from her home in California to recount the amazing story of how she did it and why. Ice maiden Jane Eyre narrates our opening, but Lynne Cox is the ice maiden who ends the journey. She’s a remarkable, warm hearted woman.

The White North Has Thy Bones: Something Understood is on Radio 4 Sunday January 6th 6am and 1130pm and iplayer for 30 days after.

Further reading/listening

My Spotify list of music from this programme. I’ve added a couple of great Hammer Horror Frankenstein film cues and Vaughan Williams’ music for Scott of the Antarctic, which is of course NOT about the North Pole, just as it’s so wonderfully atmospheric. It’s not in the programme.

Franklin memorial at the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich

Lynne Cox: Swim that broke Cold War ice curtain (BBC News)

U-505: The German WW2 submarine I described visiting in Chicago


Posted in Books, Environment, History, Music, Radio, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the trail of Oliver Cromwell’s Fundamentalist Queen

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use.

I was fortunate to work with two terrific producers,  Simon and Thomas Guerrier on this documentary for Radio 3. I first worked with them on DVD extras for Doctor Who. Simon had penned a Doctor Who audio adventure in which the Doctor meets Oliver Cromwell and as a rather thoughtful historian, with an impressive knowledge of Parliamentary history, came up with the idea of exploring the life of his wife, Elizabeth, about whom so little is known. You can hear me talk about it on the Robert Elms show on BBC London (from 1 hr 9 min in).

Our programmes focusses on the few surviving documents and possessions which offer such tantalising glimpses of her remarkable life.

We spent a day in London at St Giles Cripplegate, a medieval survivor of the Blitz, surrounded by the brutalist towers of the Barbican Centre. A plaque and a bust inside mark Oliver’s connection, but make no mention of his wife. It seems emblematic of her invisible status. In her 40s when she found herself Lady Protectress, how far might it have been a statement to the nation, that she was a Consort Housewife, not a “whorish” Queen like the Stuart court’s Henrietta Maria?

In Ely we stood in Elizabeth’s kitchen, now the Oliver Cromwell House museum; its view of the church graveyard unchanged in 450 years, and it was easy to feel a connection to her simple life as a devout Protestant housewife and mother before the Civil War. The satirical cookbook written as a pamphlet to mock her has ironically become a useful source for the actors who play her for visiting school groups. Her “cheap” local ingredients – asparagus, eels and oysters – are on display. And the gift shop has a good selling line in Mrs Cromwell’s chutneys and jams. One wonders what she’d make of it all.

At Huntingdon’s Cromwell Museum, (where impressive campaigners are fighting closure because of a 100% local authority budget cut) curator John Goldsmith and I analyse the fascinating the collection of family possessions and speculate about what is revealed in  the only official court portrait of her that survives and the beautiful pomadery and a box of surgical instruments that were given as ambassadorial gifts to the Lord Protector’s court and passed down, unused through the Cromwell family to the present day. There is a well organised campaign to save the museum you can support.

The owners of Northborough Manor, once the historical home of her son in law’s family, the Claypoles, kindly invited us in and let us linger in the room where she died. It is strange to think of her seven years of widowhood, with the Protectorate ended and the monarchy restored. Suddenly a humble provincial housewife again. There are all kinds of stories of ghosts and that the walls of the casement will drip blood if England is in danger.  At nearby St Andrew’s Church Elizabeth’s grave is plain and only recently acquired a plaque on the wall. It may have been desecrated during the Restoration. The church warden wonders if Oliver’s decapitated body, which disappeared soon after it was dug up and hung on a gibbet, was secretly brought and buried with her in there. Of course we’d have to open it to find out…

Three letters survive between her and Oliver, written in 1650-1 when he was on military campaigns. Only one is by her and it talks of love and offers very smart political advice for a woman who supposedly kept out politics. Louise Jameson (who incidentally played Leela in Doctor Who) reads it so beautifully.

Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell’s life can be seen only in glimpses. But what glimpses of a world turned upside.

The Fundamentalist Queen is on Radio 3 on Sunday December 7th at 645pm and iplayer after. It’s a Whistledown production and produced by Simon and Thomas Guerrier

Thanks to Simon and Thomas Guerrier, to all at the museum staff in Ely and Huntingdon, to  Jane and John Trevor at Northborough Manor, St Andrew’s Church and St Giles Cripplegate, and to curators and historians John Goldsmith, Laura Gowing, Peter Gaunt, Patrick Little for being so generous with time and professional insight.

Further reading/listening

The Settling – a Doctor Who audio adventure featuring Oliver Cromwell by Simon Guerrier

 Save the Cromwell Museum organisation

Guerrier Brothers films, including Cleaning Up starring Mark Gatiss

Posted in History, Politics, Radio | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Body swap Muslims & playing “The Jew”

Had a great discussion with David Baddiel and David Schneider on Front Row this week about why Britain was hosting its first Jewish comedy festival. It  made me revisit  this 2009 news film I made on location at the shoot of Baddiel’s film The Infidel. Lots of interesting observations, notably by Richard Schiff on the American political debate around “good Americans” and whether Obama was a secret Muslim. Plus the challenge for star Omid Djalili of playing Fagin in Oliver! – the character Charles Dickens called “The Jew”. I don’t know how far and in which direction people might say the political discussion around these issues has gone. Certainly it’s interesting to think back to the Allah Made Me Funny tour of American Muslim comedians sponsored by the US Embassy after 9/11 which we mentioned in the Front Row discussion. Anyway, thought it might be interesting to revisit it 5 years on.

Posted in Books, Comedy, Culture, Film, Media, Politics, Religion, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interstellar’s Heart of Darkness & the Dust Bowl

I like to go to the cinema to escape the gloom of a Sunday evening and what better escape than Interstellar? An epic journey to other worlds. It begins in a rural America devastated by environmental disaster. Real survivors of the Dust Bowl describe their memories of the dust storms, as we watch the dark clouds swirl again. Only the laptops in the farm kitchen tell us that this is some kind of déjà vu.

Our hero leads a mission to find a new planet to colonise to save mankind from a dying earth. NASA has been operating in secret after the government ended its funding. So why do so many people hate Interstellar so much?
Scientist Dr Adam Rutherford told me via Twitter: “It hates humans. That we have not enough faith in engineering or exploration. That NASA is a secret?”

In an early scene former NASA pilot Matthew McConaghey is called into school over his daughter’s thought crime. She’s challenging the rewritten school textbooks that say NASA faked the moon landings as a successful Cold War strategy to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
The self-pitying suggestion that liberals have destroyed America’s pioneering spirit is unsettling, as is the film’s portrayal of the benign power of a “science clergy” led by grandfatherly Michael Caine. Significantly the film comes 3 years after NASA ended the Space Shuttle programme and buried the dreams of manned space flight of a generation of 40 somethings (like director Christopher Nolan).

But the idea that only an escape into space can save us? Major spoiler alert here. As Adam Rutherford observed: “It shows no faith that humankind is even capable of looking after itself without the help of 5th dimensional charity workers. Plus the fact that in conclusion, 7 billion people must die for the species to live.”

Yet for all its flaws Interstellar struck me as a truly humanist film. Notably its view of a godless universe in which people faced with terrible odds have a choice. Some commit acts of evil to survive. But others choose to do the right thing.

On the first planet the crew visit there is a terrifying moment when McConaughey realises those aren’t distant mountains, but a giant tidal wave; hundreds of feet in height and heading straight for them. It reminded me of novelist Joseph Conrad’s words in 1897 when he described the universe as a kind of indifferent organic knitting machine: “It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death corruption, despair and all the illusions – and nothing matters.”

