As a valued customer…

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine

Malaysian Airlines deeply regrets what? The delay or cancellation to your flight? Perhaps they apologise for not “the” but “any” inconvenience caused. As we now know, they expressed their deep regret by SMS message to hundreds of traumatized relatives “that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

As I write the Australian authorities are still trying to locate and salvage possible  wreckage.

We know that within a few hours of that statement the airline put out a tweet to  point out that no one was being contacted by text alone: “SMS and phone calls were made to those who [were] not in the hotels via our family support centre. We wanted to ensure that families [were] informed via all channels.”

While that clarification is important, the whole incident confirms the sense that the airline and the Malaysian government – a state notorious for corruption – were primarily focused on their own image management.

The families of MH370 had been turned into the one thing we all dread being turned into – numbers.  We’d seen it before.  We saw it when Nadezhda Tylik, mother of submariner Lt Sergei Tylik, lost in the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000 was forcibly sedated with a syringe to shut her up as she haranged newly elected President Putin at a public meeting over the cover up and inept rescue attempt by the Russian naval authorities.

When we become hysterical, it is out of desperation; almost inevitably because we have been misled, ignored and treated by officials as a hindrance. In China there is a growing history of this kind of protest, notably in the rallies of Sichuan families, nearly five thousand of whose children died in school collapses in the 2008 earthquake, because of shoddy construction thanks to the collusion of corrupt building firms and local officials.

Here in Britain, while most are proud of the NHS, too many people have experienced the horror of feeling just another number in the system. Every winter there are the cases, usually reported only on the local news, of the parents who had pleaded with doctors, but were sent home and told to give paracetamol to infants who in fact had meningitis. Theirs is the agony of having allowed their instincts to be overruled by officials, focused on processing numbers. They would no doubt have been made to feel like demanding “fusspots”.

When statistics show the odds of missing such a case are small, some will find their family become that statistic. Once your loved one has died, the authorities will find the resources to perhaps offer counselling, investigate with an inquest and in some cases, even a more specialized inquiry. Perhaps it will make the news itself one day. Maybe care practice will change. New guidelines will be issued. But nothing changes the fact that a person you loved is gone, because officials turned us into numbers.

In my clean and welcoming local NHS hospital there are notices up encouraging families to make full use of extensive visiting hours and to be present at meal times. I have no doubt that the extensive news reporting of the scandals elsewhere of poor patient care, such as in Mid-Staffordshire have made such institutions take note and improve their standards.

For an essential part of the distress of the families of Flight MH 370 is the disinformation that they have experienced from the local government and the airline. It was the presence of a large international media corp from democratic states that ensured the authorities’ every action, or inaction, was under the spotlight. Conspiracy theories flourish when there is no trust in the structures of the state. The filmmaker Errol Morris said recently that “conspiracy theories are optimistic.  Because you’re saying that, instead of chaos, someone is pulling the strings. Somewhere, there is some kind of rhyme and reason to history.”

Disasters happen. Failings in the system may have caused them. But not always. What we need is accountability and truth. We’ve seen in countries such as Russia that corrupt authoritarian systems are on the rise again; usually in collusion with corrupt big business interests. When you turn passengers and, as opponents to the government’s NHS changes argue, patients, into customers, what is the priority when things go wrong? It isn’t usually the relatives or the truth.

Further reading

Why Malaysia will say almost nothing about the missing plane (Business Week March 2014)

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Transience: Clocks, Voyager & Potsdamer Platz

Potsdamer Platz Pre-War. The tramlines were still visible in 1994.

Potsdamer Platz Pre-War. The tramlines were still visible in 1994.

My programme for this week’s Something Understood on BBC Radio 4 is about transience: the fact that all things must pass. It begins in the clock room of the British Museum, where time is made physical by its embodiment in the strange collection of pendulums & clocks. (I have a thing about public clocks.)


The programme explores the changing skyline of central Berlin — notably Potsdamer Platz which I watched transform from derelict wasteland to the world’s largest building site to a glass and metal entertainment complex in a few years and plays with time by then going back to to the final eerie words of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin; in which he recalls  the sunny day on which he leaves the city to the horrors of the Nazis.

We also quote the work of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan who put together the golden record of human culture for the Voyager deep space probes; knowing the recordings might still be out there long after human life has ceased to exist on Earth.

