The curious idea of museums

IWM First World War Galleries

The new WW1 galleries (Photo copyright Imperial War Museum)

This article originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for.

What are museums for these days? Are collections passé? Northampton City Council’s decision to sell off an ancient Egyptian statue to fund a museum extension, after striking a secret multimillion pound deal with the benefactor’s family, outraged many local citizens. They’re unconvinced that arts should be measured and managed only for the economic “value” of what you can buy with the cash.

Before the urge to “engage” and “outreach” meant ripping out displays in favour of button pressing, funny animated character narrations (Stephen Fry as a “hilarious” gold bullion bar in the Bank of England museum is a particularly jarring example) and giant soft play areas, I loved the labyrinthine nature of old institutions: Glass cases full of giant crystals and meteorites that filled a whole Gothic gallery of the Natural History Museum; halls of terrifying and exotic Pacific island jade weaponry, conch shell armour and shrunken heads in ethnography collections from London’s Horniman to Newcastle and Berlin’s Dahlem Museums; and the strange diving bells and aircraft that still wait for the curious in the further reaches of the Science Museum.

It’s true, that far too many museums had musty rooms, testament only to a love of labelling ordering and collecting. Just how many scale models of merchant navy ships made out of matchsticks does any museum need? But in the race to draw visitors used to theme parks and video gaming, what has been lost? For every success such as York’s Jorvik Centre, purpose built with a “ride” complete with smells and sounds to bring Viking England alive, there has been a local museum which opted to replace rich collections of real objects that carry stories and histories, with lights and dial displays that broke within a couple of years and looked worn and tired.

So what could be more challenging than the once in a generation refurbishment and building of new World War One Galleries in London’s Imperial War Museum? A Museum of which it was once said its three biggest problems in attracting a broader audience, were the 3 words in its name. Designed by the same firm behind the atmospheric refurbishment of the fascinating Churchill War Rooms) the gallery combines audio and visual effects with objects carefully selected for purpose. I look at a large unscrolled map of Europe spread across a dark wooden desk. It comes to life: animated figures with the heads of beasts leap and fight across it; wearing imperial uniforms and helmets. It’s magical and satirical and engaging. It makes me want to know more about the complex imperial posturing and arrogance that sparked the war.

The IWM’s historian James Taylor says the display was inspired by the animations in Tony Richardson’s 1968 film of The Charge of The Light Brigade – a film which saw the new talents of British social realism turn their deference-destroying attitude to British history. Said Taylor, “The brief was this is not just putting a book on the walls”.

A grey military coat of the Kaiser stands over the map – an ominous symbol of his uniform-loving presence in the pre-war mind of most Europeans. In front of him, a clockwork dreadnought toy – a reminder of how Germany’s toy industry fed Britain’s middle class fascination with naval might and national power. Displays on the Home Front run in parallel to the front line displays. Carefully chosen and enlarged photographs of thousands of shells in a munitions factory – disappearing into the horizon emphasise the scale of the support and industry that kept the war going year after year.

A case of simple rifles with bayonets, of the kind used at the Somme, seems a rare old-style display. And then Taylor points out how they’re carefully arranged in sight of a massive German machine gun, to show their uselessness in the face of mechanized slaughter.

IWM First World War trench

WW1 trench (photo copyright Imperial War Museum)

The walk through trench (above) is carefully stylized; not an “experience”. It uses silhouettes, a giant tank and sound to emphasise the claustrophobia and the greyness. At the end footage of shell shocked soldiers plays on a small screen. Wide-eyed men twitching and shaking, hiding under their hospital beds.

Of all the objects one stood out: The Manchester Guardian’s giveaway map issued to lucky readers at the start of the enthusiastically-supported Gallipoli campaign. For anyone who has felt unease at some of the plucky Tommy nostalgic commemorative news coverage of recent months, the Imperial War Museum, is proof of how these institutions can still tell us so much through the objects they keep.

Further reading/listening

War, Woods and WW1 (Radio 3 Free Thinking special programme June 2014)

Imperial War Museum website

Northampton Museum’s Sekhemka statue now in private hands (BBC News July 2014)

The Big Issue magazine

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Why doesn’t Wonder Woman wear a mask?

Limited Collectors' Edition JLA  VOL5 NO C46 AUG-SEPT 1976

My bicentennial Limited Collectors’ Edition JLA VOL5 NO C46 AUG-SEPT 1976

A thing I wrote for a recent Radio 4 programme pilot about “masked men”. Posted here today in honour of Linda Carter’s 63rd birthday.

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In bicentennial year 1976 on first trip to the USA, I first confronted the conundrum of Wonder Woman and masks in two companion comics I bought.

While most of her male superhero colleagues were white collar middle class drones, hiding their Don Draper-ness behind masked all in ones, Wonder Woman, with no mask, in her garish stars and stripes pants seemed to be hiding nothing and everything.