Conrad was the NASA astronaut of his day. As a sailor at the height of 19th century Empire he saw up close the heart of darkness in the manmade cruelties of slavery and colonialism. But he also saw how the code-bound cameraderie of a crew on a ship; on a mission – could be a powerful human force in the face of indifferent nature.

In 1951 the Dustbowl and the Nazi death camps were recent history and people were living with the new terror of nuclear bombs. Yet they flocked to the cinema to see When Worlds Collide in which, like Interstellar, scientists plan for a lucky few to escape Earth and start again on a new planet. Unlike Interstellar, and indeed the isolated protaganists of Melancholia, it showed emergency meetings at the UN where politicians and scientists agree to build escape ships and choose the passengers by lottery. Mass panic ensues and the latest Hollywood special effects are lavished on showing you the apocalypse.

Perhaps we’ve just got soft. Even Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s magnificent Contact didn’t avoid a wallow in sentimentality with an alien encounter on a tropical beach.
For Ken Burns, whose documentary The Dust Bowl was the source for Interstellar’s survivor interviews there was a lesson about the power not of 5th dimensional charity workers, but responsible democratic government. “Everyone’s heard of the Dust Bowl,” he told The Washington Post recently, “but no one ever really understood its extent, or more importantly that it was a man-made environmental disaster..That’s the key. When you fully begin to accept your own culpability in this, as the people in the Dust Bowl do, they begin to reach out for help and solutions, which in the Dust Bowl, come from the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt.”
The biggest challenge of climate change is getting shortterm-focussed politicans and corporations to take longterm responsibility for saving the planet we’re stuck on. I guess fantasizing about flying away in a rocketship can seem a lot easier.

Further reading/listening

Ken Burns interview on The Roosevelts and his documentary filmmaking Front Row (Oct 2014 BBC R4)

How the Space Shuttle broke my heart and left me on the gantry of broken dreams (Independent 2011)

The development hell of Contact (Entertainment Weekly)

Why Contact is even greater than I thought (Roger Ebert 2011)

Posted in Environment, Film, History, Media, Politics, Religion, Science, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I can’t believe he did that: David Guetta on Serge Gainsbourg

David Guetta on Front Row

David Guetta on Front Row

Super producer and DJ David Guetta came onto Front Row for last night’s show. Having grown up in the 70 and 80s in France he listened to American soul, funk and British synth and electronica, quoting Ultravox lyrics through our interview. The exception was Serge Gainsbourg and his boundary-busting ways. Guetta specifically remembered, as a teenager, watching with fascination Serge Gainsbourg declare to a very young Whitney Houston on French TV “I want to fuck you”, much to the horror and embarrassment of the French male host as well as Ms Houston. I can’t embed the link, but you can watch it below. As Guetta says in the programme, “I was never a huge French music fan, except for Serge Gainsbourg, that I really really love, still today. And what he was doing would be so impossible today. And it’s kind of crazy to see how we only think that with time we’re more open-minded.”

It’s a weird and genunely unsettling watch. Like Dominique Strauss-Kahn crossed with that drunken Oliver Reed “Wild Thing” moment. And exactly the kind of TV encounter that we can feel was wrong, yet be fascinated by because it was allowed to happen at all.

Thanks to @arthurascii for hunting it out:  That Serge and Whitney moment 

BBC Front Row interview with David Guetta (Nov 24th 2014)



Posted in France, Media, Music, Radio, TV | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The 70s in brief: If you don’t want it pinched, don’t flaunt it so.

"If you don't want it pinched don't flaunt it so." The Goodies wonderful satire on sexual harrassment (1975)

“If you don’t want it pinched don’t flaunt it so.” The Goodies’  satire on sexual harrassment (1975)

The 70s. WTF. The Channel 4 documentary series It Was Alright In the 70s that aired over the last 2 Saturdays drew on the extremes. Rape jokes galore, and X-rated child safety information films that terrified us. For those interested in following up the short comments of mine that aired, here are links to pieces I’ve written over the years.

