Why the 90s was a bloody brilliant decade to be a young woman (despite the backlash)

Wrote this 2 years ago. It inspired 3 bonus questions on University Challenge in August 2018. (A lot has happened, like #MeToo) But posting it here Marcel Proust- style after finally seeing kd lang on her Ingenue at 25 tour last night…

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. I mean the 90s of course. Stumbling across Liam Gallagher’s face on the new GQ cover with the fawning headline claiming 72 “extraordinary” hours” with the Oasis singer got me thinking about the deluded praise heaped on Lad culture’s pinups 20 years on.

A few days later seeing a 25th anniversary edition of KD Lang’s album Ingenue and it hit me: Actually the 90s–the decade when I left university and started work as a BBC journalist–was a bloody brilliant decade to be a young woman. Released in 1992 Ingenue was a flawless songcycle–all about lust and unrequited love. In the golden age of the CD we had it on constant repeat.

And while at first glance it couldn’t be more different to the brash pop of Madonna’s stadium-filling Blonde Ambition tour, both, together with Annie Lennox’s Diva had a key thing in common: They put female desire (lesbian desire in the case of Ingenue) at the heart of mass popular entertainment.

On TV’s X Files Gillian Anderson’s Agent Scully was the calm rational skeptic, and the bloke was the superstitious, emotional one. In her brightly coloured pantsuits, flashing her FBI pass, Scully was my generation’s role model, entering the bastions of government and civic power.

Our manual was Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991)–a book that changed the way we read and watched the news. It exposed the dodgy stories getting coverage in mainstream outlets, designed to induce panic just as women were really making inroads in the workplace; most notoriously a spurious “study” that single female graduates over 30 were more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than marry. It equipped my generation of women journalists to consciously challenge sexist editorial attitudes.

That same year millions via TV watched Anita Hill –an African American lawyer and academic testify before a Congressional committee about the sexual harassment she’d endured from Clarence Thomas –the first black man to be appointed to the US Supreme Court.The wretched details, and the double discrimination she endured -accused of being a race traitor -shocked us and actually helped change the gender balance of governments. Many women who are now in Congress and the Senate say they were inspired to run for elected office BECAUSE of her.

We felt it here too. Some papers may have patronizingly labelled them “Blair’s Babes” but the huge influx of women into Parliament in the 1997 election changed the way it operates now. In 1992 one of the first events I covered as a new BBC network news reporter was the General Synod vote to allow women priests. I remember female deacons cheering and hugging around Church House in Westminster. Hell, even in the Church sexism felt like it was for squares.

In the cinema our star was Geena Davis: Thelma and Louise, The Long Kiss Goodnight, the ground breaking Cutthroat Island and A League of their Own. Now her Geena Davis Institute campaigns on changing the way Hollywood makes films to better represent women and girls. In Britain female led groups such as Lush,Elastica and Skunk Anansie were liberating pop from the zombie grip of Stock Aitken and Waterman. Anyone could join in. One of my mates –a BBC secretary to the reporter pool where I worked –was in her big sister’s riot grrrl group The Voodoo Queens. Her sister had taught her the essential keyboard chords. “I’m going to be on the Word tomorrow!” she announced one day. And she was, performing their new single Supermodel Superficial. Those heady days didn’t last but they were glorious.

And then the Lad thing happened. I can actually remember sitting watching TV one day and thinking hang on, they only just stopped showing Benny Hill and all those stupid sexist shows. Backlash o clock! Suddenly there were these invisible ironic quotation marks around all the same stuff. Blokey bands strutted around on shows like TFI Friday. Even supposedly more cerebral Blur made a Benny Hill style video for Country House with Page 3 girls, directed by Damien Hirst. Porn-y mags such as Loaded created a corrosive sexual culture that exploited a lot of young women. We should reflect on the contradictory currents under the progressive surface of the 90s that haunt the present :President Clinton’s predatory treatment of the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clarence Thomas becoming the judge who officiated the oath at President Trump’s inauguration. The enduring pay gap in institutions including the BBC. Why it’s taken more than 20 years for women bishops to be appointed. The awful things Joss Whedon’s ex wife Kai Cole has revealed about the unfeminist stuff going on during the making of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But those of us who were there in the 90s can tell you, we did make progress. We learned there’s always a backlash. So don’t fall for the attempt to glorify and revive Lad culture. It’s just for squares.

A version of this article first appeared on The Pool in September 2017

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The story behind How I Found My Voice

The podcast is the idea of Intelligence Squared’s Matt McAllester and was developed by producer Farah Jassat – one of the brightest young talents in broadcasting – who recently joined Intelligence Squared after several years at the BBC as a production trainee and producer in current affairs and culture notably on BBC2’s Newsnight. Intelligence Squared is well known in the US and Canada as well as the UK for its live discussions and debates around culture and politics. Both Farah and I have always enjoyed that intersection of politics, culture and news. I believe in thorough research, listening, and digging around behind the obvious to find out something new. And it was delightful to be approached by Intelligence Squared as the perfect match to host it, so here’s a podcast devoted to how we all like to approach the world. Listen via ACAST or SPOTIFY or iTUNES . And rating and recommending it would be great.

Producer Farah Jassat with Philip Pullman recording How I Found my Voice
in his library. Reading from the yellow folder manuscript to The Secret Commonwealth. His (red) first edition of Paradise Lost

We’ve tried to choose a range of people – comedians, writers, actors, artists, but potentially politicians and non arts figures too – to get inside that sense of awakening power. What people did as children and when and how their influences shaped them finding their voice as professionals.

In my case it was imbibing the news from my earliest years, writing school compositions drawn on real news events like terrorism, making my own radio shows with a tape recorder and microphone and my own newspapers and magazines.

Rose McGowan was an obvious choice for episode 1. I’d loved her film and TV performances, and after reading her powerful and thoughtful memoir Brave, was struck how the activist and actress has been slandered in news and online since she came forward to speak up about sexual exploitation (that Adam Sandler casting call) and then Harvey Weinstein. There was also something my teenage daughter said about watching old episodes of her show Charmed – how you could tell she was always pushing at the boundaries and subverting things. Rose McGowan’s beautiful, articulate and good humoured interview is peppered with shocking experiences – her abusive childhood in the Children of God cult in Italy and then later in the US , and the way she was treated in Hollywood as her career took off in the 90s. (A fascinating counterhistory to the jolly 90s indie scene version of that decade on film). But it’s also full of great fun – how she got the studio to write in her hair colour change when she came back to shoot the next series of Charmed. Her directing and music career are significant moves. I want to see what she does next. And above all it’s an inspiring reminder of someone who has chosen to be in the resistance not a collaborator.

If Rose is a newly adopted Londoner, then Katherine Ryan is very much an old established city sister now, having moved here some years ago. She intrigues me, especially for how she’s forged her own space in the macho arena of standup and panel shows which have seemed to problematic for women. She is a formidable feminist combination of intelligence, beauty and fearlessness.

We talked about the importance of performance taught in our Catholic schools – hers French Canadian and mine Irish – where we both learned to recite poetry before audiences. But it’s Katherine’s experience working as a waitress in Hooters that revealed the most unexpected lessons – in female solidarity, pushing the boundaries on humour and male expectations. Her new Netflix sitcom The Duchess, drawing inspiration from her own experiences as a single parent will be unmissable.

Philip Pullman and his wife Judith Speller’s generosity was touching. They invited us to do the interview at their home in Oxford and made us a beautiful lunch with home made bread and soup. We recorded in the library and if you like the word “exclusive” you’ll get your very first listen to Philip reading the opening of his long awaited Book of Dust 2 – The Secret Commonwealth.

Philip Pullman’s childhood seems to have come from a postwar British children’s novel – an RAF father who died when he was a young boy, a beloved older relative who shared the joy of books with him, and a peripatetic childhood of journeys by ship to live in Africa, Australia and then Wales. How Philip regards it is fascinating and honest.

Our conversation is peppered with the poetry and rhythms that shaped his confident, absorbing style – Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. But also the visuals he draws that are such a strong part of his books and his style – those Edgar Allen Poe inspired images of ravens, and beetles. For those who don’t know his career, Philip Pullman’s story of finding his voice is refreshing self-made: His English degree at Oxford was not a happy experience, but teaching in schools and discovering the joy of story telling was transformative. His is a model of a career based on stamina, diligence and passion.

It was also good to talk about the moral steel I love in his work. From his committment to humanism (we have fun discussing why he loves Milton’s Paradise Lost) to the powerful evocation of a Stasi/Stalinist style purge in the school in La Belle Sauvage, where children are enlisted by the authoritarian church regime to report on teachers who defy the new orthodoxy. Philip Pullman is definitely another member of the resistance.

Adam Buxton defies categorisation, but he’s such a huge star I was delighted he was up for taking part. And as someone of almost exactly the same age I enjoyed seeing how we shared many of the same influences – Kenny Everett, a fascination with the idea of being on TV, the possibilities of pop videos – but he’d transformed his passion into a new hybrid artform.

His many fans will find something new in the backstory of the schoolboy friendship with Joe Cornish and Louis Theroux. Like Philip Pullman, Buxton is driven by the passion for making the best work he can. From his TV and radio shows, to his videos, to his live happenings, to his podcasts – he’s been years ahead of everyone else on finding art and joy in the internet. And most delightfully of all, as his art school tutors failed to understand, he is driven by a sense of fun. The latest series of his hugely popular Adam Buxton podcast starts this Friday (April 21st)

Meeting Mark Millar at the Kingsman junket (2015) That’s director Matthew Vaughn’s hand

Mark Millar was the first guest I knew I HAD to have on and suggested to Farah — the renowned comic book writer and creator of worlds at Millar World (recently bought by Netflix). He’s that rare thing — a celebrity guest I’d got to know, interviewing him at a junket (for the Kingsman film, based on his own comic) and ended up becoming friends with. We’d both been to see the same Sinbad/Spiderman double bill circa 1978 and grown up loving the same old films and TV; notably the original Christopher Reeve Superman. His life story is remarkable.

Mark Millar aged 6 (right) – photo copyright Mark Millar

A working class boy with five older siblings from Coatbridge near Glasgow, he seemed driven from an early age to work in comics and to head for NY and LA. His episode features his writing a letter of commiseration to British Prime Minister James Callaghan on losing the 1979 general election to Margaret Thatcher, dressing up as Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock and trying to solve crimes around his local housing estate, coming up with the idea of his acclaimed Superman Red Son comic series aged 6 (baby Kal-el crashing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s instead of the USA) and why Kick-Ass is based on him as a teenager and him as a dad. What is infectious about Mark is his endless curiosity, his ability to conjure up new stories, and his open mindedness. I should say we have a healthy disagreement about conspiracy theorists like David Icke. But you’ll come away with a real understanding of superheroes and villains and the new boundaries he’s pushing now with his latest creations such as Jupiter’s Legacy and Empress.

Still to come:

With Benjamin Zephaniah at Brunel University

I’ve been recommending the autobiography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah to everyone over the past 6 months and buying it as birthday presents for all the men I know. So he was another obvious choice for me and Farah.

My personal fascination with his career and writing goes back decades. He wrote and starred in my favourite ever piece of British television – Dread Poets’ Society – a short BBC2 comedy drama film about him encountering the spirits of the Romantics – Byron, Keats, Shelley and Mary Shelley based on his own experience being demonised by the national press and literary establishment when he was under consideration for a poetry professorship at Cambridge University in the 1980s. Its now very famous and impressive cast also features Timothy Spall and a then unknown Alan Cumming.

Then when I worked at Channel 4 News I remember sitting in the studio watching him convince – on air – the writer and broadcaster Yasmin Alibai-Brown to give back her MBE and reject the whole British system of honours.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s life story is so complex and so inspiring. From the world of Birmingham in the 50s and 60s through to the exciting radical fringes of London in the 70s; from racism and violence in childhood, to crime and borstal in his youth, to finally getting recognition for his literary powers and becoming one of Britain’s most famous and respected poets. And vegans. We conducted the interview at Brunel University, where he’s Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing.

Elif Shafak after recording How I Found My Voice

Novelist and activist Elif Shafak‘s eloquent interviews about literature, freedom and Turkish politics have made her a regular fixture on news and current affairs shows such as Radio 4’s Today as well as in the book world. She’s another writer I first encountered through an earlier work interview, speaking to her about her novels. Writing in English and Turkish and embracing the history of both worlds as well as the present in her fiction, Elif Shafak is another of life’s resisters. And, with the ongoing turmoil in Turkey, an ever more essential voice challenging attempts to divide or diminish shared principles of human rights. Her episode has fascinating insights into her warm and creative childhood and way of seeing the world.

I hope you enjoy the series and do let us know what you think. Recommendations and ratings where you download it and all that stuff are really helpful for a new podcast, especially for me, if you’ve been following my work. as it’s my first.
HOW TO LISTEN

Several episodes of How I Found My Voice are already available on acast, iTunes and Spotify. The others will drop every Monday.

ACAST

SPOTIFY

iTUNES

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How we made The Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt

Rare intact mummy cartonnage brought back by Amelia Oldroyd (in Bagshaw Museum) All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No reuse without permission.

Have you ever wondered why ancient Egypt lives in so many museum collections across Britain? Not to mention Germany, France, the USA and other former colonial powers. Why it haunts our dreams and our films and since childhood our imaginations? Well that’s the starting point for the documentary I made with Simon and Thomas Guerrier. The short answer is, because of Victorian collectors, several of them women, who went out to the Nile Valley hungry for adventure, fascinated by the beautiful, rich and complex world of the Pharoahs but also driven by a self-defined desire to “save” a worthy culture from the “primitive” present.

With producer Simon Guerrier and archaeologist Heba Abd el Gawad (centre)

The seed for this documentary was meeting and interviewing the remarkable Cairo-born Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad for Front Row. At the time she was completing her phD at Durham University and had co-curated the 2016 Beyond Beauty exhibition at Two Temple Place about ancient Egyptian culture around the body and transformation. The exquisite pieces including intimate makeup containers, jewellery and masks had been drawn from regional collections all over from England.

From Marianne Brocklehurst’s journal (courtesy of West Park Museum)

The impact of the exhibition made some local MPs and officials think whether these collections could, if revitalised in the right way, help revive their towns, attract tourists and locals alike, after years of struggling with central government budget cuts. But It also got me thinking that there as a bigger story to be told about the women collectors. Who were they? How did they manage to get out there at a time when even wealthy women’s lives were so circumscribed? Part of the documentary would need to be a very current conversation about colonial era looting and the ethical dilemma of where these objects should be, and how, when it came to the human remains of mummies, they should be displayed. Talking to Heba it was clear she had a unique perspective, as an Egyptian expert in the field, having also studied the Victorian collectors themselves.

Marianne Brocklehurst’s study in Macclesfield Sunday School Museum with unlabelled mummified hands in cabinet

Amelia Edwards was the most famous. She was the founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EFF), which crowd-financed the expeditions of the so-called father of Egyptology, Flinders Petrie – the renowned British Victorian explorer. But we saw a special story to be told about the mill heiresses from the North of England, who used wealth from now long lost industries — spinning silk and Egyptian cotton, to bring back these cultural riches for their towns. So we focussed in on three remarkable women: Marianne Brocklehurst from Macclesfield, Amelia Oldroyd from Dewsbury and Annie Barlow from Bolton who all had amazing stories. In the case of Brocklehurst amazing diaries which we are grateful to West Park Museum for showing us. Can I stop here to thank all the remarkable museum teams and Egyptologists and archeologists who gave up so much time and expertise to help us. Special thanks to Simon and Thomas Guerrier who are always such an inspiration to work with. I remind readers and listeners to the programme of the enduring challenge for local authority cultural insitutions in the face of year on year central government grant cuts.

Bolton Museum has invested heavily in a magnificent new gallery to showcase Barlow’s treasures and celebrate the real lives, not just the death rituals, of Ancient Eygptians. We found children bursting with excitement, full of knowledge and passion. We also found connections to modern women archaeologists who, proving the transformations in British social and gender mobility in the past century, had been directly inspired in their careers by being taken to see these Victorian women’s Egyptian finds in childhood.

With Danielle Wootton in Bolton Museum

Danielle Wootton’s Bolton family roots included a grandmother and an aunt who had worked in the Barlow and Jones family mills and shared stories with her about those times.

Rebecca Holt in front of her favourite statuette of Goddess Ti in West Park Museum

Postgraduate Rebecca Holt had become passionate about Egyptology in her childhood, as a result of being taken to see the mummy case in the local West Park Museum, built by Brocklehurst with her own money to house her collection.

Mummy case and jewellery from Abydos collected by Amelia Oldroyd (Bagshaw Museum)

Council staffing cuts and budget changes have hit West Park Museum badly. Dewsbury Museum, which housed Oldroyd’s collection shut in 2016 with the pieces, including a magnificent cartonnage moved to the atmospheric mansion of Bagshaw Museum in Batley. Influenced by the impact of the Beyond Beauty exhibition, Kirklees Council has invested in a magnificent reconstructed burial chamber from Abydos in the Bagshaw Museum to display tomb jewellery and its mummy case, which is wonderful, but sadly also suffers from restricted opening hours and has lost its specialist curators.

With Bagshaw Museum curator and guide Katina

I’m grateful to the museum team and especially curator Katina Bill who showed us round this remarkable Gothic building museum and archives for our recording.

Records of objects brought by Amelia Oldroyd for Dewsbury Egypt Exploration Fund (in Bagshaw Museum)

 

Bagshaw Museum, Batley where Amelia Oldroyd’s collection now lives

 

She also brought out the fascinating old leatherbound record books which list all Oldroyd’s purchases as an agent for the local Dewsbury branch of the EFF.

Marianne Brocklehurt’s smuggled mummy case in Macclesfield Silk Museum (the story of how the body was dumped is told in our programme)

Two more Egyptologists provided a living connection to the Victorian EEF adventurers to the modern day: Chris Naunton, author of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt and Alice Stevenson, associate professor of museum studies at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL.

Chris Naunton (c) Alice Stevenson (r)

Both are very aware of the ethical issues around excavation and restitution. Chris is a former director of the Egypt Exploration Society – the modern incarnation of EFF – and was taught by Danielle Wootton. He offered a valuable insight into how the experience of excavations could shape people’s attitudes. Chris and Alice’s passion for archaeology was also shaped by their early experience of museum collections. She gave valuable insight into the political attitudes of the day, including within Egypt, against which these controversial extractions of ancient Egyptian tomb artefacts took place.

Heba offered valuable perspective and insight into how museums have to be honest about the history of their collections. She spoke about the importance of museums having a responsibility to promote social justice, not just for the living, but for the dead.

As with my last Sunday Feature, Laura Ingalls’ America, I’ve tried to show how women of the nineteenth century can still inspire us with their remarkable achievements in the face of strong patriarchal barriers. Brocklehurst’s fascinating diaries show how she protected a female servant being beaten by the cook – sacking him and promoting the maid to his job.

Both Amelia Edwards and, it’s believed, Marianne Brocklehurst were double pioneers as lesbian women living independent lives with their partners. It is impossible not to be filled with admiration and emotion on visiting the modest double grave of Brocklehurst and her life partner Mary Booth just five miles from Macclesfield in the village of Wincle and yet thousands of miles from Egypt where they had their adventures.

However as with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy, museums cannot and should not ignore the racism and colonial attitudes that are a part of the story too, even if it makes many people feel uncomfortable. Like the world of the ancient Egyptians, the past informs the present.

The Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday February 3rd at 645pm and on BBC sounds/online/podcast/downloadable afterwards.

Further reading

The women who love mummies (BBC News feature Feb 2nd 2019)

The lure of ancient Egypt is a way to revitalise faded industrial towns (Guardian Jan 21st 2019)

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Two Gentlemen Sharing: Swinging London’s “race” picture

The films of Swinging London have been pored over and cherished ever since the 1960s. Which made Saturday’s rare BFI Southbank screening for Two Gentlemen Sharing with a Q&A with director and the two leading ladies all the more intriguing. There’s another to come on Sept 23rd.

Based on a novel by David Stuart Leslie about a white ad man sharing his Knightsbridge flat with a Jamaican lawyer – both Oxford-educated – the screenplay was written by Jamaican born writer & Joseph Losey collaborator Evan Jones whose 60s film credits include Modesty Blaise and Funeral In Berlin. Evans’ own experience as an Eng Lit graduate from Wadham, Oxford, is directly given to Hal Frederick’s Andrew McKenzie. The film is sumptuous to look at. London locations around Knightsbridge, Hyde Park and Notting Hill fizz with energy and action shot amid real people. The girls delight in the height of 60s fashion: brightly coloured suede jackets and mini dresses with giant false  lashes and “daisy” eye makeup and big hair. Robin Phillips in his pink shirts, tight slacks and wide lapelled suits is an upper middle class dandy closer to the kind of people who were filling the Scotch of St James than the working class heroes that cinema often gave us at the time.

Canadian director Ted Kotcheff says he was raised in a home of civil rights awareness. His Hungarian born parents went on a protest march against the conviction of the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 when he was still in the womb.

And Two Gentlemen Sharing would make a magnificent double bill with Waris Hussein’s A Touch Of Love (also 1969 and also recently screened at the BFI with director and the star Ian McKellen) – which shows another Oxbridge outsider/insider eye for the same locations, milieu, ambigious sexuality but with a radically different female point of view.

Much of the fascination of Two Gentlemen Sharing is simply seeing the racial diversity of London at the time and its weird, often contradictory exploration of sex and race. Children play in the street with derelict cars or stop to star at the camera while the heroes and heroines have romantic heartfelt encounters.  There’s a magnificent documentary like sequence with our heroes at a Caribbean jump up in a town hall reminiscent of the British social realism pictures of the early 60s. At the end of the night, as the steel band play the national anthem we see a handful of party goers remain to stand respectfully – a Sikh gentleman in a suit and a sari-clad woman, who we’d earlier seen bopping with enthusiasm.  A cricket match sequence where Andrew shows his prowess, features Garfield Sobers, the renowned West Indies player who was captaining Nottinghamshire at the time.

But like the posters for Ken Loach’s Poor Cow the sell of the film was often made on uncomfortable sexual innuendo and treatment of women. Two gentlemen sharing indeed.

Judy Geeson, who’d made her film debut opposite Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love said straight off it was one of her favourite film and how wonderful it was “to be playing a role that wasn’t a “dollybird”. The complexity of integrated lives at the time is captured in the lovely scenes with Earl Cameron — we see her raised by a Jamaican stepfather and a white mother who’s learned to cook rice and peas. This kind of relationship is one so many of us born in the 60s remember seeing in our parents’ friendship circles. The open minded  women who married “across the colour bar” after the war deserve to have more of their stories told.

 

Esther Anderson – who described herself in the Q&A as a Jamaican beauty queen, played  Caroline, a posh middle class Jamaican girl modelling in London but making up a false identity as a British born girl from middle class Beckenham in Kent. “Do I look like an immigrant?” she says challengingly on meeting the white Roddy (Robin Phillips) for the first time.

But Anderson also revealed that on set she and other black women felt pushed into exploitative unscripted sex scenes prompting her  to lead a fight back. And she expressed a concern, that despite the beautiful cinematography she felt the black women were definitely not lit with as much care as Judy Geeson.

In one scene as Roddy visits his “frigid” girlfriend’s ghastly parents, the father dismisses her and her mother as “bitches”, laughing enthusiastically at Roddy’s plans to drop her for his working class hairdresser Judy Geeson. However throughout the film there’s a strong indication that Roddy is gay, and that sense of repressed sexuality adds another powerful layer to a film that seems limitless in the issues it explores, and seems to speak beyond its time.

Two Gentleman Sharing shocks still for several reasons. It’s set in an upper class London. Those n-words have an extra resonance from those posh mouths. Some of the sex scenes remind you of the “even the bath water’s dirty” horror allegedly felt by Hollywood executives when they saw a cut of of the contemporaneously shot Performance.

Norman “A Hard Day’s Night” Rossington as Roddy’s lower class ad-man chum brings both welcome honesty and sleaze in his obsession with bedding black girls.  Like Peter Watkin’s Privilege it prowls around the weird world of 60s ad-land, but for laughs – sexy laughs – rather than cold dystopian horror. In Two Gentlemen Sharing the emphasis is on comedy and entertainment, but like Performance the decrepitude of Rachmanesque slumland is a visual nightmare on screen. “Notting Hall” jokes Andrew to Roddy, welcoming his white flat mate on a visit.

Perhaps the most shocking imagery of the film is when Roddy takes his black and white friends to his parents’ crumbling Jacobean mansion. It looks like a Rachman slum inside. Mater and Pater crawling around hidden in the filthy servants’ quarters. Kotcheff said he saw the metaphor for the crumbling British class system. 50 years on it’s a reminder of an age of supertaxes and how much the aristocracy have since been rehabilitated and fetishised in popular culture.

The big question is how and why was the film supressed in Britain? It was the UK entry to the Venice Film Festival that year. Esther and Judy remember the scale of international press interest. Burt Caesar who hosted the BFI screening said an X certificate and concerns that it could spark race rioting led to it being effectively banned in Britain, despite its straightforward release in the US, Canada and Europe, where anecdotally it seems to have had a significant presence on the European film circuit over the years, notably in France.

The film sets off new lines of enquiry, beyond its strange hanging ending. Where is Hal Frederick now? Judy says he was last known to be running a restaurant in LA. Robin Phillips after starring in a few films made his career as a renowned stage director in Canada.  According to his 2015 Guardian obituary “he is credited with the first modern-dress Shakespeare production at the RSC, in 1970 – Two Gentlemen of Verona, with Helen Mirren, Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart lounging round an onstage swimming pool with cocktails and shades.”

Esther revealed so much about the network of Caribbean performers helping eachother out – she cites Bond girl and “white Jamaican” Daisy Mae Williams who was also in the film, for standing up for her.

Ted Kotcheff – had directed Life At the Top before going onto such Hollywood fare as the Rambo film First Blood, Weekend at Bernie’s and TV’s Law and Order, and my own personal favourite of his – Split Image  (1982) about a cult deprogrammer starring James Woods, Peter Fonda and Karen Allen.

The daring and the experimentation of what was poured into Two Gentlemen Sharing endures. Its flaws are part of its power. Kotcheff told the BFI audience via skype that he had only recently rewatched the film after 50 years.  He told us: “I always aim for 100 and this film was as close to 100 as a film could be”.

My thanks to both Burt Caesar who’s done so much research into this film and to curator David Somerset for sourcing the film and getting it shown again.

Two Gentlemen Sharing is screened again at the BFI Southbank, London on Sunday September 23rd at 520pm

 

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Duran Duran and the glamour v grit music wars of the 80s

Roger Taylor (l), John Taylor (BBC Wogan House, June 25th 2018)

Ahead of tonight’s BBC4 Duran Duran night.. There is one rather interesting section of my interview with John Taylor and Roger Taylor we couldn’t quite get into the final Front Row edit on Monday night.   So here’s the transcript. Growing up in the 80s it’s clear that not only was there an enduring sneering attitude against any band that had a large female teenage fan following, but bands were politically labelled. In the era of Red Wedge, the yachts, the sharp suits and the models saw the band put alongside yuppies and bankers on one side of what felt like a rigidly policed divide about class and attitude. You can listen to the broadcast interview here. It features a broader discussion on their roots, the way traditional indies like NME and Melody Maker sneered at bands with a  large teenage female following, and how Duran Duran made a stonking great Bond theme with a very grumpy John Barry.

Samira Ahmed: The thing about the 80s was it was a time when music could be quite political, and a time when having money seemed quite a political statement. There was a big divide in Thatcher’s Britain.

Roger Taylor: You’re exactly right.

SA: How did Duran Duran get labelled, or how did you feel you fitted in, in what was quite a polarized music scene?

John Taylor: I feel like we were following our instincts and I have no truck with where we were coming from. Like Roger talked about our roots. Our parents knew austerity, they’d served in the war. I mean we all came from a very rigorous and austere working class background. Where we chose to go, where we let ourselves go felt natural, it felt creative, fun. We got a lot of flack for that. 

SA: Unfairly?

John Taylor: Unfairly. Fairly. Whatever; people have opinions for whatever reasons. I was watching another BBC documentary on the post punk era and they were showing a lot of artists. Joy Division were one. And then they get to Duran Duran and they show Hungry Like the Wolf and it felt like everything that had come before it was in black and white. And suddenly Duran Duran was like widescreen technicolor. And I could understand why people were like, “Whoa, well you know.. they’re selling out.” And yet it was big screen.

SA: It was escapism too?

Roger Taylor: It was I think. It was escapism. Somebody said to me the other day, “Oh, did you like UB40?” I said, yeah, I loved them. They used to rehearse next door to us. “Really?” Yeah, yeah, they had the next room. Same city. Same background. But they were singing about being on the dole and we were singing about girls on film and glamour. And how we got that kind of shift, why it went in that direction and we went in ours, I don’t quite know what it happened. It was just one of those weird shifts in life that puts you on a different direction.

 

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I sense a disturbance. Everything that’s missing from The Last Jedi (some SPOILERS so see it first!!)

The scroll screen could have been written for Ep VII. As if nothing has happened. First rule of sequels: Take the story on. What’s the new line? Please hire me to write proper copy in future.

Leia is unconscious for half the film. Seriously. She does almost nothing when she’s awake either. For a film playing a strong Madame President image in the poster this is the biggest shocker.

Gwendoline Christie is BARELY in it. Again.

Mas Kanata is in ONE scene by webcam. I actually wanted to see the film she’s in. It looks quite exciting. But seriously. WTF.

That’s all three women over thirty from The Force Awakens barely in it. This film was 2 and a half hours long.

Luke milking a giant breasted creature and staring at Rey aggressively while he drinks it was just not healthy. There’s some weird unintentionally misogynistic stuff in here.

Your two most swashbuckling leading men Finn and Poe Dameron are sidelined from the main action. This is madness. There is a giant Han Solo shaped gap and their projection of aspects of him was essential to the charm of the first.

We never learn about why Mas had Luke’s lightsabre.

C3PO is hardly in it except  for a couple of excellent but tiny cowardly moments.

Chewbacca gets almost nothing to do except one good macabre joke with some Porg.

The Porg are actually a really welcome addition. And the ice foxes. They seem to have character development, a purpose and help scene setting. Think about that.

R2D2 does almost nothing.

Well over an hour (an hour and a half I think)  till we get a proper lightsabre fight. I checked my watch. Single best scene in the film – Kylo and Rey.

Makes you realise how good the red set dressing in Flash Gordon was, and how influential. And it draws on the Bride’s fight sequences in Kill Bill.

There is no proper onscreen reunion of the older stars.R2D2, C3PO hardly get a hello master Luke moment.  Where is the melancholy camaraderie of the first generation?  Even Hamill has commented on this publically. Unforgivable.

Hardly any reflection on loss of Han Solo.

There is no proper interaction of all the new comrades either. Poe, Finn and Rey are kept apart till the end. Unacceptable.

We learn NOTHING about Snoke before he’s killed. Like Darth Maul. Unforgivable.

We learn nothing about Rey. Even in that initially visually intriguing scene in the cave.

It would be really nice if she does turn out to be nobody; a rejected urchin. It’s not going to happen, is it?

Careless racism from Rey at the fish nuns – like a race of Mrs Doyles on Craggy Island. “What are those things?” she says. They’re the “native” population according to Luke, who have apparently been (forcibly?) converted like and do all his laundry.

We learn nothing about how Kylo Ren came to join the First Order.

Why is Emo Kylo Ren’s best frenemy General Hux in charge? He seems to have far older and superior officers by his side. An eye roll from the best of them does not make this ok. Maybe I should pretend there’s a Donald Trump Jr reference in his overpromotion?

For most of the film we are encouraged to think like Poe Dameron, that Laura Dern is an overpromoted feminazi because of political correctness gone made. “What, the admiral is a a woman?!” is the gist of his reaction. Poe is all Eric Trump snide. Even the big reveal about her is pretty late and pretty poor. Why doesn’t she make her big heroic gesture a bit earlier and save all the other transports? She looks amazing but there’s something strangely impractical about how she’s dressed like a cross between the violinist in Yellow Submarine and  the Columbia Film lady.

Look at Oscar Isaacs and John Boyega. Why would you not use them as much as possible in the main story? Much of the action involves Oscar Isaac sitting on a slow moving bus being chased at 20mph by a giant milkfloat. But apparently not blown up because of some special new rule. Imagine Errol Flynn sitting in a cart looking over his shoulder for the whole of The Adventures of Robin Hood. And not even driving.

Boyega at least gets a real Flash Gordon sense of 1930s adventuring but…

Unpleasant sense of Finn being separated off as a romantic possibility (what happened to the good old love triangle?) for racially dodgy reasons and the kiss from Rose felt like they were telling us they’re pairing him off with someone from Engineering so stop complaining.

Rose is a great character (Joss Whedon’s Firefly, anybody?). But this doesn’t excuse doing nothing with all the established leads.

Lots of great diverse casting but in new tiny roles. It doesn’t excuse removing all the non white actors from the main emotional arc of the story.

The Casino planet – a James Bond mix of Monte Carlo and the UAE – a den of arms dealers & child exploitative camel racers – is raced through at high speed. Felt underused and superfluous at the same time. Shame.

There is a lazy, nasty “bath her and bring her to my chamber” vibe, even if now Disney de-sexualised, in how Rey is treated by Snoke. Was a lot of this torture-y thing in Ep VII. No excuses for so much of it.

Why do the New Order always park so far away from the entrance to the Rebel Base?

The giant laser spinning battering penis to ram the dark hole of the hidden rebel base. Sigh.

It all goes a bit too astral plane Doctor Strange for my liking at the end.

The child scenes with Disney references are too heavy handed. (Sorcerer’s Apprentice broom, shooting star as if over the castle)

Two more that twitter people spotted: Why doesn’t Lando Calrissian turn up in the Casino? Come on!

Zero mention of the Knights of Ren. But by this point are you surprised?

Small Disney observation: While East Asian cinema has been doing the ambiguous whole duality of light/dark so well for decades -which Star Wars copies in Rey and Kylo Ren, this film has reworked some types and imagery from classic Disney Princess films. Some of it very successfully, others more prosaically.

With the red and white colours Rey and Kylo Ren seemed like Snow White and the Prince crossed with the humanised Raven from Maleficient – as equals and each with lightsabres. Most intriguing. Obviously there’s a whole Beauty reforming the Beast plotline. But being equally armed for battle is promising for little girls who have traditionally been rather short changed in Star Wars.

Rose – first discovered sitting and crying in Cinderella pose by the Aladdin-like Finn. But being a qualified engineer and all she’s a recognisably modern Disney princess (think Moana, even Frozen). Modern Disney princess types are very talented and resourceful and their confidence quickly emerges.

Princess Leia has been transformed into a fairy godmother character right down to flying. I think this is the jumping the Disney shark moment.

If you’re going to put Kylo Ren in without a top on, just do it. Strange weak humour (throughout the film) here, to undercut a rare moment of actual sexuality.

Ep VII Rey’s Flashback

The only thing we really learn is the Rashomon-style 3 versions of the night of the massacre at the Temple. But even that was focussed only on Luke and Kylo Ren – just the two of them. What about everyone else? How about matching it to the Jedi temple massacre-in-the-rain flashback in The Force Awakens? Great to see Luke Skywalker and the ever dependable Adam Driver get such great moments out of this film. Shame we didn’t have more of this.

Too much reliance on gaps between films to fill in what happened. How can we be 2 films into a trilogy and I still only know one thing more than I knew in the first?

All this has reminded me how much I love Kung Fu Panda. A lot of the same themes (Rey is the Panda). But The Last Jedi lacks a villain as dark as Ian McShane.

My interview with John Boyega, about his career including Shakespeare,  Star Wars and Detroit  BBC Radio 4 Front Row (Dec 14th) on iplayer via this link.

 

 

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What made America great? On the trail of Laura Ingalls Wilder

It was the 2008 crash that somehow inspired me to finally read the Little House on the Prairie books. I was clearly craving comfort, safety, a kind of nostalgia for a vaguely remembered 70s girlhood in which I half watched the Melissa Gilbert TV series and read the first few chapters of the Little House on The Prairie (the third book).

I bought them all in the old Puffins of my youth and, like thousands of other women it turned out, rediscovered their unique power in the aftermath of economic crisis. These were the books The Great Depression couldn’t stop, as the marketing went in the 1930s when Wilder’s fairytale like evocation of a disappearing living memory resonated powerfully in an America struggling through dark times.

My husband told me the way I kept talking about them with such passion meant I should choose them as my topic for Celebrity Mastermind. And I won! And felt like Laura in that Spelling Bee in which Pa triumphs. You can watch it on YouTube in the side bar widget. to the right here.

Anyway one day I said, I’d go to Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield Missouri to see where she wrote them. And seven years later I did.  Laura Ingalls’ America is on Radio 3 on Sunday December 10th and iplayer after.

Here I’m posting some of the photos and videos of my trip to Wilder Day there. It was a really moving experience. The warmth, kindness and generous hospitality of the friends and  visitors at the Laura Ingalls Wilder House and Museum will always stay with me. So I take this chance to thank them all and my producer at Whistledown, Anishka Sharma, who somehow managed to weave and squeeze the spirit and complexity of Wilder’s dreamlike, beautiful and often disturbing stories into just 45 minutes.

Three generations of Laura fans

Special mention to Elizabeth Tyre from Texas and her mother, sister and nieces from Oklahoma who reunite for Wilder trips and have visited 10 out of the 11 Wilder family sites across America (just Almanzo’s childhood family New York farm to go) and really captured for me the way Wilder’s books celebrate American women, kindness and joy,  family and rebellious girls.  In the photo above: Back row l-r Jennifer Dohlman, Jonelle Jensen, Elizabeth Tyre. Front row l-r Carmen Dohlman (age 7), Katelyn Dohlman (age 10).

The Fountainhead film 1949 (written by Ayn Rand)

We do explore in the programme the complexity of Wilder’s political legacy. I believe you can love the books but still be troubled by how their version of American manifest destiny reads now. Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – one of the so-called godmothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand – has undoubtedly tainted Wilder’s legacy. And once you know the connection, it’s certainly interesting to see the link between Pa’s rants about standing on your own two feet in the stories, and the big city fury of Lane and Rand in a film like The Fountainhead.

Laura Ingalls’ America is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday December 10th 2017

Further listening/reading

There’s more about my trip to Rocky Ridge Farm on the BBC News website.

World Service Business Matters (Dec 9th 2017) – I discuss the business of the Little House books and tourism industry from 14 min 30 sec

Little House on the Prairie and its contested political legacy – New Statesman (Dec 2017)

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Jodie Foster on why The Silence of The Lambs is a perfect film

I recently wrote about why the 1990s was such an amazing time to be a young woman. Jodie Foster confirmed the sense of a breakthrough at a screening of The Silence of The Lambs on Friday night at the BFI Southbank in London. Flashing her FBI pass of authority this film holds up remarkably well. Like Contact its power is in the focussed intent of its heroine for her mission.   Here’s a write up, mainly on the film, but also with insights into her life long plan to be a director and her long term optimism about America’s culture wars.

Foster began with a remarkable observation about The Silence of the Lambs: “[It] inspired people to do probably the best work they’ll ever do in their own lives…I was 29. I didn’t realise it was never going to happen again.”

Foster revealed she wasn’t the first choice  for the role of Clarice Starling. When she read the book and tried to buy the rights, she discovered Orion already held them.  Her experience playing a rape survivor in the harrowing The Accused helped explain her passion to secure the role.

“In my whole life I’d played a lot of victims. That IS a big part of women’s history. For me there was a healing process, a growing experience, to finally play the woman who saves the women.

“If you think of the mythology the film comes from — the Prince whose country is suffering from an illness. He goes into the forest and battles monsters and trolls to bring back a panacea and realises once he’s cured his people, he can never be one of his people again. That story has never been reserved for women. Is there no such thing as female agency?”

Gene Hackman had originally planned to make his directorial debut with the film, and also playing the role of Crawford – Starling’s boss. However Foster said he dropped out “because [he thought] the script was too violent”. Once the director was fixed Foster lobbied Jonathan Demme for the part.

“I went to see Jonathan Demme. I said I would just like to be your second choice.”

Of the actors lined up as possible Hannibal Lecters, Foster says it was all the usual big names such as Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman. But that changed. “We were keen on a Brit. He’s a manipulator, he uses language” very carefully. Foster said the American Stanislavski’s method style of acting was not right for the role; where the actor seeks an emotional connection or reason. “We needed a Shakespearean monster.”

Much of the power of the film is the way Starling and Lecter’s confrontations are shot head on direct to camera and it’s interesting that Foster says she and Anthony Hopkins never got to meet in advance:

“Hopkins only shot 7-10 days on the film and never came till half way through the shoot. We  rarely saw eachother because we looked into the lens” only hearing the voice of their adversary. “We both claimed to be scared of eachother.”

“It really was a beautiful script. Almost exactly [the same as] the first draft. There was something about [playing] someone [Clarice Starling] who’d been traumatised by sound and being small and not big enough to help or care for somebody.

“Before that in The Accused I was brash and loud. I wanted to explore the challenge of someone who knows they’ll never be big enough so had to engage their heart.”

The shivering intensity of the final section of the film much of it shot in one long take as she goes through the maze of doors in the basement, is when Starling finds the killer and tries to rescue his captive. That intensity certainly seems to have been enhanced by the fact that, as Foster revealed, it was filmed on the last day of the shoot and took 22 hours. Doors kept being left open that spoiled multiple attempts at the long single take. She remembers it as “one of the coldest winters in Pittsburg. The band for the wrap party was sitting waiting. We finished the shoot at 6 or 7am.”

On being behind the camera:

Foster started acting at 3 and made her first feature at 6. “I was always fascinated by the filming process. All the technical stuff. I thought acting was just saying lines out loud that someone else had written.” Foster says the moment of epiphany came when the actor playing her screen dad suddenly began directing episodes. Wait, they let actors do this?

Being on a film set was, thinks Foster, a great film school. She gave a real sense of how she watched and learned everything, even how the film cartridges were loaded; but also the hard to define instincts of good directing:. “Understanding why something works or doesn’t work.” Of all the expertise she hoovered up just watching on set, she observes, “But a lot of actors aren’t interested.”

The major challenge she’d faced in making films was not funding. “I always found funding. It was more about getting scripts [developed] to the right level.”

The political state of America

For those expecting Foster to express grave concern about the tensions over race, sex and sexuality in Trump’s America, she was refreshingly calm. “We’re not moving backwards at all. We’re a very interesting point in our consciousness whether about violence or race. A proportion of our population, maybe the minority, does understand empathy and then there’s a huge section that doesn’t and is existing in the same era. But this is a transition.”

On the partly historic sexual abuse being exposed in Hollywood Foster said  how she felt protected by her mother in navigating her path through it. Reflecting on it, she spoke of appreciating the complex burden her mother’s generation carried: “I got so many messages from my mom. She would always be carrying around the shame and the self loathing of sexual politics of that era. She was also messed up and a lot of mixed messages came out of her.”

Greatest Challenge?

Foster said it was playing Nell – the “wild” child found in the forest in the eponymous film she also produced. Fearful of how to get into the role Foster said she did a huge amount of research, reading books, even tried acting lessons: “I had never gone to an acting class before. And then I realised I just needed to drink a little coffee and wait till they said ‘Action!'”

Further reading

The 90s were a brilliant decade to be a young woman (The Pool Sept 2017)

Chain of Command: A cultural history of the lanyard  (The New Statesman July 2017)

 

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Making news in the “fake news” age

These are links to further reading from today’s Kingston University journalism/media lecture.

Newswatch – on the Theresa May speech/cough – to see the connection between audience, traditional BBC news and the impact of “viral” social media on traditional news.

The Sandy Hook Hoaxers – model analysis by BBC Trending of the conspiracy and its impact. BBC Trending is a programme you should be listening to regularly

Fake News and the future of Journalism – (Nieman Lab) looks ahead

How do you report on something that isn’t true? (LSE blogs) – great practical user guide for journalists

Breitbart: The web that connects Trump and Farage – Great piece on Breitbart by BBC Trending presenter Mike Wendling

Post Truth politics – (Nieman Reports) gives lots of concrete examples like those we discussed eg MMR vaccine panic

The Jeremy Corbyn traingate story unpicked by DoubleDown News (video)

 

 

 

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The Prisoner: An Anglo Saxon poetic meditation

Was meditating on the enduring power of The Prisoner TV series for Matthew Sweet who wrote a rather excellent piece about its 50th anniversary. If you’ve read it you know I  came up with a thesis that it has more in common with Anglo Saxon poetry than you might think. Here’s the full idea..

If the Anglo Saxon poets had had ATV budgets, I think they would have made something not dissimilar to The Prisoner.


The show is a meditation on the isolation of the soul and a physical version of the dream process that goes on in every mind. The Village is No 6’s anchorite cell. Sometimes his mind can journey afar, literally in the case of mind transplant to a different body. but mostly it must face temptation closer at home. But the show’s power is not in meaning, it’s about the processing of experiences and impressions and individual defiance against entrapment in a world of warring kings or sinister governments. Yes we can see plays on what was emerging in the news about brainwashing and Cold War prison camps. Where the Anglo Saxons used the possibilities of oral recitation, The Prisoner uses the huge technicolour budgets of mainstream commercial television to create luxurious art experiments that dabble in elements of counter culture.

The Prisoner’s power is in its world’s dream like self containment and refusal to follow logic; like the mid 60s colour England of deserted sinister country lanes populated by strange devils in the costumes of everyday authority figures, like nannies, in The Avengers with Diana Rigg. It is the sense of a sealed dream world that gives it power.

The lack of sexual relationships strengthens the purity of the meditation and gives The Prisoner a focus on puzzle-solving and survival. It’s a Conradian world of loners. The Anglo Saxons tried to use Christ to counterbalance the hardships of their world, The Prisoner had Patrick McGoohan’s arrogance and a budget to dabble in beautiful grooviness to counterbalance the chaos of the 1960s. The ideas are embodied in the single best episode The Schizoid Man.

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