SAGE NARADA ACKAmd we muse on the puzzling concept in Hinduism that all earthly life is maya or illusion. And fans of Star Trek might detect something familiar in the story of Sage Narada who experienced an entire family life and loss only to discover it was an illusion sent by Lord Vishnu, to teach him a valuable lesson. The story is re-told almost exactly in the Star Trek The Next Generation episode The Inner Light.

You can hear the programme from Sunday April 6th via this link or on BBC Radio 4 at 6am and 1130pm and i player for 7 days after. It’s produced by Anthony Denselow for Whistledown. 

Further reading/viewing

Broken Clocks & Zombie Apocalypse Big Issue article


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Mr Selfridge & the book bound in human skin

SELFRIDGES 1920SSelfridge’s window display 1920s (

Writer Arnold Bennett was a well known celebrity in London by the 1920s and often recorded his encounters with the rich and powerful in his journals. This one has stuck in my mind. Not sure if will feature in the Mr Selfridge TV series one day…

Thursday 26th March 1925

I was walking in Selfridge’s basement yesterday afternoon, idling between two appointments, when I met Selfridge in rather old morning suit and silk hat. He at once seized hold of me and showed me over a lot of the new part of his store. Cold-storage for furs – finest in the world. Basement hall 550 feet long. Sub-basement with a very cheap restaurant where they serve 3,000 to 4,000 customers a day. He introduced me to the head of his baby-linen department..Then up his own private lift to the offices and his room, where I had to scratch my name with a diamond on the window – with lots of others. He showed me a lot of accounting. Then downstairs to book department. Fine bindings, etc. His first remark was, taking up a book: “Human skin.” I had to hurry away. He kept insisting that it was wonderfully interesting. And it was.

My documentary Arnold of the Five Towns will be on BBC Radio 4 on June 23rd at 4pm.

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BBC statement on the decision to pull BBC3′s Free Speech debate on gay Muslims.

The following statement was provided for Newswatch today about the decision to postpone a debate on homosexuality and Islam on BBC3′s Free Speech programme this week. You can watch Newswatch on Newschannel at 845pm tonight or BBC1 at 745am tomorrow. It’ll be on i-player after.

“BBC Three’s Free Speech is a news and current affairs discussion format based on topical issues some of which are a result of interest from our online community. The Birmingham Mosque had offered the venue as a location for an episode. When asked if there were any issues for discussion that would be off limits, no concerns were raised. Neither the production company nor the BBC would have chosen a venue that unduly limits topics for discussion.

As with all Free Speech programmes, parts of the programme are promoted on radio, online and on social media platforms ahead of transmission to raise awareness of a topics potentially in the programme.  Content from a pre-recorded segment, which covered the topic of homosexuality and Islam, was played ahead of transmission on Radio 1 and on local radio. The Mosque received threats which gave us cause for concern to the security of their community.

Discussions took place within two hours of the programme being broadcast live as to the best way to proceed bearing in mind the security of the mosque and respect for their concerns over offending their community. As a result the production company, together with the BBC and the Mosque, made a considered decision to postpone the debate of the topic until March 25th but agreed to show the pre-recorded segment.

This was a decision taken responsibly, with a great deal of thought, consideration and respect and not in any way about censorship of an issue. We were transparent with the audience about the decision.”

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The Drag Queen Tombola and other tales of cross dressing glory

This column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.

I was once asked what was the best night out I ever had in London. My husband, thought I’d say it was that romantic night we went to the National Theatre and saw a huge harvest moon so red and intense float over the Thames that we nearly didn’t go back in after the interval. But no. It was the night my camerawoman friend took me to Drag King night at Madame Jo-Jos in Soho circa 1995. Because I don’t think there’s much that makes me cheerier than British people cross-dressing. And I think it’s about time to unpick why.

For a start it’s often been an unexpected celebration of the middle aged lady.

It’s ironic that the female actors in Monty Python were often accorded sexist bombshell parts (for my views on 70s TV culture see numerous previous columns), because the men were so keen on dressing up as ladies.  But I felt there was real affection in the portrayal of chain smoking charladies, matriarchs and biker Grannies. Tim Brooke-Taylor in The Goodies showed a similarly touching ability. None of it resolves the fact that we’re still struggling to get more women over 40 into leading roles on TV and screen, but somehow I feel there was a triumphant recognition of the power of the otherwise undervalued middle aged woman, keeping the home.

Often it’s the clear physical mismatch. Matthew McFadyen’s well built Jeeves in the current production of “Jeeves and Wooster” plays a scheming, aristocratic flapper in silks and pearls with the most glorious sincerity. The late Roger Lloyd Pack had never done panto when he played Sarah the  Cook in Mark Ravenhill’s Dick Whittington at the Barbican in 2006. But it was all the sweeter for his awkwardness.  A tall bloke in a dress.

Even where the intent may have been pure lampooning, drag can create something more authentic. Actor Steve Nallon, began playing Margaret Thatcher at the age of just 22 on the Spitting Image TV series. Fresh from a Drama and English degree at Birmingham University he did more than attempt to mimic her. Implicit in the cross dressing (she was memorably portrayed in a man’s suit with a cigar) might be the sexist view point of male politicians and many journalists. But crucially Nallon explored why so many people voted for her, how they liked her forthright opinions: “Most of the people did her in that very patronising way. Very slow. That was always slightly false. I went for a different type of a Thatcher voice. The honesty. I’m not going to hide behind anything. I’m going to tell you what I think. She’d do that in interviews and get excited. I Identified what people liked about her.. My grandmother voted for her. So I knew that.”

By the time Nallon eventually came to portray her physically on screen, with a feminine flirtiness, dressed in those blue suits and handbags, I sensed a symbiotic relationship. Though many others including great female actors had played Thatcher, Nallon’s seemed somehow the more real.

I’ve never liked panto dames who played it butch. Instead, my favourites are the two wicked sisters in Adam and the Ants’ Georgian-themed Prince Charming Video – complete with beards; preening with fans. In Adam Ant himself there was a liberating celebration of the blurring between masculine and feminine.And it is the sense of liberation that still explains the joy of drag.

I watched the marvellous Amy Cudden strutting around in a sharp suit, in One Man Two Guvnors having the time of her life pretending to be a low life geezer. And now I think about it, a seminal moment may have been my first big crush on the former who played John Proctor in my all-girls’ school production of The Crucible.

Perhaps inevitably, then I was drawn to working in Berlin in the late 90s where a tall blond drag queen presided over the late night chat show that was my bedtime viewing. I seem to recall Peter Ustinov a regular on the sofa. One Saturday night, oh my stars, I came back from a late shift to my hotel to find it full of a convention of drag queens all in full sparkling, feather-boa-ed,big wigged array. There was a tombola with prizes of giant blowdriers and styling accessories; but the next morning, like the Tale of the 12 Dancing Princesses, no sign of the night’s delights. Only a lobby with besuited businessmen reading Germany’s financial paper, Der Handelsblatt. But I knew their dancing slippers were worn through.

The joy of drag is the joy of the dressing up box, but also the chance to escape, redefine and subvert the boundaries that tie us into roles.

A few favourite drag moments

Jane Russell as Marilyn Monroe (Gentleman Prefer Blondes) Russell plays a bemused drag version of herself throughout.

Robert Preston as The Shady Dame from Seville (Victor/Victoria)

Doris Day femming up in a frock (Calamity Jane)

John Sessions: Mrs Huggett (Stella Street)

Steve Nallon as Margaret Thatcher (Spitting Image)

Tim Brooke Taylor as the mum, the charlady and numerous other Voices of Authority (episode one of  ITV’s Grasshopper Island)

James Fox as a flapper in Thoroughly Modern Millie

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Wilderness Years: From Rapunzel to Travolta and General Zod

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A blind prince wanders through a Biblical-looking stony desert. The strange coda to Rapunzel is often forgotten, but it’s what I remember most about reading the Ladybird storybook as a child. And it’s where I chose to start today’s Something Understood programme for BBC Radio 4 exploring Wilderness Years. Follow the link to listen to it now.

The witch has discovered Rapunzel’s secret romance, shorn her hair and cast her out. She lies in wait for the Prince and hurls him from the tower. He is blinded by the brambles below. There follow several years in the Wilderness. Meanwhile Rapunzel has been wandering, too. In the unexpurgated version she’s given birth to the Prince’s twins and has been raising them alone for several years before they are reunited. The psychoanalytical reading is that the story is a metaphor for the repression and punishment of adolescent sexuality. It certainly didn’t seem fair. The Ladybird “Happily Ever After” ending includes this:

How happy Rapunzel and the prince were to be together again! It did not matter to them that they were in rags. They forgot the sad years behind them.”

But how could you forget such a time? And if life has a purpose, what is the purpose of wilderness years? As well as the Israelites’ forty years in the desert and the temptation of Christ, the programme explores political wilderness: Winston Churchill’s decade before the Second World War, warning of the growing threat from Germany; and political shame and punishment for transgression from the Profumo scandal to today.

In the section on showbusiness I wanted to tell the Wilderness Years stories of 3 great actors, who by coincidence were all nominated at the 1995 BAFTA film awards: Terence Stamp, John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson (the latter for Best Supporting Actor, which he won). Incidentally, you might want to muse on the subsequent career of the  man who actually won Best Actor, Hugh Grant, for Four Weddings and A Funeral.  My encounter that night as a news correspondent with John Travolta is still in the programme. But this is the sadly lost section on Jackson and Stamp:

There were 3 wilderness year returnees nominated for BAFTA acting awards that year. Terence Stamp, about whom more shortly. And Travolta’s Pulp fiction co-star, Samuel L Jackson, whose break through came only as he approached 40, after finally turning his back on drugs and drink. As Elaine Lipworth discovered when she interviewed him in 2012:

“Jackson’s dabbling in drugs began in New York in the late Seventies when he joined the acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company. “It was the life. I was in the theatre, the revolution. I fancied myself as Oliver Reed. Part of it is hereditary: my father died of alcoholism,” says Jackson with measured detachment. “I took it a step further, I drank and I used drugs. I liked the feeling of not being cognisant of what was going on around me.” Despite the addiction he never spiralled into utter dissipation.

“I didn’t rob people, I was working the whole time. I rehearsed and performed on drugs. I went on stage and watched people’s eyes roll across stage and I’d go ‘oh I have a line, OK got to focus on the play now.’” He admits it was hard for his wife and daughter to deal with his behaviour. “I was not affectionate, I was not associative and I was kind of crazy – in a way that I regret and I’ve apologised to both.” The turning point came when his family discovered him “passed out on the kitchen floor. I guess I wanted to get caught. I ended up going to a party, drinking too much tequila and decided on the way home I needed to get cocaine and level myself out because I was drunk. I got home and cooked it.

“When I looked up, LaTanya and Zoe were standing there. The cocaine was cooked but I’d never smoked it. That was the first time LaTanya realised I was doing something that was greater than just smoking weed and drinking.” Jackson checked into rehab. “I didn’t resist because I was ready.” Ironically, two weeks after rehab he began shooting what would become his breakout film performance, as a crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). “It was the first thing I did without a substance in my body.”

Sometimes the wilderness years arrive over night, like an appointment. The actor Terence Stamp embodied the 1960s in films such as Far From The Madding Crowd. And when they ended, he found himself staring into a desert:

“In a long career, there are invariably lulls. You either start late— Jack Nicholson didn’t get discovered until well into his thirties; neither did Michael Caine— or, there is a parched stretch in the middle, as in Cary Grant’s case, and my own. It’s tough, as at the time there is no certainty the final curtain hasn’t fallen. I coped by travelling, and drew inspiration from Muhammad Ali. On my first trip to New York, I was up front on a big TWA jet. There was a lot of commotion at the rear and I strolled back to catch the action. It was the then Cassius Clay and his extensive entourage. I had seen him in action a few nights earlier at the Arsenal Stadium, when he’d taken Henry Cooper down . He looked alight, sitting there, talking with his hands the way many fighters do, laughing and animated, lit from within. His charisma was overwhelming . After that, I kept up with his career. Hearing somewhere that during his time away from the ring— when he was banned for not fighting in Vietnam— he stayed very fit so that whenever the call came he would be ready at an hour’s notice, if need be.

When, during my long sojourn in the East, the weeks became months, the months became years and my hair became noticeably grey, I would recall Ali’s discipline. Whether it was the breathing practices that strengthened my core and stretched my lungs or the long Tai Chi forms that complemented my coordination and kept my tendons supple, my mantra became, “This will refine my performances when the call comes.” “

From Rare Stamps by Terence Stamp: Reflections On Living, Breathing and Acting.

Stamp challenges the idea that wilderness years are something we need to escape. Perhaps they are to be embraced. I think it’s no coincidence that Terence Stamp went to study meditation in India. And the programme features Jay Lakhani of the Hindu Academy explaining the central importance of Wilderness Years in the Hindu model of life.

You can listen here to Something Understood: Wilderness Years on BBC Radio 4 March 9th 2014 at 1130pm or iplayer for 7 days after. It also has a list of all the music and readings featured including songs from James Taylor and the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction.

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The only thing I hate more than politicians is puppets: Spitting Image extras


Image from BFI programme guide

Image from BFI programme guide

This post has the fun extras from my interviews with some of the core Spitting Image team and one of their targets, for a British Film Institute feature, Spitting Image: Still biting after all these years, about the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking satire show. Random fact: Back in 1992, ITV received 341 complaints about a depiction of Jesus. The complaint was upheld in part.

Thanks to the co-creators  Peter Fluck, Roger Law, producer John Lloyd, actor and voice artist Steve Nallon and former Labour front bench MP, now Lord Roy Hattersley for their time and to the BFI.


Fluck: Journalism changed its nature and newspaper ownership changed. Murdoch had taken over [The Sunday Times]  and downgraded everything. Out of the blue came a phone all from a friend of a friend: “Can anyone make puppets for a satirical programme. We didn’t know anything about TV. Roger and me were pretty bad at pitching things. But we believed in caricature.”

Law: We cut our teeth in magazines and newspapers when they mattered. TV was about talking heads. Puppets were a handicap. The audience didn’t listen. You can’t do nuance between what’s said and the expression. [Favourite puppet?] I fucking hate them all.

Lloyd: When I came from radio in 1979 to start Not The Nine O’ Clock News we had a stack of talented young writers — an establishment really. I knew a lot of people who did the voices on thing like the News Huddlines. So I had sound quality and writing quality but no idea how to make people look. So I thought we’d do puppets. I had seen Fluck and Law’s work on the covers of Newsweek and the Sunday Times. So I went to see Roger Law at Hove College of Art, where he was teaching.There was this enormous pirate standing there looking like something out of he 17th century. he said,” How much money have you got?” I said £200 for each puppet.” He laughed and said, “F*** off.”

Then I heard that Martin Nambie-Nairn had put up £10 thousand to start a Fluck and Law satire show and I got round to Roger’s so fast. I said I was literally the only person in the world with the skills and experience to do this.: “I’m the TV guy. I know about getting jokes on the box.” I said I will work for a year for nothing if you give me shares in the company.

Just before we started, Roger and I went to see Jim Henson talk about puppets. He said, “Never ever do one of a human being, because anthropomorphic humour is so much easier.”

Law: The antecedent was a French variety show with a puppet strand. They had Kermitterand, who was green. The first shows didn’t work. You could smell the fear. (Why?) because the vision Peter and I had was very hard core political satire show. And none of us knew what we were doing. Everyone was dog tired. Everything was handmade. We were working to a newsroom deadline. Sometimes worse. We would even throw away the show on a Friday and reshoot on Saturday. More than once editing the second half when the first half was airing.

Nallon: In the pilots one of the questions they asked at audience research was, “Would you as adults be prepared to laugh at puppets.”

I was very award of that tradition of Greek theatre and satire. There’s an Aristophanes play that reverses power and had the women taking over. I came at it from a more academic point of view and was able to talk to John Lloyd about Swift to give it more understanding.

Lloyd:  Though it was a terrible scramble and mess at the beginning, today it looks so raw and exciting and dangerous. We could see something important was going on. It was very badly reviewed. but only a few years later I showed a couple of early sketched at the Edinburgh TV festival expecting them to boo, but they loved them. Very occasionally you see something that doesn’t look like it was made by TV people. What Spitting Image had was an impertinent rudeness and roughness about it that made it stand out from all the other smooth acceptableness of television.

Law: If you look at James Gillray, he had ten wonderful years of drawing. Anyone making a movie of that [Georgian] period would go straight to that. The class system was perfectly portrayed and he becomes a reference to that era. Spitting Image’s legacy is years of the 80s in all its minutiae.

Nallon: People forget how long it took to get good. We learned to script edit. I would sugggest ways of saying something that was more in character. Harry Enfield wrote his own stuff. There was Steve Coogan and John Sessions. The Queen Mum began sounding like Beryl Reid but we gradually started developing her character.

Originally it was meant to be done voices and puppets together. But it was impractical. So we would pre- record the voices on Saturday and it was filmed later. We had to give a physical performance we never sat down, to get the overexaggerated physicality into the voice.


Lloyd: I used to work 4 days in Birmingham and three days in London. I feel asleep on the train into London one day and woke up to hear the train cleaners saying, “I love that show because I hate the f***ing Queen.” As a minor public schoolboy I was horrified.

[Did you expect the programme to change anything?]

It changed my views of things. I remember driving down the Mall and looking at each of these palaces which each has one member of the Royal Family living in it.

With my BBC producer background we struggled really hard to make it as balanced as possible. We always had a labour sketch, whereas actually for a lot of those years, they were as quiet as mice. It took on a life of its own. It seems even to me it was shocking If felt so breathtakingly naughty

Law: They had a tape [of the programme sent to the House of Commons every Monday for all the layabouts who hadn't seen it on Sunday evening.

Fluck: There were two levels. If someone's in public life -- cabinet ministers and other MPs -- if they weren't caricatured they went to bed thinking they'd failed.But the power of caricature is interesting because in the power to ridicule you are back in the playground.

Any point you can make about politicians is fair. It's not exactly a kind of control because it never goes that deep into the system. The court jester was there to ridicule and poke fun and was tolerated. our culture has tolerated it for centuries. I can't think of a single English satirist who's ever gone to jail.

If you've got 18 million people watching it on TV they're watching it for a reason. They want to see the other side of the character. So much of MPs' image is generated by PR.

Lloyd: The funny thing about puppets and caricatures is if you portray someone as tough and uncompromising, no matter how nasty, they tend to be pleased.

Nallon: Because [Thatcher] was so direct and honest.. she would come out with these things that were just incredible. When she died last year I realised I’d forgotten how direct she’d been: “Only a Frenchman would think of something so stupid.”  We probably did her a service. John Selwyn Gummer said it’s the steam that’s let off. Not a bad thing from a poltician’s point of view.


Law: With the Royal Family we portrayed them as an ordinary family and the Queen as a secret communist. When they had all these scandals and we had 12-14 million viewers we wouldn’t censor anything, but one of my ambitions was NOT to be Kelvin McKenzie. We didn’t want to be bottom feeding.

[Q: Hasn't the Royal Family appropriated that image of themselves as ordinary for very successful PR?]

When Gillray worked, he portrayed the Prince of Wales as a fat drunken debaucher. If the Prince of Wales liked a cartoon he sent a guinea round to buy the original or if he didn’t like it he would send round a couple of heavies to beat you up and destroy the plates. It was Victoria who went for the middle class image.We were the first to really make them figures of fun again.

Fluck: There’s a lot of people we didn’t do. Maybe because we liked them. We did Bob Dylan and it didn’t quite work. Politicians and celebrities became the same thing.

Lloyd: We  were having the most terrific time and spent a lot of time arguing amongst ourselves about where the line was.  Spitting Image was rude, but rarely nasty. But the time the scripts went to the head of department it had been argued out.  [On the editorial culture in TV at the time]: Nobody lost their nerve at Central. And the BBC principle, too, was it takes time and never cancelled after one series.

The team was like a federation. A good producer if not an auteur. I was, if you like, the man beating the drum on a galley ship. I’m very proud of the team work. It was very talented and diligent team who all worked so hard. Even the sound effects guy, who’d spent years just doing the doorbells on Crossroads. And suddenly he’s constructing all these complex sound effects

Hattersley: Spitting Image will give itself airs and graces it doesn’t deserve if it thinks it hsa  had an influence on politicis. Newspaper coverage of the Profumo debate was far more damaging  in encouraging a lack of respect for politicians.  It was a good evening’s fun on a Sunday. What matters is what politicians do. Not their mannerisms. Whether they spit when they speak, or look like a skinhead in a leather jacket, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.


Lloyd: There are two people I always felt we were slightly unfair to. Prince Charles who was a real contributor for his championing on the environment and the Princes Trust for young people We always said characters have to earn it. We have to go for people who deserve it. And David Steel.

Fluck: Only one thing worries me slightly. David Steel saying it ruined his career. But he’s in the House of Lords. The whole thing was accidental. We thought if we make them small they’ll be cheaper. But actually they weren’t, because the costumes were more expensive to make. And the little ones couldn’t pick up the telephone or use a food processor. he was one of the first we made and was a little one. We made David Owen later and he was a bigger one.But it was obvious that David Owen was in charge.

Law: [Q: damage to careers?] David Steel. But if you will vote for two leaders… Most of the victims did it to themselves.

The only thing I hate more than politicians is puppets. People like Edwina Currie adored being on. Jeffrey Archer sent in his photographs so we thought we’d never do him. And then he got in that scandal with a prostitute and we had to.

Nallon: Archbishop Runcie. I met several high up people who said I harmed him. We portraied him as someone completely naive, who believed in Santa Claus. The public perception of him was as an ineffectual dreamer. He wasn’t a grand man.

Hattersley:   Three were portrayed as really sinister: Gerald Kaufman, Michael Howard and Peter Mandeslon. Mandy and Gerald weren’t really sinister, and they were genial. I was the eponymous spitting hero. People who mind that sort of thing shouldn’t be politicians. I was a Punch writer for 5 years. The boardroom of Punch was decorated with Tenniel cartoons which were much more savage. In the 19th century the anti Disraeli cartoons were hideously anti-Semitic. Politicians took it in their stride then and they should. And Spitting Image was funny. I don’t want to diminish the programme because I liked it. But I can’t bring myself to say it had the slightest political importance.

I think you could still make a programme like that very easily. People always say there aren’t any personalities in politics. But Theresa May could justify a whole programme. You could do David Cameron very easily. People still talk to me about it, even very young people.


Fluck: One thing I treasure is how much of an audience we had. It never went below 5 or 6 million — especially for 10 O’clock on a Sunday night.That was very pleasing. This is making people laugh. I was approached at a wedding party in Cornwall and this man said , “I want to thankyou for getting us through the Thatcher years, when the economy was falling apart and things were collapsing.

Hattersley: We’re all dead, or as good as dead.

Further reading

Spitting Image: Still biting after all these years (BFI feature)


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A mystery for Sherlock: Why won’t big media organisations pay for online photos?

BhLXvf5IIAAZvMTThis photo is copyright Samira Ahmed (@SamiraAhmedUK)

I posted some photos on Twitter on Sunday taken on a phone at a family party of a Sherlock Holmes cake, which generated a lot of interest. I’m not a professional photographer, but the images did prove very popular.

MetroUk Online contacted me almost immediately asking to use them. I agreed to let them have a single image for online use only, with copyright maintained by me, and marked as such on the article, for £30. Not a huge fee, but in the circumstances, something, and with my memory TV news fees of £30 to £60 for a single use agency image of a person was normal. And it wasn’t a high res enough photo that I could get a professional agency to handle for me.

Then the BBC America website got in touch yesterday  to say could they run a blogpost all about the cake and my photos. They wanted to embed the tweets as the captions were a big part of the story and Sherlock is “huge” in America. They said they had no money to pay but did pay agencies. In the end after consulting the wonderful folks on “Stop Working For Free”  I said not without payment and that I’d be happy to discuss it with the line manager, not least for the next time this situation arises for them and for me. In the end BBC America said they weren’t going to run a piece at all. The line manager never replied. But I learned informally, that BBC America’s legal advice was that they thought they could use my photos anyway under “fair use”. This seems outrageous.


I noticed The Poke distributed my tweet with a “via” crediting my twitter name, which I think is a bit poor (RT would be more honest, Poke) but they did link to my original tweet and crucially they didn’t post the image on their own website.

So I think there is some consensus on Twitter that you can reuse on Twitter, but using it in an original piece of work on a website is breaching copyright.

In any case, I’d welcome any views, guidance or actual guidelines that some of these organizations operate under. I’ve also contacted the NUJ about it as the freelance rates for photography and journalism don’t cover the unique nature of Twitter.  Twitter is an important profile building tool for journalists, but I fear it is the most vulnerable to exploitation.

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Big Girls Don’t Cry: Lord Rennard, Barbara Castle & women who make a fuss


When the Space Shuttle programme was grounded I wrote this big newspaper feature about how it left a generation, reared on the promise of deep space exploration, on the gantry of broken dreams. It was rather fine, I thought, and so did a lot of readers. But of course someone in the online comments whined that it was wrong to write about it at all when there was poverty and disease and war out there.

By this simplistic logic of a news hierarchy, of course, we should currently be reporting on nothing except the crisis of Syria. After all, what’s the misery of weeks of flooding in the Somerset Levels compared to the humanitarian crisis there? What’s the slashing of benefits? What does it matter if Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing has resulted in the US Government being forced to admit to the scale of data that it’s probing?

So it was interesting to see this argument deployed in the strange mess around fair legal process concerning the Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard and his refusal to apologize for alleged sexual harassment against 4 women; allegations which he denies.

In a piece headlined: “Lord Rennard case overshadows more serious issues of sexual politics”, the Guardian’s veteran political journalist  Michael White claimed just that. While saying no one should have to put with harassment, he wished for more of the gumption of a generation of tough postwar women MPs such as Barbara Castle who, in his view, ploughed through the challenges of the 70s cop-a-feel culture to stay focussed on passing important legislation on equal pay and child benefit that transformed the lives of millions of women. He argued in the conclusion to his piece that “Homophobia remains a lethal fact of life in many parts of the world…slavery, female genital mutilation and other horrors are still widely inflicted on women, even in Britain. A clammy hand on the knee is not quite the same.”

A number of prominent women in politics and journalism from a range of ideological view points objected on Twitter, including Beatrix Campbell who wrote: “You polarize economic versus culture. Feminists don’t.”

Michael White replied:

“We all have to choose. Today media (and you) have chosen this issue over ( say) Clegg’s speech yesterday on mental health issue.”

White was spot on in observing how Clegg’s enemies in the national press were exploiting the Rennard story to undermine him. But his claim of a lack of  “proportion” in how the story was being reported, revealed the double bind of tackling sexual harassment and indeed sexual discrimination. How often they are pushed down the pecking order by this logic.

Take the recent news that Birmingham Council is considering selling the NEC (National Exhibition Centre). The headlines suggested a poor local authority besieged by greedy lawyers. The more complex reality is that the council had for years insisted on fighting a legal battle against thousands of its women employees – many of them dinner ladies and care workers — who were paid significantly less than men doing jobs on the same grade, in blatant defiance of the Equal Pay Act.  The council eventually gave up and has been negotiating settlements with 11 thousand workers. From the start of the case though, the women were regularly accused of being “greedy” and of threatening their male colleagues’ jobs; both by the council and in some cases even by their own unions. It’s why some chose to pursue it via private lawyers; notably Stefan Cross, who, was dubbed in one newspaper profile The Most Hated Lawyer in Britain. He told The Justice Gap online magazine last year:

‘Throughout the entire period that we have been running these cases, that kind of bullying  has been levelled at women to frighten them off…The worst of it has come from trade unions…In Leeds there were  trade union officials going around kitchen by kitchen telling people not to put in claims. When we were organizing publicity, we were getting picketed by the unions. We had branch secretaries and stewards infiltrating meetings and bawling out our clients… They always want to protect the position of the men and they always keep that a secret.”

Barbara Castle, who pushed through the 1970 Equal Pay Act isn’t around to tell us what she thinks of either the Lord Rennard row or Birmingham Council’s woes. But  these two stories of women making a “fuss”, remind us to beware of who in politics is defining the pecking order and the battles worth fighting.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine

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The art of interviewing: Class notes (Feb 11th)

These are the examples/clips I used in today’s class:

The Q&A that goes with the flow: Tom Baker interview (Metro)

A great questionnaire format: Big Issue Letter To My Younger Self

Influential magazines/format: The “Who The Hell Does..” interview from Q magazine


Smash Hits magazine: Does your Mother play golf?

The longer profile/feature with use of setting/personal history: Floella Benjamin (The Independent) 

The profile based on interviewing everyone except your subject:

Peter Higgs (Radio 4 Profile programme)

The interview that goes “wrong” and makes even better copy:

Niall Ferguson:  (Daily Telegraph) The point of me isn’t that I’m good looking. It’s that I’m clever.”

The group interview/added news element: Oh! What A Lovely War: Why the battle still rages  (Matthew Sweet: Daily Telegraph)

The heart of the story: Tommy Robinson on Sunday Morning Live (BBC1): Also embedded at the top



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