An illegal immigrant from some mysterious place. Only Superman shares an understanding and a mask free disguise in a pair of geek glasses. Wonder Woman’s mask was being smart and plain. Apart from a brief 60s Emma Peel style experiment as a karate kicking mod boutique owner, her alter ego Diana Prince was, depending on the era, a drab military intelligence officer, a multilingual tour guide at the United Nations, and only in the mid 70s getting some status as a UN “agent” of some kind. A talented worker bee in a state hive. In an office full of male colonels or detectives Diana Prince is often in the background, quietly overhearing crucial information.

Aged 8 I first saw Wonder Woman in a mask. In one comic, a white mask sent by an enemy attaches itself to her face. But in the companion issue, a reissue of one of creator William Marston’s original bondage themed stories from 1943, Wonder Woman is tied up in a leather gimp mask and heavy chains to try to escape from a tank of water; Houdini Style. It’s all for charity. A twisted and schizophrenic society girl, Priscilla Rich, aka The Cheetah, ties her up with her own unbreakable lasso.

Wonder Woman escapes of course, tearing off that leather mask with her teeth, and maintains a kind of chaste innocence throughout. Like a lot of women who began work in World War 2, she just gets on with things, whatever the male idiocy around her. And a battle is set up in the comics of controlled and seething female emotions that can be unleashed for good or ill. There is plenty of testosterone fuelled madness, too. But in the hands of its male writers, Wonder Woman’s mask-less Amazonian super power is balanced by her alter-ego: an invisibility mask of ordinary female-ness. And a lot of bondage imagery.



Posted in Children, Comics/graphic novels, Culture, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Uncategorized, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Monty Python’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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Photo copyright: via Neil Reading PR

We reviewed the opening night of Monty Python Live (Mostly) on Radio 4′s Front Row on Wednesday with journalist Stephen Armstrong. You can hear it (top item) on that link till Wed 9th July. This is some of the stuff we couldn’t fit in about its aesthetic and my theory that it’s worth comparing to a concept album.

From the moment you see Terry Gilliam’s magnificent red velvet outsize Victorian music hall set design the association with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the visuals of Yellow Submarine is fixed. About the only facts in the jokey programme seemed to be the Pythons’ birthdates –making them pretty much the same age as the Beatles and formed by the same aesthetic influences: music hall songs, the fading Victorian detritus of theatres and costumes, green one pound notes, bowler hats and those weird knotted handkerchiefs British men would wear on their heads at the beach till the 1970s. They now exist only within the nostalgic bubble of the Monty Python TV show. The show is the period piece and acts as a kind of last collective act of living memory.

“It’s rather like the Rolling Stones performing satisfaction,” observed Stephen Armstrong when we discussed it. “No one wants a hiphop version by Mick Jagger. What you want is a note for note rendition of the 60s single you love.” The wheeled on giant boxes — sets of living rooms and offices for the usually sedentary sketches with the performers already seated within  — are bell jar museum displays of long gone studio bound programme making: flying ducks on the wall, dragged up women in hair wraps and curlers, an arid 60s TV science show set. (John Cleese in drag as a strangely taciturn scientist is perhaps his best moment, invoking that gimlet stare for actual humorous effect.)

So the performance is a kind of concept album rendition. Some sketches had been segued quite beautifully – notably the Dead Parrot into the Cheese shop. Terry Gilliam’s surreal animations benefit from being blown up onto the giant screens either side. They still are remarkable art. There is the added poignancy of 4 old men doing the 4 Yorkshiremen sketch and Michael Palin stands out for genuine acting that creates unexpectedly moving moments — notably in the We’re Protestants sketch from The Meaning of Life in which Terry Jones in drag wistfully imagines an active sex life.

If the Dead Parrot sketch is the Python To Be Or Not To Be moment from Hamlet, Palin proves his acting skills again. It sounded totally fresh from him. And his comic timing — knowing exactly when to come in on the downward sweep of audience laughter before it’s quite apparent it’s passed the crest — is the mark of a serious professional we ought to see a lot more of in screen and stage drama.

Eric Idle showed a similarly impressive level of real acting skill (Nudge Nudge fresh and somehow sweetly sad rather than creepy now). Terry Jones seemed delighted to be there, and can still pull off a touching frustrated housewife. Terry Gilliam gurns with good will throughout and  spills his guts impressively from a high wire. John Cleese corpsed a lot and struggled vocally with a hoarseness till well into the second half. Nerves? Recovering from a cold? Weak vocal chords? His strength: the roles that play to coldness and fear (I’m here for an Argument).

The Arlene Phillips dancers were slick but, the Sit On My Face Ballet apart, too often evoked the tired retro feel of Hot Gossip in their sexy underwear by Agent Provocateur as the programme carefuly listed. (All the technical support, in every sense,  has been brought in from the most professional names.) Though the energetic young male singer leading the Finland number was rather a welcome youthful presence, as the once cute Pythons watched him and smiled as if at the ghost of their former selves.

The “camp” songs about mincing sailors seem to have (mostly?) lost their homophobic air. But is that more about modern Britain than about Python? While Carol Cleveland in the same carefully chosen and edited Dollybird roles has similarly neutralised the sometimes unpleasant sting of the originals.

The Blackmail song about the tabloid press and I Like Chinese, despite some updated lyrics about copyright and economic boom exposed their weakness. What after all is sparky about the Top Gear presenters being blackmailed for sleaziness in the face of Jeremy Clarkson’s mealy mouthed  N-word “apology” expressed through his tabloid column? The best sketches were the absurdist or the high brow (the original philosophers’ football match was played out on the film screen).

The little insert with celebrity scientists filmed on the backs in Cambridge seemed a nod to the Oxbridge intellectual seedbeds in which Monty Python sprouted. The “merch-o-meter” animation that ticked on the big screen on the interval captured the whole apologetic tone of the set up and its money making that’s characterised this operation ever since the original press conference. A clever way  — Boris Johnson-esque even — in playing the buffoon with a razor sharp focus on keeping on target. There was no shouting of punchlines, but they are under the skin of the national psyche. We were all thinking them as part of a giant mind cloud.

Stephen Armstrong: “The way they interacted it felt very warm to me. By the end when they come on in their white tuxedos [incidentally another image that evokes the Beatles - their Magical Mystery Tour film ] basically what it is: It’s 5 old men having fun in front of a bunch of people and it’s hard to be angry with that and it’s hard to be too critical. They’ve probably pulled it off – largely the same broad joke for the last 40 years.”

So it was a happening. A sixties’ “you had to be there” vibe. To see the guys do their thing. To remember Graham Chapman. And only the meanest curmudgeon could begrudge the gentle, nostalgic and generous mood of the night. In fact all you need is love.

Front Row: BBC Radio 4 review of Monty Python Live (Almost) Available till July 9th

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To go or not to go: The freakonomics of the school reunion

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine: Journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors across the UK or by subscription.

“My generation thought we’d fix the world for free. We were LBJ (Lyndon B J cohnson) technocrats.” Waiting for other guests to arrive for a radio programme, I’ve got chatting to the unassuming social scientist who is smiling at the memory of youthful ambition. Professor Steven Levitt is the economist half of the hugely successful Freakonomics partnership, with journalist Stephen Dubner, that’s spawned a range of global best selling books which have made economics cool and fun. I don’t think he’d mind being described as the geekier of the two. He’s also professor of economics at the University of Chicago and runs a consultancy that offers the Freakonomics style of advice to governments as well as corporations.

But we are discussing a dilemma. Levitt and I graduated the same year 1989 and he is wondering about going back to his undergraduate university reunion. It’s not any reunion either. It’s the 25th. And it’s not any University. It’s Harvard.

Harvard likes high achievers. Every year it produces a special bound leather volume – the Red Book – for which alumni are invited to submit their life updates. Then, those who care to, can buy a copy and play the Gloat and Envy game.

Levitt has always steered clear. He shakes his head and admits “I’ve never gone back.” But this year all his friends, his “geekiest” friends, say he should, he must. Because they love that he’s one of them and he made it. So what did the generation of ‘89 go on to do?

As at Britain’s elite universities, many of Levitt’s Harvard contemporaries went into high finance as Masters of the Universe on Wall Street or in the City of London. Levitt says highly lucrative corporate law was the biggest draw. But age and inner yearning do strange things. Levitt says, over the years, he picked up on the grapevine the sense that “corporate lawyers also seem to be the unhappiest.”

“You know what was most surprising?” says Levitt, recalling the expectation that they’d go off and change the world: “How many of my year went back to Cleveland Ohio. Or wherever and became lawyers and doctors and professionals in their home towns.”

Levitt was pinpointing, in an entirely positive way, the gap between the Harvard bombast students heard all the time from the institution, and the reality. To take a great education and use it in one’s community wherever that might be was something to be admired.

Those of us who distrust reunions, I suspect, were desperate to get away and uncover our possibilities in a larger world; and have a genuine dislike of being put back in a labelled box.

But others, perhaps those who’d been beauty queens and the coolest dudes, secretly mourn the loss of their student days. John Waters famously tracked down the  buddy Deane Baltimore TV show high school dancers, still sharing that bond in their late 30s for a brilliant and  sweet article for Baltimore magazine that inspired his film Hairspray.  Less positively and yet to be analysed by the Freakonomists, has been the measurable Friends Reunited/Facebook effect since the late 1990s on divorce rates for those seeking an escape from middle age.

By chance I found myself at a reunion of sorts a few days after my conversation with Levitt. It was an award ceremony for alumni from my old girls’ schools association. Yet the highlight was finding myself not with the high-achieving grownups, but in a side-room gossiping with all the sixth formers; even though I am so old that, as one 17 year old told me: “I grew up from a baby watching you on the news!” Before I knew it, and without the excuse of being drunk, I found myself pouring out unrequested life advice for them, Kirsty Allsopp-style. They were polite and let me and I left with a smile for the life of possibilities ahead of them.

So did Levitt go to his Harvard reunion? It seems he did, where according to the website programme they got talks on parenting in a complicated world and from the eminent doctors of their generation on “How to stop things falling off” in your 40s. I hope he writes about it.

I prefer to watch reunions on the screen. The year I left school (1986) was luckily memorialized forever in two great films Romy and Michelle’s High school Reunion and Grosse Pointe Blank. And as Minnie Driver said in the latter: “Everybody’s coming back to take stock of their lives. You know what I say? Leave your livestock alone.”

Further reading/listening

The Forum: BBC Word Service (Jun 2014): Challenging assumptions  The programme recording that spawned this post.

The Harvard Red Book: New York Times feature (2012)

Harvard 1989 25th reunion website

Jailed: the executive who asked a hitman to kill her ex (Daily Mail 2007) – A Friends Reunited linked crime I covered as a reporter for Channel 4 News

Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (Chapter 9 is the article on the Buddy Deane dancers)

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The Outer Limits: A fantastic voyage

“To God there is no zero. I still exist.” – Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man screenplay (1957)

The summer solstice  has just passed — marking the extreme tipping point of the earth’s axis and the longest day. It was the inspiration for this week’s Something Understood programme for BBC Radio 4.  I wanted to explore the human urge to push at the limits of what is physically possible: In space, deep in the oceans and within the submicroscopic world, It was in the 50s and 60s that films and books seemed to revel in fantasies of  inner space, in such films as The Fantastic Voyage and Richard Matheson’s book and film of The Shrinking Man. (Spoiler alert: The programme features a reading from the very end of the book.)

There was even a theme park ride — Disneyland’s Journey into Inner Space — that claimed to shrink you inside a water molecule. Aged just 8 when I rode it, I remember holding my hand up in the darkness and wondering if it might really be true. It was the last time I was ever fooled by such a stunt.

The Shard in London proves a useful starting point to contemplate human arrogance. But The Tower of Babel from Genesis seems a more ambivalent story, about trying to block the instinctive human pursuit of knowledge, too. And pushing at the limits of human knowledge and experience is what the programme celebrates.

Dr Kevin Fong from University College London offers insights from his work on medical extremes with astronauts at NASA and with free divers — who have continued to break each set of new defined parameters of medical safety to plunge without breathing apparatus. There’s a reading from the biologist William Beebe who was the first to plunge to new depths in a bathysphere

And the programme features music pushing at the limits of sound; played on instruments made of ice, and the vocal chords pushed to the outer limits: notably Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria from the The Magic Flute.

The outer limits.. Investigating skyscrapers, outer space, deep oceans & the incredible shrinking man for R4. from Samira Ahmed on Vimeo.

Hinduism’s use of stories to impart cosmic ideas about time and cycles of creation and destruction has an especial affinity with concepts of modern cosmology and particle physics. There’s even a statue of Lord Shiva at the Large Hadron collider in Cern.  In the programme I explore the story of the 3 main gods of Hinduism – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva — searching for the source of a Pillar of Light that stretches vertically up into infinite space and down deep into the infinite ocean.  Superficially it’s a simple tale of rivalry as Vishnu and Brahma race in opposite directions to be the first to find the starting point. But it’s clearly a cosmic lesson on the scale of the universe and man’s place in it.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Demeter brings us full circle to the promise and loss of the limits of the seasons as the earth tilts each way on its axis and her daughter, Persephone, emerges with the Equinox from the winter of the Underworld in the spring.

Something Understood: The Outer Limits is on Radio BBC 4 on Sunday June 29th at 6am and 1130pm and on this link  and iplay for 7 days after. The programme page has  a playlist of all readings and music. It’s produced by Natalie Steed and is a Whistledown Production.

Further reading

Richard Matheson on the writing of The Shrinking Man

The Shadow of Shiva at Cern

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Arnold Bennett: Edwardian Superstar

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All photos (except film still) copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use without permission

These are photos taken on location for Arnold of the Five Towns, my Radio 4 documentary about why this hugely popular and successful writer has fallen from fashion and why he still speaks to modern Britain. It’s on Monday 23rd June at 4pm and iplayer for 7 days after. Listen here with links to lots of the places we visited. And I wrote a feature about it for the BBC News website too, which features 5 recommended reads for those new to Arnold Bennett. The Clayhanger trilogy is probably my favourite, but I left it off a list aimed at  newcomers. Apologies in advance for those who disagree.

I conceived the programme as a kind of sequel to I Dressed Ziggy Stardust and it’s also produced by the very talented Alice Bloch. Like David Bowie, Arnold Bennett seemed a man from modest roots who focused on making it in London. He dreamed big, taught himself art and music and literature, and became a superstar through talent and hard work; not connections or birth. I’d like to thank all our interviewees, (including those we sadly couldn’t squeeze into the final 27 and half minute edit) in Stoke-on-Trent and London and especially thank The Arnold Bennett Society and Alex Manisty for their time and advice.  It was my English  teacher at Wimbledon High School, the late Ann Kirman, who put The Old Wives’ Tale on her A-level list of Great English Literature for me in 1984, which 30 years later, inspired this programme. Thankyou Mrs Kirman.

On Robert Elms’ BBC London show on Saturday (listen from 40 min 30 sec) in discussing Bennett’s swinging Edwardian London locations,  I ran out of time to mention Myddleton Square – location of Bennett’s remarkable novel Riceyman Steps. I wanted to mention Ken Titmuss does a guided walk of the area, featuring the location.

Further reading/listening

Alice and I will be on Radio Stoke  discussing the programme at about 1210pm on Monday June 23rd.

In Celebration of the Unknown Arnold Bennett (My BBC News Website feature)

What if…? HG Wells, Arnold Bennett and your alternative future (Big Issue Jan 2014)

Arnold Bennett blogspot - great insights into locations, inspiration and the novels



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Don Johnson on being a man’s man and “toooo much oestrogen”

BBC copyright

BBC copyright

I interviewed Don Johnson yesterday for BBC Radio 4′s Front Row programme about his new film Cold In July.  Two things that stood out — the way he deploys a disarming exaggerated twang to the end of phrases and words on screen and in conversation: “previous address unknooon.” And the down to earth, even detached attitude to the business.

It was an interesting meander around playing the ultimate male fantasy role, Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice, the “ten days of sheer terror” when he started playing Nathan Detroit in Guys n’ Dolls on the London stage (“Oh God, I’ve made a horrible mistake”) and being a cult figure to Quentin Tarantino who remembers films that Johnson can’t even remember making. Johnson said it was “to do with a certain persona that men identify with in me. And there’s some men you can watch on the screen and they’re not threatening to you. They just embody all the things that either you want to be or are trying to be. It’s just an energy.”

We also talked about how he feels about his daughter, Dakota  playing the lead in the film of Fifty Shades of Gray. He had an interestingly choice of words on that about actors just playing characters: “Sometimes they’re slavers and sometimes they are the slaves”. The interview also covers the issue of women’s roles in Hollywood as highlighted by the fact that the only female parts in Cold in July are abused hookers and a scared wife.

Lost in the edit was when I asked about discussing career choices with fellow dude’s dude co-star Sam Shepard. There aren’t many rom coms in Don Johnson’s IMDB listing. Would he have liked to have been in Steel Magnolias? (Shepard played Dolly Parton’s husband). Don Johnson laughs and deploys that twang. “Noooooo, Too much oeeeeestrogen.”

Incidentally I also liked the way he said Fuck, YEAH” with relish as he took his first sip of black coffee. But that  wasn’t going to get on air right after The Archers either.

You can listen again here for more than a year.

Downloadable podcast version.




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Didn’t we do well? Gameshows & the Iron Curtain

  The Generation Game 1974: The conveyor belt (start at 6.30″)

You’ve won a crystal decanter and glasses! (Big ooh from the audience). Back in the 1970s and 80s when the Independent Broadcasting Authority capped the value of commercial tv gameshow prizes at a few thousand pounds, this was a classy win. It’s easy to laugh at now and films such as Time Bandits (1981) mocked the materialist obsessions of Britain at the time. The young hero’s parents are more interested in decanters, two speed hedge cutters and blenders and the Devil’s parody show Your Money Or Your Life.

But reading about Intervision – the Communist Bloc’s answer to the Eurovision Song Contest recently, I was struck by the same prize turning up there, too. At the 1977 Intervision Contest – 19 year old Roza Rymbaeva won a decanter and six glasses, courtesy of the Baltic Shipping Company. “That was my first ever trip to Europe,” she recalled to the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg in 2012. “It was a huge responsibility representing such a giant country as the USSR. To return home without a prize would have been very unpleasant.”

The prize represented something different for those trapped in the world of Soviet propaganda. And yet was capitalist aspiration as it existed in Britain in the 70s, really that far from socialist dreams? Think of the wide-eyed delight of couples watching that conveyor belt of home accessories on The Generation Game. Or BBC1’s Double or Drop on Crackerjack where children answered questions while clutched teetering piles of British made Spears Games and cabbages.

In 1970 only a quarter of British homes had central heating and there were no stacks of DVDs, disposable electrials and high street fashion made in Asian sweatshops. Things were made to last and we mended them ourselves. I consult journalist and Outlaws Inc author Matt Potter, whose knowledge of British and Communist era game shows is truly magnificent.

Game show prizes he observes, “were more than just the stuff that they are now. They were passports to a new life. Decanters were for wine in a depressed island swilling with Watney’s Red Barrel…A music centre that played vinyl albums would have been considered a companion for life.”

Meanwhile behind the Iron Curtain the authorities combined contempt for this “decadent manifestation of American TV culture” with a need to incentivise the public and reward effortful service to the Motherland; starting with contests to celebrate sport, or best engineer or factory worker. TV shows, says Potter “had names like Festival Salute and Sports Family. Rounds of the gameshow involved things like learning languages from phrasebooks well enough to communicate with a visitor from communist Cuba, or devising helpful new systems of signage for traffic. They actually sound fantastic.. As if Dragon’s Den were about society-wide benefits, not individual entrepreneurship.” Ah the modern British obsession with entrepreneurship. Let’s come back to that later.

“And the prizes!” says Potter. “They were almost invariably without consumer value: Scholarships, medals, ranks, certificates. There were garlands of flowers “for the lady to go home with”. There were small wooden and metal trophies… emblems…monogrammed wearables..” Decanters and glasses.

Here in Britain, too, we had Blue Peter badges you could only get for serious achievement; the neo-Soviet trophy for physical and problem solving prowess on The Krypton Factor, or the prize of being shown on Take Hart’s Gallery with no returns of original artwork possible. When in 2006 news broke of Blue Peter badges being traded on eBay and abused for their privileges the only surprise was that it had taken so long. For what was it but entrepreneurial logic? And even the Scouts have a Merit badge for that now.

Which brings me back to not so much Dragon’s Den, but The Apprentice. Potter and I wonder how did we get to a situation when winning a job – a job!? — via humiliating manipulations, is a grand prize?

There’s something quite poignant about how Blankety Blank (launched in 1979) mocked the idea of big cash wins, and indeed banking, with its booby prize fake cheque book and pen. But today finding an affordable home to rent or buy is like entering some kind of extreme stakes gameshow. Like Time Bandits we are all trapped in a rigged game; encouraged by some politicians to think of ourselves competing with dodgy immigrants, benefit scroungers, in fact anyone except the banks and big business interests. Perhaps it’s time to take our eyes off the prize and focus on who makes the rules of the game.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Buy from street vendors or subscribe via the website.

Further reading

UK Game show records website

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Nigel Farage & BBC’s UKIP election coverage: Nick Robinson on the “marmite” politician

This is the full transcript of my interview with the BBC’s Political Editor Nick Robinson for this week’s edition of Newswatchabout BBC News coverage of the Local and European Parliamentary elections. A slightly shorter version was used in transmission. The BBC received more than a 1,000 viewer complaints. You can view Newswatch every Friday on the Newschannel at 845pm, Saturday on BBC1 745am or on iplayer for a year after. 

SAMIRA: Were your interviews with Nigel Farage before the election too personal and too aggressive?

NICK: I don’t think they were too personal. I don’t think they were too aggressive either. I did take a view that Nigel Farage was likely to be at the centre of the  election campaign, that it was widely predicted by all parties that UKIP could win the European elections, and that Mr Farage had done a lot of clips for news programmes, usually with a pint in the hand, usually with a smile on his face, usually, frankly, inviting him to comment on others, rather than being interrogated on his own opposition. And I thought it was right to do that,. Now I asked about his wife because he in public talks about ‘my German wife’, he often does it, and he unveiled a poster warning that people coming over from the EU were taking British people’s jobs. Since he employs, her, since he employs her at the taxpayers’ expense, I thought it was perfectly legitimate to ask about why he did that, rather than employing a British person, which seemed consistent with his poster.


SAMIRA: It’s clear that Nigel Farage divides viewers, and indeed voters, and we’ve certainly had complaints from both sides. I’m interested that after the interviews apparently skewering him, his ratings seemed to go up, and I wondered what you made of his relationship with voters and viewers?


NICK: Well, there is absolutely no doubt that he’s a sort of marmite politicians, isn’t he? You either love him or loathe him. And the BBC gets flak for either giving him too much flak, and on the other hand we get flak for giving him far too much airtime as well. And people feel that deeply. They either think he’s the saviour of the country, the guy who tells it like it is, or they tend to think he’s dangerous, and he shouldn’t get the coverage he gets. And in a sense we have to at the BBC, I have to, be immune to all that. I can’t do interviews working out if it’ll help this politicians, or hinder this politicians, give them a boost in the ratings or not. What you have to do is think what is a fair, what is a legitimate, what is the proper question to ask someone, which interrogates them about their position, as well as giving them the chance to make their views known. As it happens UKIP’s ratings did go up, but Mr Farage’s personal ratings went down. But I really couldn’t care less whether they go up, down, flat – not my job. That’s up to voters what they do. My jobs is to say, is this a fair and proper question, and I think it was.


SAMIRA: Can we talk about the English local election coverage? There was talk on the BBC of a political earthquake, a seismic shift, a surge for UKIP. And if you look at the actual result, they only got 163 seats compared with over 2,000 for Labour, and control no councils. And their share of the vote actually went down. Many say the BBC tone was exaggerating the reality to UKIP’s great benefit, and unfair to other parties.


NICK: Well in particular I think Labour supporters got deeply frustrated that they’d made many gains, indeed the most gains of councils and councillors, and votes. They feel – I know, I get these messages myself – that wasn’t properly and fairly represented. We did report that, though it’s worth remembering that the results got much better into Friday, than they were overnight Thursday night into Friday morning. So the picture come Friday night was much better and healthier for Labour than it had been the night before, and at the time people were switching on their radios, or televisions, or downloading the internet first thing Friday morning. The point we were making, again and again, was to report the facts – you always got in all the coverage who gained this, and who gained that – but also we’re there to add analysis, and interpretation. And the truth is every psephologist – the guys, in other words, who study elections, whether it’s Professor John Curtice we hire, Peter Kellner, the head of YouGov who was in the studio – all agreed that these results were not good enough for Labour to be confident of winning the next election. They only had a lead of about 1% over the Conservatives. They were not as good as other oppositions had done at a similar time in this sort of situation before an election. UKIP on the other hand have made a breakthrough. They were no longer just a European party. They were finding a base in local councils, not just in the south against the Tories, but in the north against Labour they were making gains. They were establishing themselves as the fourth party of English politics – they went on to do it of British politics at the European elections – but we were right to point that out. Just one last thought, Samira – I didn’t say there was an earthquake. I quoted Nigel Farage predicting there would be an earthquake, and in my coverage on the morning news said that we’d feel the first tremors. It wasn’t until we got to the European elections that I then went on and said people had doubted there was an earthquake, there certainly now had been.


SAMIRA: Well let’s talk about the European parliamentary elections. UKIP clearly won. But again, many viewers are concerned that the BBC’s coverage of it had been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some see the BBC as a cheer-leader for UKIP.


NICK: I know there is that feeling, but I have to say I think it’s wrong. Why do I think it’s wrong? Because the big rise in UKIP’s poll ratings happened before this campaign. In other words, it happened long before Mr Farage was getting onto the television day in and day out. There already had been a surge, indeed a year ago UKIP had got a record-breaking performance at the local council, the county council as it was then, elections last May. And therefore you can’t make that link between recent coverage and his performance.


SAMIRA: We got the same complaints over last year’s elections, I think that’s what’s key. People feel the BBC’s been building them up for more than a year.


NICK: Well, what the BBC has to do is to give, or to try to give fair coverage to politicians. And the way this is done, in case people wonder how it‘s done, is by studying how parties have done in the past, how many seats they’ve got, for example, how they did in a general election or a local election, or a Euro election; then also look at their current poll ratings, And decisions are made not by the likes of me, not even by my editors, but we have a Chief Political Adviser, whose job is to advise our regulators, the BBC Trust, who make a judgement: who gets roughly what share of coverage. His decision, which was echoed entirely by ITV and Channel 4 and Sky’s regulator, Ofcom, was that UKIP should get equal coverage to the big three parties in the European elections. It was a national vote. They performed very well in 2009, the last European elections, they were performing in the opinion polls in a way that suggested they may come first, and therefore a decision was taken, if you like by our regulators, that being fair and balanced meant giving UKIP the same level of coverage as the Conservatives, as Labour, as the Liberal Democrats.


SAMIRA: Some people are really alarmed, as you know, by the rise of UKIP. And one way minority parties become part of the mainstream is with the help of media attention. Do you feel a responsibility here?


NICK: Well, if you mean, do I think we should censor, or hold back, or hesitate before covering a party that gets a quarter of the votes, absolutely not. Who people vote for is up to them. It is not up to the BBC to judge individual parties, to make a decision about whether we agree with them or not, whether we think they’re savoury or not, whether we like their view or not, and then judge our coverage accordingly. We just can’t do that. Every person in this country is obliged by law to pay watch their television, radio and online. They are entitled to see the full range of views before them, and to make their own decisions. Look, I remember some of the similar conversations about the rise of the British National Party, and Nick Griffin. The BBC took a decision, very controversial at the time, to put Nick Griffin on Question Time. Let me stress, I am not saying Nigel Farage and UKIP are the same as the BNP, just that there was a similar anger among a section of the audience. A decision was made, I think rightly, that people must make their own minds, not have their minds made up for them, by people here in this newsroom.


SAMIRA: BBC News analysis presented both the Euro and the local votes to viewers largely as a Westminster guide to how people might vote in a general election. Very little on issues important in the local elections, or of the European Parliament, either during the campaign or after. That’s failing to do the job, surely?