On racism and NewsroundOn the Lambs Navy Rum Girl, On the Buses & Madeline Smith.  On 70s Game Shows & The Iron CurtainOn kids’ TV 

But having watched the programmes what struck me was:

1. How the most shocking material was seeing highbrow middle class presenters Michael Parkinson and Barry Norman involved in really sexist and racist content, where it was least expected. Parky’s Sunday Times advert was a lazy and gratuitous cricket visual, worthy of Benny Hill of scoring with a younger blonde. Norman’s scripted sarcasm for an Agatha Christie remake, implied it was essentially, political correctness gone mad (in 1975!) to not use the “n” word. Something about only black people being allowed to call “a nigger a spade”. I’m guessing he wrote that himself. Remarkable and revealing of attitudes in the highbrow end of broadcasting at the time, especially when you think of the effortless talent-based diversity of many children’s programmes at the time, notably Play School which had been casting such broadcasters as Paul Danquah and Derek Griffiths for years.

2. Derek Griffiths is a God. You might not know this if you saw only the strange bus- top song about interracial love featured on It Was Alright In the 70s. If he came across as defensive in the interview, I suspect it’s because it’s so completely atypical of his work. Ask anyone who watched him on Play School or Play Away. At her British Film Institute event in February last year Joy Whitby, the former head of BBC Children’s Programmes, who launched Play School, singled him out as one of the greatest talents she’s seen. He was an incredibly important role model. Wayne Laryea on Pipkins was the same. The producer of Pipkins recently told me how much his talent stood out, but he was never given the break  to develop his career. As I observed of female actors like Madeline Smith, there was a sense for actors of colour of taking what work there was or none, while the battles for fair treatment continued longterm.

3. The Goodies’ South Africa episode (one of the frustratingly few available on DVD) is admirably daring. In an unused part of my interview for the doco I mentioned a similarly daring episode (Cunning Stunts – yes that’s right) about role reversal sexual harrassment in which horrible boss Tessa Wyatt pinches Tim Brooke Taylor’s bum. When he complains she declares “If you don’t want it pinched, don’t flaunt it so.” My sister and I loved this episode and used to quote that line. In fact we still do. And watching a different clip from the episode available on the BBC website this future journalist had forgotten it was set in a newsroom.

4.  There was a special art to doing the Black and White Minstrels’ makeup without smudging it into grey. A senior makeup artist at the BBC told me. Incidentally makeup artists I’ve met across British broadcasting  have all witnessed or experienced a lot of sexual harassment in light ents. One told me on joining the BBC in the 70s they were told by producers, never to leave any children alone with Jimmy Savile.

5. Actually urban Britain was a lot more happily diverse than you might think. My mum, who made me turn off Love Thy Neighbour (which now, as an adult, having never watched it before, is quite fascinatingly sophisticated in intent) was at the same time presenting a weekly Indian cookery slot on the popular lunchtime BBC1 show Pebble Mill At One and hanging out with guests like Sacha Distel. She had a chat show on BBC2 called Gharbar (Oprah for first generation Asian immigrant women) where they discussed everything from domestic violence to how to cook with exotic new ingredients like broccoli. I sat in the gallery and watched recordings and experienced nothing but inclusive professional BBC camararderie between crew, production team and presenters that made me feel welcome.

6. Those children’s safety films. I quite like Matthew Sweet’s thesis that our generation raised on The Death Line were so terrified that we are to blame for the fact that no one lets their kids out to play anymore. However I contend that the real message of those films was: there are lots of  dangers and predatory adults out there and no one is going to even attempt to put in safeguards to protect you from them. This was absolutely true. In the stranger danger film I watched the smart child even says “no thankyou” to the paedeophile trying to entice him into his car. Popular culture gave them easy cover.

7. I blame the 1960s sort of. Middle class ad and broadcast executives poured their own idea of the sexual freedom of the counterculture into the punchbowl of 70s British TV. Arthur Lowe lusting over schoolgirls. John Peel’s “schoolgirl of the week” feature, say, is still overlooked as he was a champion of indie music. Or  take Adrian Henri’s sexy schoolgirl poems included in my 1980s copy of  the Oxford Book of 20th Century Verse. When Roger McGough came into Channel 4 News after his death to do a reading and I showed them to him he sensibly suggested we quietly set them aside.

8. So in conclusion. There was a lot that was right in the 70s. But just like in news, it’s usually more important to point out what was wrong. As the growing number of investigations into historic child abuse stemming from Operation Yewtree unfold, remembering what was considered just entertainment in mainstream 70s TV, is a useful insight into just what people in power could get away with and why.




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Crossing the black line: the secret history of Durham Cathedral


When you walk into Durham Cathedral take a moment to look down at your feet in the nave. You might notice a big black line of stone in the grey slab floor, right near the entrance at the back. I noticed it on my honeymoon, when my husband and I went to visit There used to be a sign on the pillar telling you that it marked the point, forward of which women were not allowed. I was intrigued and somewhat shocked by the idea that such beauty was off bounds to half the population for so long. That story, which I told producer Lucy Dichmont, was the starting point for developing this Something Understood.  The Cathedral’s since taken down the sign, because they think it gives an unnecessarily negative image.  And Cathedral guide Lillian Groves, who’s known the Cathedral since her student days in the 1940s, challenges my assumption of female exclusion in the programme in a most engaging way.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

No re-use without permission. Unless labelled otherwise all photos are copyright Samira Ahmed.

In the Galilee Chapel, built to enable women to worship in the monastery, she’s still finding new secrets of its human life, such as  the offerings box, where generations of women’s fingers have worn the stone to a cupped smoothness. Having studied Anglo Saxon poetry at university and been haunted by the world of early North Eastern Christianity I took the chance to explore the strange phenomenon of anchorites and anchoresses — devout Christians who would wall themselves up in tiny cells  to liberate their souls to worship God, even as their bodies were confided to the narrowest physical space.

I get to explore the history of the building through its geography – a citadel on the hill – and its fabric: the huge grooved columns that resemble the trunks of prehistoric trees, fossils in its marble, the tree branches visible in the beams of the dormitory, the remarkable stained glass window of an airman which remembers the Second World War Baedeker air raids that tried and failed to destroy such cultural landmarks as the Cathedral. Locals credit St Cuthbert for the mysterious fog that threw the German bombers off their target. Everywhere there are little details to linger on if you take the time to notice: Traditional swastikas, untainted by the Nazi appropriation centuries later,  decorating the robes on the magnificent portrait of of St Cuthbert above his shrine. Once the shrine was richly decorated with gold and jewels. The dissolution of the monasteries strippd that away, and it’s useful to contemplate how we now take the austere plainness of his shrine, as the natural setting.

Monuments to miners, to fallen soldiers and the shrine of the Venerable Bede — an early chronicler of English history — remind you of the Cathedral’s one thousand year presence.

There are “backstage’ places we got to see that we couldn’t fit into the final edit:  Lillian Grove took us to the chapter house where monastic politics played out and the prison for bad monks. We discussed how though pitch dark with the door closed, it actually had ventilation and a built in lavatory that emptied directly into the river — something modern prisons failed to achieve with enduring slopping out. And most memorably we got locked in the tower for an hour (deliberately so we could record in private) with the magnificent view of  the world below as we sat out on the roof of the tower and listened to the bells.

There were some outlandish ideas that didn’t make the final cut, such as my idea of paralleling the closed world of the monks, as war threatened outside, with the world of the Berlin Cabaret. A number from Liza Minnelli in Durham Cathedral would have been fun.

One thing I would say is, go one day, make sure you get a guided tour or buy a guide book, and most importantly, take your time to find the secrets yourself.

You can listen to the programme on Sunday November 16th on Radio 4 at 6am and 1130pm and iplayer for 7 days after.

Posted in Culture, Design, History, Radio, Religion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment