Is there a transphobic equivalent to blacking up?

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I wrote a piece for the BBC News website today, originally commissioned about the idea of white actors playing black roles, but I wanted to explore further issues Juliet Jacques had touched on when she came on Front Row recently to review the much acclaimed Tangerine. 10 years after Felicity Huffman, a straight woman was Oscar nominated for Transamerica, were we getting closer to the end of “impersonation” or is that unfair on actors? What is authentic when it comes to gender as opposed to race? And what about disability? How does it compare to the Daniel Day Lewis type physical transformation to play disability as in My Left Foot? Eddie Redmayne by coincidence has  followed up an Oscar nominated performance as Steven Hawking with The Danish Girl.  The Zoolander 2 trailer furore especially prompted me to ask if the Cumberbatch throwaway caricature was an  equivalent to old style mocking “blacking up”.   I haven’t written a post answering all those questions, but here is the full version of the thoughtful answers Juliet Jacques gave me about some of the issues for my BBC piece:
1. What do you make of the news headlines around portrayals of trans characters (e.g. the non-professional performers in Tangerine and the instant controversy over Benedict Cumberbatch’s cameo in Zoolander 2)? Is it just a coincidence, or is something changing in general public awareness?

Trans people are entering the mainstream media, and are challenging some of the ways that we have traditionally been portrayed (or appropriated) by outsiders. In film, this means questioning the ways that trans characters have been played by cisgender actors: sympathetic representations of trans women have often been clichéd, with lots of discussion of hormones and surgery as well as visual tropes (putting on make-up in a mirror, wearing pink). There is a long history of underground film getting trans actors to play trans characters and moving beyond these stereotypes, showing far more realistic individuals. As trans writers have broken into newspapers and magazines, we have been able to start a dialogue about the limits of using cis actors, and the possibilities of casting trans ones.

2. Crucially, with your long term perspective as a critic how far has there been real change in representation on screen? If you have any examples that would be great.

Recent films such as Gun Hill Road or Tangerine, which use trans actors (in both cases, non-professionals picked specifically for the role) draw on a tradition of semi-improvised movies that draw on the actors’ lives to form the characters. This spans from Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s films with Candy Darling and others in the 1970s, Rosa von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls (1983) to Sébastien Lifshitz’s Wild Side (2004). At the same time, higher-budget studios more reliant on ‘star’ actors are still using people such as Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne at trans characters, and lots of the discourse around them focuses on how good they look, or the challenges of playing the role – the humanity of trans people gets lost in that, I think. That’s before you get onto the use of trans bodies or identities in films from Ace Ventura (1994) to The Hangover: Part II (2011), that get laughs out of the idea that trans people are undesirable, and/or that having sex with one is shameful – the jokes about our genitalia in the Zoolander 2 trailer are nothing new.

3. Will cis actors playing trans characters become like “blacking up”? I haven’t seen The Danish Girl yet, but I wonder if in 10 years such a performance will seem odd in the same way?

I don’t like the ‘blacking up’ analogy – trans people have different issues with ‘passing’ and ‘stealth’ in a transphobic society than people of colour in a racist one. But many of the contemporary portrayals of trans people by cis actors look dated now – I think they’re only going to look worse in a decade’s time.

Further reading/sources quoted in my BBC article:
The Mountaintop white Martin Luther King casting controversy (November 2015):
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The search for TV’s first interracial kiss and why it matters

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This is the story behind the BFI’s news today that it may have found the earliest TV interracial kiss. Though in response there are already suggestions that it may not be the first.

A few months ago the team behind It Was Alright In the 60s found the 1964 episode of Emergency Ward Ten in which a rather touching love story between two doctors featured a beautiful kiss. They interviewed Joan Hooley, who got sacked as a result of the outrage generated.  Her character got sent to Africa and bitten by a snake. Yes. Actually that.  You can watch the episode on 4OD and listen to her talk about it on the BBC World Service here.

John White, Joan Hooley

John White, Joan Hooley

I suggested to the BFI we should show the clip in a panel discussion I’m chairing on race and romance as part of their Love season. Especially as this episode seemed to be the earliest interracial kiss on TV anywhere, as found by series producer Simon Harries and series editor Adam McLean. And not a forced performance for degenerate aliens  — the much cited but rarely understood Kirk/Uhura kiss in the Plato’s Stepchildren episode from Star Trek in 1968.

The BFI did its own digging and came back to me last week with the news that they’d found a clip from 1962 which seemed to move the seminal moment of that first kiss back even earlier: You In Your Small Corner. What’s more it was live. What’s more the character of the male protaganist is a Cambridge student. And that’s a whole discussion about what sort of background we give characters on TV today.

Drawing attention to race in romance feels odd now. But we know it still stirs negative feelings among some people and in the USA, the memory of interracial marriage being illegal in states such as Mississippi is very much a living one. Ask Alice Walker.

The panel features Adrian Lester, Art Malik and director Gurinder Chadha, whose Bhaji on the Beach tackles many taboos with warmth and humour, including racism within the Asian community in its portrayal of a black-Asian couple with an unplanned pregnancy. I should admit: That’s my mum incidentally as Asha, getting  a light, middle-aged flirtation with Peter Cellier as an English charmer in a boater and blazer.

Why does it matter? There is a tendency in modern retro TV to want to airbrush racism out of collective public memory. I take the opportunity yet again to cite Life on Mars. It Was Alright In The.. was marvellous for doing the opposite, and reminding us of the tension between older conservative viewers (the high ratings for The Black and White Minstrel Show) and those, increasingly younger people, who embraced social change. Through it all actors, writers, film and programme makers and citizens of every background, have fallen in love and sometimes tried to put such stories on screen. The role of TV in reflecting and driving social change and acceptance is important. Here’s a rare chance to celebrate and discuss it all with people who were part of such stories. We’ll be showing a lot of clips. And there’ll be a December 13th public screening of You In Your Small Corner, too, for a chance to watch the whole thing for the first time since transmission. Tickets via the BFI website:

You can buy tickets to the BFI Race and Romance event on Tuesday November 24th here

You can buy tickets to the BFI screening of You In Your Small Corner on  Sunday December 13th  here

Granada TV 1962. Dir Claude Whatham, With Lloyd Reckord, Elizabeth Maclennan, Ida Shepley, Charles Hyatt. 81min.

First presented at the Royal Court, Jamaican dramatist Barry Reckord’s ‘You in Your Small Corner’ is one of the earliest attempts to represent the Afro-Caribbean migrant experience from a non-white perspective on British television. Through the story of the relationship between Dave, a young middle-class West Indian (played by the writer’s brother, Lloyd Reckord), and his white, working-class girlfriend, Terry, and drawing on his own experience of attending Cambridge in the 1950s, Reckord brilliantly subverts the class expectations of the day – Dave’s mother strongly disapproving  of a girlfriend she regards as his intellectual inferior. It is this aspect of the play’s nuanced dissection of class and racism that the press picked up on at the time of its transmission and therefore remarkably the explicit portrayal of the physical relationship between Dave and Terry went largely unmarked, however this is indeed believed to be the world’s first interracial TV kiss including a marvellously unselfconscious post-coital scene. This fact alone however does not do justice to the quality of the play’s writing and all credit must go to Director Claude Waltham and Granada TV for holding their nerve so magnificently. Do not miss the opportunity to see this massively significant play in the history of British TV drama.

Further viewing

ITV News At Ten report Nov 21st 2015 on the discovery (watch from 27 min 40 sec)

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The Teen Within…

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This week’s Something Understood gives voice to people who I reckon are rarely heard on radio. Teenagers. The readings are all done by young actors and much of the music and poetry you’ll hear was written by them, or about that remarkable time in our lives.

We reflect on the surprisingly enduring template of the original teenager: There’s the 50s/early 60s dawn of the teen as captured in John Waters’ original, self-aware and comic Hairspray and its forerunner Girl Trouble as much as James Dean’s earnest Rebel Without A Cause.

Janis Ian’s anthem for ugly ducklings everywhere At Seventeen is no surprise, while Cat Stevens’ The Wind captures the solemnity and earnestness of young poets and musicians. But I’ve enjoyed re-visiting Claude Tardat’s Sweet Death – the acclaimed French satire I first encountered as a teenager myself, about a brilliant young student rebelling against her mother’s bourgeois perfection by – quel horreur – gorging herself to obese death.


Novelle Vague’s version of Teenage Kicks keeps up the French presence in our exploration of le Teenager. And Maxim Leo’s Red Love – gives a fascinating insight into an East German coming of age just before the Wall fell. It’s been one of my favourite non-fiction books of recent years and an important reminder of the power of state brainwashing on impressionable minds.  I take the opportunity to recommend it highly again now. But America – home of the Hollywood teen also offers up  John Steinbeck, a rare adult permitted in this story with his delightful advice to his son.

Time constraints meant we had to lose a great section on the Harlem Renaissance  with music by Chick Webb who came to New York at the age of 17, and a reading from a teenage school story with a difference: – Jessie Redmon Fauset’s  Plum Bum about a girl who “passes” for white.

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But Alom Shaha – author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook and Peter Capaldi’s Letter To My Younger Self (a terrific Big Issue feature when celebrities reflect on themselves at 16) are the highlights. Shaha generously agreed to talk to me about taking responsibility for his younger siblings when he was just 13, after his mother died.


He’s a wonderful example of how keeping in touch with one’s inner teen makes for the best kind of grown up. And Capaldi’s honest reflections on how he burned all his geek treasures as a teen, including signed photos and memorabilia from Peter Cushing “because I didn’t want to be a geek and I regret it to this day” – is a moving reminder that plenty of bullies may have jumped on the geek-chic wagon, but there is an inherent cruelty against the young, the sensitive and the different that mainstream society continues to reward.

There’s a Spotify list of music here used in the programme, plus a few extras to get you in the mood to get back in touch with your own inner teen.

Something Understood: The Teen Within is on BBC R4 on Nov 22nd at 6am and 1130pm and on the BBC radio iplayer for a month after.



Posted in Books, Children, Culture, France, Germany, History, Media, Music, Radio, Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Marriage, Margaret Thatcher & the closet of female expectations

Image from:

Image from:

This article first appeared in The Big Issue. Journalism worth paying for (subscriptions available)

For years my mother kept an entire cupboard where she used to save up things for my trousseau; the old fashioned concept of a bride’s personal belongings collected to take to her new life. She came back from trips to India with saris – formal silk ones to impress my future in-laws, elegant jewellery to wear to wear to parties, or attend business dinners with my future husband like a good corporate wife. There was even a beautiful velvet lined wooden canteen of Sheffield silver cutlery and I used to look at the Hostess food trolley in the corner of the dining room and wonder if it was destined to be mine. I was fascinated by her single minded believe in this imaginary grown up future me that never became.

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But then I look at my secret cupboard and I realise I’ve been doing the same for my teenage daughter, but buying duplicates of my favourite things that I want her to want: Identical mint condition paperback copies of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Simone De Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, a copy of Three Degrees’ singer Sheila Ferguson’s wonderful Soul Food cookbook, a full set of discontinued Revereware copper-bottomed pans I sourced on eBay. Talk about conflicting messages for a young woman.

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Even though I’ve bought identical cookware for my son, the messages one generation of women hand down to the next feel different. We pass on some internalised traditional expectations of what women should be, but we know what was harder for us in the past. We would like things to be fairer in the future. Which is why I felt such surprise that the outgoing head of a leading London girls’ school chose to declare: “I’m sorry I’m not a feminist.” I can imagine a lot of working mothers spitting teeth to have that thrown back at them by a teacher who couldn’t even be bothered to look up the rather humble standard definition of feminist as a believer in equal rights for men and women.

Yet I contend that Vivienne Durham’s broader point was misunderstood and I’m on her side when she says there needs to be more honesty about the reality of the “glass ceiling” and that combining career and motherhood isn’t straightforward: “Young girls have massive options these days and some of them will make a decision that they don’t want to combine everything and that is as valid as making the decision that you do want to combine everything.”

So many of the brilliant women I’ve met in the course of my work- politicians, scientists, writers and educators like Durham – did not have children. They didn’t have corporate wives at home like the men. In most cases they made a choice not to, based yes on the world and the men they lived amongst, but also on the work they loved. They take pride in their achievements. And they pushed the doors open for a new generation of women to come in behind. What they couldn’t have known is how many younger men have proven they are keen to be different to their fathers too and embark on parenthood with a less rigid mindset about male and female roles. And how much easier it is to live openly with different sexualities. But being in a relationship and having children does not define a fulfilled life.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 17.06.20The irony of Durham’s comments is that Margaret Thatcher – the first and only female prime minister to date – was married with children. She did, arguably, “have it all”, though she was equally the exception that proves the rule, because of the key support of her millionaire husband in pursuing her ambition.

Thatcher’s adult children are now auctioning off her wardrobe, turned down it seems by a low-ranking decision maker at the V&A. It’s a sobering reminder that our children have their own ideas about the values of what we hold on to. Though I don’t imagine Lady Thatcher was the type to have bought them a trousseau. She lived for her work and was bereft at the loss of it. And whatever your politics, what sane person wouldn’t be fascinated to see an exhibition about her she took control of her image, practical about the challenge of sexism in forging a career in politics?  She was a woman who, by her very success, made it possible for others to come after.

I told my daughter about my mother’s cupboard, and my own. She thought it hilarious. I may not be a corporate wife, but I am touched by my mother’s planning & her hopes. The cupboard is a repository of ideas of what we think we were and ought to be as women. Maybe the thing to do is dip into it now and then, and not be afraid to have a clear out.

Further reading

Third Act Troussau: Fabulous vintage trousseau adverts’ blogpost

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Bye Bye Baby: The Bay City Rollers & the lost innocence of the 70s

Three ageing rockers are holding up big glasses of milk in a toast. There’s always something poignant about seeing how teen stars have aged, but the Bay City Rollers really were angelic faced teeny boppers, and I am stung by a feeling of something darker when I see the image all over news websites announcing their (partial) reunion.

Pretending they only drank milk was the idea of their manager Tam Paton, who would have it on the table at news conferences. Paton is now regarded as the Jimmy Savile of Scotland for his predatory abuse of vulnerable young boys over decades. Though he served jail time for gross indecency, the scale of his abuse was never confronted. Only after he died in 2009 did it emerge that the NHS had strong evidence putting Paton at the centre of an alleged paedophile ring.

It was also Tam Paton’s idea that the Rollers always left the top button undone on their trousers. Rock journalist and erstwhile super-fan Caroline Sullivan (author of Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With the Bay City Rollers) remembers seeing them – a “weird mix of street gang and strange tartan dolls” at a shopping mall in her native New Jersey: “I was almost face to face with Woody and I said, ‘do you know your top button’s undone?’ And he was going to do it up. Tam was a couple of feet away and said, “leave it alone”. I thought he was an incredibly intrusive person. A big burly guy. Quite an intimidating presence.”

Sullivan at the time didn’t see anything sinister. She and her teenage friends thought it was just silly; smart enough like most teenage girls to see a “sexy” marketing gimmick.

Having spent time with Rotherham abuse survivors, and reexamining the Yewtree decade of my own childhood, I see something different; linked to why this band, who influenced The Ramones, and sold up to 75,000 records a DAY at their peak, are still pariahs in the rock world: They are a visual proxy for the sexual predator culture of that decade. Baby faced working class boys and their girl fans – innocence in the arena, and bemusement from male news reporters at the female hysteria of “Rollermania”; but “jailbait” for powerful movers in the entertainment business. It’s because they were so hideously exploited and no one wants to admit that. How much easier for the rock industry to continue to mock them and look away.

Lead singer Les McKeown and fellow band member Pat McGlynn say they were both raped by Paton while drugged. Drugs were a big part of the party culture that Paton cultivated to prey on teenage boys. In 2005 McKeown told Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian: “Tam Paton was constantly, constantly, constantly ramming the concept that women were dirty fish, dirty, smelly fish, you don’t want any of them, you want to be one of the boys… In one way what he said was kind of true; if you toe the line you reap the benefits.”

But the Rollers didn’t reap the benefits. They’re still struggling to recover their royalties through the courts. They fell out with eachother. On the internet you can see for yourself the Dante-esque hell of the US kids’ tv show they were forced to appear on thanks to their enduringly wretched management. Some ex-members have battled addictions. Caroline Sullivan wonders if there’s a comparison to Linda Lovelace – the 70s Deep Throat actress whose abuse was only subsequently revealed: “Once she was no use to her manager/pimp she was left floundering.” When Paton died McKeown said: “I can’t imagine a man nor beast who will be mourning his passing.” When I contact him for this article he very politely declines an interview, writing:

“I am in the process of completing my second autobiography and like the first one it is pretty graphic about TP [Tam Paton]. I am compiling a Bay City Rollers book to be on sale on our upcoming tour. I wont be doing any interviews that cover this topic. It’s all Rollermania for a while :)”

I go back to that photo with the glasses of milk held up to the fans. I see three men in their  fifties and sixties determined to reclaim ownership of their youth. The tour, they’ve said, is all about the fans.

Caroline Sullivan says: “My experience doesn’t feel tainted now. It was the best time in my life.” If anyone has a right to reclaim the innocence and joy of the 70s, it’s the Bay City Rollers. I wish them well.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine – journalism worth paying for

Further Reading/viewing

Rollers announce reunion concerts (Sept 2015)

Why was Scottish Savile ignored? (July 2014 Sunday Express)

The Krofft Superstar Hour TV show (1978)

Former Bay City Rollers’ star claims Radio 1 DJ abused boys at parties

Former Roller can continue nursing (BBC News 2001)






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Where are all the women refugees?

Photo from UNHCR website

Photo from UNHCR website

A version of this column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine in September 2015

One of the strange realizations of being on the Channel 4 series It Was Alright In the 1970s was, when they showed me clips, how much I’d blanked from my memory. Star Maidens? I LOVED that TV show. Two burly blokes – one a French born German TV star (Pierre Brice), one a big-bellied Brit and future member of Blake’s 7 (Gareth Thomas) – escape slavery from Medusa – a crazed Middle East-in-reverse planet ruled by women. Women in polyester jumpsuits with big circles cut out in sexy places. Naturally the men seek asylum on Earth where sanity rules and Englishmen are in charge. I’d entirely forgotten the episodes set on Earth where jihad-crazed suburban housewives attempt to create a Medusan-style feminist state.

The series was an Anglo-German co-production and seemed part of a wider cultural realignment along with the Eurovision song contest and It’s a Knock Out! 70s children of the EEC-decimal currency age started seeing Germans, not only as the Nazis of old war films, but this reborn tribe of modern integrated Europeans. People like us making equally terrible SF.

In the 1970s German was widely taught in schools. We saw West German politics regularly explained on the news. The decline of that reporting and that study has left us ill equipped to fully understand Germany’s leading role in the current migrant & Syrian refugee crisis.

We probably do appreciate the most basic reason why a right-of centre German Chancellor is taking in 800 thousand refugees this year; a plain acknowledgement of Germany’s historic moral debt for the genocide of the Third Reich. (Although since this column was originally written, the government has quickly backtracked and suspended its Schengen zone open border in the south, because of the numbers of migrants that were apparently encouraged as a result to head their way. )

But Germany, as I found in the time I’ve worked and travelled there over 30 years, is full of contradictions. A country where huge numbers of Turkish Gastarbeiter were needed but not encouraged to feel they belonged. Where strange racial stereotypes endured in popular culture decades after they become obsolete in Britain. Where far right racial violence felt much more organized and murderous. Where only 5 years ago Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the failure of multiculturalism. 

A prominent political claim being made on social media against Merkel’s action is that Germany is looking for cheap immigrant labour to support an ageing population.

But importantly Germany’s undergone its own internal refugee and migrant crisis, too, as East German-raised Merkel knows only too well. In the summer of 1989 a tide of East German families started seeking asylum via the West German consulate in Hungary. As an interrailing student I found myself sharing a train from Vienna with some of them, making an almost identical journey to many Syrians today. When the Wall came down a few months later, East Germans were widely regarded in West Germany as an economic and social burden. Many “Ossies” continued to regard themselves as victims, and never really made a reckoning with their collaboration both under the Stasi and the Nazis before them.

One of the most intriguing anecdotal demographic phenomena of the 1990s was what happened to East Germany’s young women; how many upped sticks and headed West in search of opportunity. It was, Germans told me, overwhelmingly men who stayed put when their obsolete industrial jobs disappeared, and in some cases nursed a grievance against foreigners. The rise of far right extremists in the East seemed correlated with that demographic change.

Polling here shows a large number of Britons, the majority even, are at best cautious about taking in refugees from Syria, because of the fear of conservative Islamic attitudes. Some readers might want to dismiss this as a cover for racism, just as in the 1930s the Daily Mail, warned of the “threat” of so many Jews coming from Hitler’s Germany. But just as in East Germany, looking at gender opens up a legitimate question about how you build a strong and stable society. Where are all the women refugees? According to the latest UNHCR figures 72% of the numbers arriving in Western Europe so far in 2015 are men, 15% children and only 13% women (as of date of writing mid-Sept 2015). A BBC World Service reporter a few days ago described on air the unease he and female colleagues felt when they tried to interview women refugees only to be uniformly refused permission by their men.

So where ARE the women refugees? Some men will have planned to establish themselves and then bring their families over safely. But talking to lawyers dealing with the big influx of young male Afghan migrants here a decade earlier it seems in many cases families spend the money on the people they value most. And that’s not the women.

When we talk of compassion in these humanitarian crises and doing the right thing, perhaps we ignore gender at our peril.

Sources and further reading

East German refugees escape via Hungary (1989)

UNHCR gender demographics:

Salafists trying to recruit young male migrants arriving in Germany (Suddeutsche Zeitung Sep 10 2015)

Lingering alienation between East and West Germans (Der Spiegel)




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The Other Place: A journey into the Underworld with the Witch of Endor

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At the age of 6 or so I drew a picture pretty similar to this one in my school RE lesson and it’s been a question in my mind ever since and inspired my latest Something Understood for Radio 4: The Other Place. Shading in Sheol – the Jewish underworld – with thick black pencil, challenged the almost uniquely Christian&Islamic binary theology of Heaven and Hell. It’s interesting that both faiths have celebrated martyrdom in their founding history.

With Rabbi Jonathan Romain

With Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Most world religions though, do not have a hell. In the programme Rabbi Jonathan Romain gives wonderful insight into why Jews do not believe in Hell and the importance of focussing on doing good on Earth.

The spirit of Samuel conjured up by the Witch of Endor (William Blake)

The spirit of Samuel conjured up before Saul by the Witch of Endor (William Blake)

Rabbi Romain also unpicks the mystery of the pre-Judaic underworld that occasionally is glimpsed in the strangest tales of the Old Testament. We discuss the tale of King Saul – who banned witchcraft – secretly consulting the Witch of Endor to raise the spirit of his dead prophet Samuel from the shadow world.

A Hellfire Club in joke: Francis Dashwood mocking St Francis of Assissi by William Hogarth

A Hellfire Club in joke: Francis Dashwood in an infernal parody of St Francis of Assisi by William Hogarth

I conceived the programme as a partner piece to the Paradise one I made last month. In that we explored the very physical appeal of an Islamic Paradise to young male jihadists. And in this programme, produced by Natalie Steed, we speculate too, about the appeal to rich young aristocrats in the 18th century age of rakes and libertines, of flirting with darkness in their Hellfire Clubs, like Francis Dashwood’s, which met in caves in Buckinghamshire and included a Chancellor of the Exchequer and William Hogarth among its members.They dressed in monks’ robes to carry out their debaucheries. Was it anything more than a Bullingdon Club-type escapade for the privileged?  A sign of a wider fading away of religious fear of Hell itself?

Jacob Marley: "Ask me who I was."

Jacob Marley: “Ask me who I was.”

We think of the Victorian age as undoing all that; the heavy warnings of hell beaten into children in the schools we read of in Nicholas Nickleby, Hard Times and Jane Eyre. But even though it’s regarded as a Christian morality tale, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  connects back to the Jewish and Classical idea of the godless underworld. Not only is it the first time travel adventure in Western literature, but in the spirit of Marley, dragging the spiritual chains he forged in life, we are confronted by an escapee from Sheol, with a lesson about the importance  of living well. And, as Rabbi Romain put it, the need to make the earth a garden in our lifetimes, not wait for the promise of one after death.

There is also an extract from Olivia O’Leary’s powerful 2007  Radio 4 documentary about Limbo Babies that’s haunted me since I first heard it. Limbo – a place mentioned in in Dante’s Divine Comedy – for those unbaptised or born before Christianity – was where the Roman Catholic Church said unbaptised babies went. For thousands of Irish mothers this meant the trauma of their stillborn children being buried in unconsecrated ground and out of the sight of God forever. It was only 2007 when this doctrine was qualified to suggest God would show mercy to them.

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Dante’s Divine Comedy is a feature of the programme. Like my map of Sheol, it embodies our child-like fascination with mapping other worlds; in this case those concentric circles and compartments and towers for different kinds of sin and sinner. We use Clive James’ and John Agard’s wonderful Young Inferno translations, which features bankers in post-crash hell,  to explore the way this story continues to speak to us.

Orfeo (image from Roundhouse website)

The programme starts with the beautiful music of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, whose attempt to bring back Eurydice from the dead is doomed to failure. I have to confess to having been deeply moved by Michael Boyd’s Roundhouse production earlier this year in which the lovers are physically wrenched apart – while suspended in the air between the underworld and the garden of earth.

I’ve put together a list of most of the music we used here on Spotify.

Something Understood: The Other Place is on Radio 4 on Sunday September 21st at 6am and 1130pm and for a month after on BBC radio iPlayer.

Further reading/listening

Something Understood: Strains of Paradise: Available till Sep 29th

Did Dickens invent time travel? BBC Culture feature (July 2015)

High politics and Hellfire: Gresham College lecture on Hogarth’s Francis Dashwood portrait

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A brief history of the News At Ten: one of the biggest mistakes in the British TV News business

The Culture Secretary’s  speech to the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge last night included an observation about whether the BBC should be presenting its flagship evening bulletin at 10 pm – the same time as its main commercial rival ITV. “It is important to look at the impact the BBC has on commercial rivals. To give one example, is it sensible that its main evening news bulletin goes out at the same time as ITV’s?”

It seemed worth refreshing memories about how this came about and what questions it raises about commercial decisions. For a start, younger readers may find it hard to believe that for many years such news bulletins attracted massive audiences in the days before the internet and rolling news channels.

The News at Ten was for decades an editorially valued and  commercially lucrative landmark in the television landscape. The BBC’s main bulletin was on an hour earlier at 9pm. ITV’s News At Ten had the slot to itself and drew a bigger audience. Plus in the days when TV advertising had little competition (the internet has helped destroy that) its commercial break was one of the most expensive and high profile advertising slots in the country. In 1988 it was a media news event in itself when the Hanson Trust mega-corporation bought up the entire 2′ 30″ minute slot to run a bombastic celebration of its brilliance, featuring, as I can still remember from viewing it once on TV, a through-the-decades montage to David Bowie’s Changes of 60s dollybirds, concorde & city traders, with an animated graph of its rising share price. (See above) Special thanks to Brian O’Keefe (@rider45 on twitter) who sourced the Hanson advert for me.

In the late nineties with other commercial tv rivals Channels 4 and 5 as well as Sky now well established, according to media reporting at the time, the newly merged down Carlton/Granada ITV management that owned ITN, felt the half hour slot was more a burden than an asset. There has always been regulation around the public service aspect of ITV’s programming, so moving the flagship news programme was a very big deal. Crucially ITV wanted to screen blockbuster movies and sports events without that big 30 minute  interruption. Even before online video streaming and DVD box sets, many media industry people, not just ITN journalists, felt this was a shortsighted decision that would destroy an important and valued brand connection between the channel and the national audience. But ITV went ahead anyway and shunted the news to about 11pm in March 1999.

Along with selling most of the freehold & leasing back its 200 Grays Inn Road headquarters in 2001, taking a major contributions holiday from the staff pension fund during the 2000s, and buying the social media dead end that was Friends Reunited and selling it for a fraction of its 2005 purchase price, the decision to vacate the 10pm slot seemed like the commercially most damaging decision made by the company’s senior management.

According to the Guardian’s timeline article from 2007 the BBC’s director general Greg Dyke waited 17 months till announcing plans to take up the empty slot which actually happened in October 2000. The BBC made a huge success of it. “I personally liked News at Ten,” said Tony Blair in 2000. “I also had some concerns about the likely consequences of moving it … I think those concerns, I’m afraid, have been largely borne out by what has happened since.”

ITV did not reap a ratings bonanza by dropping News at Ten. Quite the opposite. Under pressure from the regulator the ITC, ITV relaunched the News at Ten in January 2001, less than 2 years after it had vacated it. Despite the excellent quality of its news output, the channel has never managed to claw back the majority audience share it used to own until it threw it away of its own accord. A decision that many media experts and journalists had warned against from the start.

At the time that News at Ten returned, ITN was also making the news for both its commercial terrestrial rivals – Channel 4 and Channel 5, so it’s hard to know what would have happened if a genuine commercial rival had tried to take the slot. (Channel 5 News was made by Sky for several years from 2005). The fact is that it was the BBC, which is funded by public licence fee, which made a smart commercial decision in terms of attracting its now much larger audience to its Ten O’ Clock bulletin. 14 years on, is that a concern for the BBC as the Culture Secretary has apparently implied? Or as many in the news and media business warned back in 1999,  proof that a bad commercial decision can cause irreparable damage where people are free to choose what to watch; and that responsibility lies with those who made it?

Special thanks to Brian O’Keefe (@rider45) for sourcing the Hanson Trust advert on twitter and Oliver Bayley (@) for reminding me of the Friends Reunited purchase.

I  worked at ITN, which makes ITV news and Channel 4 News from 2000-2011.

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Plotting Paradise: A journey through medieval maps and the mind



Strains of Paradise may start with medieval maps and the Garden of Eden, but producer Anthony Denselow and I didn’t want to shy away from difficult questions too.  So we ask a Muslim theologian about the power of a highly sexual Islamic concept of paradise so beloved by murdering jihadists. Incidentally are 72 virgins really a mistranslation of 72 raisins? And the very political and current row over Britain as a paradise for economic migrants, launching daily attempts to get here from “The Jungle” in Calais.

Diwan-e-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi

Diwan-e-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi

But we begin our journey in the British Library with keeper Peter Barber, looking at images of medieval maps that place Eden as a physical place separate from heaven – a bubble of perfection. You can see it in Hereford’s famous Mappa Mundi above; Adam and Eve within,  showing the 4 rivers including the Tigris and the Euphrates that locate Paradise in modern day Iraq. Persians and their Mughal emperors builts walled gardens across their empire – creating private courtly paradises within their palaces such as Delhi’s Red Fort. It was prevalent in medieval courtly manuscripts and clearly inspired CS Lewis’ Christian walled garden with its healing fruit trees in The Magician’s Nephew.

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Nico Muhly’s haunting music for the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery of Richard II sets the scene for Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt “this sceptr’d isle” speech from his play about the monarch. The suserration of the angels’ wings evoked in the strings of a viola da gamba.

Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, most famously used on the soundtrack of the  Depression era film O Brother Where Art Thou? conveys a bittersweet vision of Paradise. A hobo’s vision. I’m making a partner programme on The Other Place (Hell, Limbo, Purgatory) to come in the autumn.

Something Understood: Strains of Paradise is on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday August 30th at 6am, 1130pm and iplayer for a month after

Further listening/reading

My Spotify list of featured music – (with a substitution piece for Nico Muhly as it’s not commercially available)

Nico Muhly on his music for the Wilton Diptych – You can hear more of it and listen to him talk to me about it on Front Row (July 2015) – about 3 min in.

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What should we read into bookshelf wallpaper?


This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine in August 2015

I went to a fancy middle class holiday camp the other week. You know the ones. It was fabulous. We did fencing, crossbows, rode Segways and swam every day in a giant sub tropical paradise dome like we were living in a 1970s future world of wholesomeness. Our wooden chalet in the woods had a games room, equipped with a mini billiards table, chessboard, and a gaming console that could also play dvds. There were big bean bags to lie around on. There was even a real fire place. But the walls of the games room were covered with wallpaper of fake bookshelves with piles of old books to replicate something that was naggingly missing.

I am fascinated by the growing ubiquity of fake bookshelf wallpaper. I’ve seen it line coffeehouses and hotel work spaces for guests. At the same time I’ve seen a private club advert promise a “bespoke” library for its luxury membership price. With actual old books.


As a kid of the Atari age (I still have my first Pong game if you can find me an analogue monitor to plug it into) I feel no instinctive distrust of digital technology. This spring I had floor to ceiling bookshelves made for the 4 walls of an entire room. I felt childishly excited and a grownup at the same time. Sometimes I carry such ludicrous sized review hardbacks around for work I worry they’re like dinosaurs – a Darwinian extinction is inevitable. My unease is genuine. I love them. Why does it feel to me like physical books (and the concentration their use requires) are being fetishized and threatened at the same time?

Andrew Male deputy editor of Mojo magazine, pins down my distrust of the wallpaper: “It’s the iconography of our “I love books!” age without the weight/threat of the books themselves. It somehow feels similar to new London flats inheriting the cool cultural trappings of the buildings they replaced.”

Photo copyright: The

Photo copyright: The

If you go to the Roundhouse in London this summer, you’ll see books used with real power in Penny Woolcock’s amazing “Utopia” installation. Inspired by Thomas More’s book of a future world, she’s created an urban dystopian theme park. An unashamedly left wing, political version of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. A jeep has ramraided the “T. More bookseller” and piles of real books are spilling out the back, and falling off shelves inside. Projected voices of real young men and women who’ve fallen foul of the law, often born to drug addicted or violent parents, speak of how books have changed them. One discovered Plato’s Republic while in prison.

Woolcock told me, aware of the irony, how they had to buy books by the yard to furnish the set. Browsing them is a delight. Among them are loads of remaindered massmarket hardbacks missing dustjackets: Danielle Steele, James Patterson, Dean Koontz. The kind of authors who get sneered at in highbrow news reviews. But who are read voraciously by millions of readers who love reading. I have no snobbery about that. I once met a Lebanese SF novelist who had been given Doctor Who paperbacks as a child. She didn’t know about the TV series, just read them as adventures of this interesting character and look where it took her.

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In, the market house in my local town, made over for vintage style craft sellers, one stall holder sells handbags made out of just such cheap and cheerful hardbacks. They’ve ripped all the pages out and sewed up the sides with cloth, fixing chain handles over the top. I can’t object logically. It is a kind of recycling. Yet like vinyl records warped into bowls, or album sleeves and blown up orange Penguin covers mounted as art, I feel an instinctive revulsion. See also the Cath Kidston window display featuring books with ripped off covers and titles; possibly remaindered and heading for the dump anyway, but still mutilated.

Like those London shell buildings I’ve watched over the decades – cleared of civic services or industry or annoying poor tenants – with their innards ripped out to be remade as hollow symbols of luxury living or business. The Shoe Factory, The School House, trading on the civic pride, industry and philanthropy in many cases that built them.

In the 70s & 80s adults sneered at a lot of books teens read. Choose Your Own Adventures or cash-in film novelisations. I have still only read, never seen 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man, incidentally. But such trashy books offer the best metaphor for what I see. An alien predator destroys its host and occupies the shell of the body while a few voices urge society to pay heed to an impending, incomprehensible but irreversible disaster.

Further listening/reading

Penny Woolcock on the making of Utopia at the Roundhouse (R4 Front Row Aug 2015)

Andrew Male on Eric Clapton’s Bookshelf

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