NICK: I think there is a downside about that, but it’s not all the coverage. So if you listen to your local radio station, if you watch your regional TV news, if you read online, you will see stories about Sheffield council, or stories about any other council, reported in terms of that – the councils, the decisions they’re taking. It simply isn’t realistic that at a national level we can do that, so the elections we do see through a prism of what it means for a general election. And there is a long history of local elections being a pretty good guide as to what will happen. On the European Parliament, I think that is a fair criticism. I think there certainly was coverage around. My own colleague from Westminster, a man called Ben Wright, a political correspondent, was sent to Brussels in order to make sure that we gave more of a European perspective to those elections. He did examine who did what level of work and what positions they took, but I think it is a fair criticism that we need to constantly think about how do we explain to people exactly what a Member of the European Parliament does, and what the differences are between people who represent one party, and who represent another.

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People at work: Richard III & the 60s Town Planner

Haymarket shopping centre, Leicester 1974 (image by

Haymarket shopping centre, Leicester 1974 (image by

This piece connected the Richard III exhumation to Leicester’s repentence for sins against its medieval past. Thought it worth reposting as the High Court ruled in favour of a “dignified” burial in the city. Full details and judgement here. 

Maybe you used to associate Leicester mainly with Joe Orton and the fetishistic possibilities of its hosiery and footwear industrial past. Oh, and the best Diwali celebrations outside of India, of course. But not any more.

When archaeologists at Leicester University identified the remains of Richard III they did more than solve a great historical mystery and draw attention to the importance and excitement of archaeology, to the value of diligent study and the achievements of their own institution.


It is a key part of the narrative that Richard III was found under a car park. For when his remains of a medieval monarch were respectfully uncovered and his reputation restored from the Tudor bias of Shakespeare’s version, Leicester, which had been only the second UK city to appoint a town planner in 1962, implicitly broke a link with that ignoble past of municipal town planning.

In the 50s and 60s regional councils all over the nation, in thrall to American urban design, forced their wretchedly provincial versions on us: dual carriageways through city centres (yes, Birmingham, I mean you) and concrete shopping malls (sorry Milton Keynes I tried to love you but I failed). Long unpleasant tunnels and passageways where muggers could lurk. The rain stained concrete that turned an especially British shade of damp grey-brown and provided the likes of JG Ballard and Stanley Kubrick with the settings for their dystopian fantasies.

Leicester’s elected City Mayor Peter Soulsby acknowledges the irony of how his city is reconnecting with its past: “Till the middle of 20th century the city thought of itself as a manufacturing place,” he says. “When a lot of those [factories] closed Leicester rather lost confidence and connection with its own history. And there was the physical separation with the inner ring road making way for the motor car. It left the modern shopping centre on one side and old historic city on the other side. [City planners] carved an underpass in the 1960s through the site of the Roman forum. They left the medieval castle hall and Norman castle motte and Saxon church and roman masonry on the wrong side of the ring road.”


My own home town, Kingston-Upon-Thames (a Royal borough no less) was carrying out that kind of vandalism well into the 80s and it’s captured in a Ladybird book.  “In a Big Store” (1973) featured the grand department store Bentalls on the cover. Inside is a picture of the old medieval market place, still very much looking as it did 500 years ago, as an illustration of the old fashioned way of doing things.

The town took its name from the fact that several Anglo Saxon kings were crowned there. Now the reputed Coronation stone sits forlorn inside some Victorian railings. The ancient medieval market place is still there, with its halftimbered houses, gold statue of Queen Anne and a magnificent heritage listed oak carved Tudor staircase, (which endures inside a branch of Next). But a casual visitor would never know from the 3 and sometimes 4 lane carriageways that encircle it.

Photo copyright:

Photo copyright:

Kingston’s riverside, just a couple of miles from Hampton Court, is an ugly scar. Look either side of beautiful Kingston Bridge and all views are blocked by towering Lego-style brick behemoths: bombastic luxury flats, a John Lewis that sits over and astride the road like a Transformer, a solicitors’ office block the colour of manure.


The 1930s grandeur of the Bentalls department store , captured in that Ladybird book was torn down in the 80s and rebuilt as the Bentall Centre mall. How appropriate that it was the inspiration for JG Ballard in his consumerist dystopia Kingdom ComeHe was particularly taken by the audio-animatronic bears that used to greet visitors.

Leicester City Mayor Soulsby spent 30 years as councillor including time as Council leader before becoming a Labour MP and now the city’s first elected Mayor. He admits there is regret for the desecration for the past. “We can’t make it go away. But we can tame it.” The new plans for a Richard III permanent museum have just got planning permission and are part of a strategy to reintegrate the old and the new.

The ancient city of York, already brimming with tourism and heritage, is fighting via judicial review to bring Richard III’s remains to their Minster. But Leicester’s case has great moral virtue too. With its years of work by the University’s archaeologists, it’s not just about a physical reconnection, but a spiritual one too. Let’s hope other towns can take inspiration from it.

A version of this column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine in November 2013.

Further reading

The man who built modern Leicester: from the University of Leicester website


Posted in Books, Business/Economics, Culture, Design, History, Media, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments