The future sound and vision of Liverpool: Biennial special preview

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Tonight’s BBC Front Row is a special programme mostly recorded on location in Liverpool previewing this year’s Biennial of Contemporary Art that runs till October. I particularly enjoyed talking to Mark Leckey about his dreamscape film about his visual memory from 1964-1999. And Betty Woodman who was transfixed by the pink and white of the ancient buildings in post-war Italy and is inspired by the colour of ancient friezes and ceramics to this day. I also talk to the winner of the John Moores Painting Prize.

The programme will be here on Radio 4 and then via this link on iplayer after its 715pm transmission.




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The economics of burkas, bikinis & The Nice Guys


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According to a recent BBC World Service programme about Malawi, the nation’s population hit 17.6 million this year and is expected to double by 2040, which the country’s finance minister described as “scary”. “A ticking timebomb of poverty and starvation,” said the reporter. “Malawi desperately needs economic growth.” Malawi has one of the highest incidences of child marriages in the world and last year introduced a new law raising the marriage age to 18.

Changing the law doesn’t by itself change cultural norms fast, but plenty of evidence shows that when women get educated and when countries get richer, birth rates drop very fast. Take Italy – Catholic, still very traditional in its attitudes to women – described not long ago by the Financial Times no less, as the “country that feminism forgot”, it has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. Economic growth is still widely cited as a neutral champion of women’s rights. But now I find myself asking whether the cultural prejudices that see an enduring pay gap between men and women in nations like Britain, 46 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act can be eliminated or whether they can in some ways be strengthened by a focus on economic growth?



In France, where feminism is rooted in a proudly secular and monocultural self-image a political row recently blew up after the government’s minister for women’s rights Laurence Rossignol accused fashion houses such as M&S and H&M, which were designing Muslim women’s wear including burkinis, as promoting “the imprisonment of women’s bodies.” She made the ill-received comparison with African Americans voting for slavery and compounded the offence with the use of the word “Negroes”.

M&S Burkini

M&S Burkini

It’s legitimate to reason that the comments suggest a fundamental lack of understanding of how faith and modesty can co-exist with feminism. You don’t have to be Muslim to not want to wear a bikini or show your cleavage. But if we’re honest there’s a deeper problem intertwined therein. The big spenders from nations such as Saudi Arabia who boost British retailers’ bottom line, have shown that economic growth and oppression of women can happily co-exist. In fact with the help of Western corporations selling everything from fashion to police weaponry wealth can be used to solidify barbaric, degrading and cruel oppression. Rossignol’s ignored wider point was that “Today there are some women promoting political Islam and there are some women who are suffering in the suburbs from the pressure.”

In other words that old feminist adage: The personal is political. Our acts of personal consumption are not in isolation but connect us to others. The small but significant number of highly educated British born women choosing to wear strict Islamic dress and demand gender segregation need to think about whether it really is empowering, given the experience of the vast majority of women forced to dress that way around the Muslim world.

Talking of bikinis, the other thing that raised my hackles in recent days was seeing The Nice Guys, Shane Black’s big crowd-pleasing buddy flick set in the porn world of 1977.  There’s lots that’s charming about its two leads Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, so I assume the film will make big money. According to Forbes’ analysis it’s been doing best with men under 35, ie too young to remember the real 70s. We reviewed it on a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme, when even the male film critic I went to see The Nice Guys with was the first to point out that an opening sequence in which a porn star is seen lying sprawled and naked covered in blood in a Playboy pose, dying after a car crash was in questionable taste. Every woman in the film is a dim witted porn actress or a villain with a handful of lines. The only major female role goes to a 13 year old tomboy, safely pre-sexual in her adolescence.

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1977 was the year of Charlie’s Angels and Lynda Carter’s 6 foot tall Wonder Woman, of Lyndsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman and Charlie perfume. Feminism was mainstream in popular culture. Even Virginia Slims cigarettes controversially played on a feminist slogan with the line “You’ve come a long way, baby.” So how come women are being airbrushed out of our modern versions of it?

Last Christmas why were parents eager to spend having to point out there no Rey costumes or figurines in shops to tie-in with the release of Star Wars The Force Awakens? (According to Forbes this is apparently because those smart economic growth focused toy executives were limited by their prejudice that only boys buy figurines and they won’t buy girls).

Economic growth might bring down birth rates, but it doesn’t necessarily challenge shameful attitudes to women and girls. And while consumer power might nudge big corporations, only campaigning changes social attitudes. Remember the personal, not just personal consumption, is political.

A version of this article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine – journalism worth paying for. On sale from street Vendors around the UK or subscribe here.

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Bryan Singer on: Chariots of the Gods, Valkyrie, Star Trek & the mythology of X-Men Apocalypse

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Here’s my full interview with the very well-read Bryan Singer on X-Men Apocalypse. We talked the Bible, classic Star Trek, the 60s vogue for theories on space seeding aliens, and why the Holocaust is a presence in so many of his films. You can hear a 5 minute version here from Radio 4’s Front Row:

What would you say is new and to people who may never have seen an X-Men film before?

What’s great about it is that it’s an origin story for so many of the characters. So if you see this movie first, actually, it’ll set up characters in their earlier stages that end up showing up in the earlier films. I’ve actually talked to several people who’ve never seen an X-Men film – this was their first one. And they felt completely comfortable and teased into wanting to go back and visit the other ones. So it’s kind of ripe for that, actually.

This film has more of the Bible and epic mythology about it. I gather a big influence on you was Chariots of the Gods  – this 1968 book about aliens seeding early earth civilizations?

Yes, Chariots of the Gods I read when I was a kid. I rewatched the documentary recently. There’s always something fascinating about that. You know, 2001: A Space Odyssey also touches upon what seeded us. I don’t really address the alien element in the movie, but to me in my own heart there’s something about Apocalypse, who’s the villain of the story, tens of thousands of years ago, that hark back to those texts and those ideas.

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 There’s a classic Star Trek episode – Who Mourns for Adonais? – which you throw in there, [seen playing on a TV set in Cairo] presumably for that reason?

Yes, that’s an in-joke between me and my editor/composer. We’re both huge old Star Trek fans and that story is about aliens believing they’re gods. And one character actually grows in size at the end. So if you recognize that, I’m very impressed you do, it’s a very inside piece of humour inside Storm’s apartment scene in Cairo.

 There’s a retro feel to the whole film. That’s partly the setting in the 80s, but partly a use of costume and makeup rather than CGI. It’s John Dykstra from the original Star Wars who’s worked on this with you. How did you want it to look and why?

I’ve always felt that if a villain or certain characters are CGI the humanity of those actors won’t be able to come out. Even if they are mutants, even if they are Apocalypse, they need to be persuasive, they need to be powerful and connective with the other characters. So to use the right kind of makeup in the right way and merge that with visual effects, to me was important, especially because I am working with such amazing actors.

Glenn Ford - Superman The Movie (1978)

Glenn Ford – Superman The Movie (1978)

 How far is it down to having actors who can do it very seriously. You have people of the calibre of Oscar Isaac, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence – a lot of whom have won a lot of awards – and they’re acting, in some cases, against stuff that isn’t yet there?

I’ve always said since I made the first X-Men film, that acting in these movies is one of the hardest, most challenging tasks in the world, because you are acting to things that aren’t there; you’re trying to take these characters that are so heightened and trying to make them real. And I have to credit Richard Donner for Superman: The Movie because he took a comic book film and cast Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Gene Hackman – great, great actors; Chris Reeve – a great theatre actor – and made a comic book come alive for me as a boy. So I just set about doing the same thing when I first cast Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men 1 years ago.

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 It’s set in 1983 and it’s fascinating to see the way you play on a lot of the fears of the time; nuclear weapons going off, the Berlin Wall. And one of the most crowd-pleasing rescue sequences is set to the Eurythmics’ hit of that era, Sweet Dreams. Were you conscious of wanting to play with the decade that you clearly remember very well?

Yes, I was in high school in the 80s. It was a time of the cold war, a time of a lot of international upheaval, but at the same time a lot of complacency in America. So it was nice to take that era – the palate, the colours of that era – and kind of rough it up a bit and blow it out. And I know that era very well. It was my childhood. This was probably the most fun I’ve had with an era.

That rescue sequence [with Quicksilver] to Sweet Dreams – the most complex and sophisticated sequence in the film took a month and a half to shoot two minutes of film. Time around him stands still, which I based on an HG Wells story I had read many years ago. I set it to Sweet Dreams because the character, because he can move so fast, time stands still for him. It’s all a game, a joy for him.

 I gather you originally saw Xavier and Magneto as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X style archetypes. How did you develop that?

When I first joined the franchise and began making X-Men films I always drew the parallel between MLK who just preaches peace and turn the other cheek and Magneto says no, we have to fight, even use violence if necessary, as Malcolm X at times would preach. Those two opposing points of view make for great frenemies, I would call it, and it also grounds the film in its themes, that the X-Men have always had since the inception of the comic book in 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement. It’s all about tolerance, it’s all about the different, and I never want to lose those themes and they make their way into this movie as well.

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 There’s also a return to Auschwitz and the imagery of Nazism: Men in uniform coming to take parents away from children. The opening attempted assassination sequence reminded me of your film Valkyrie about the 1944 assassination plot against Hitler. Why is this theme so recurrent in your work?

I think for two reasons: One, I’m Jewish and so we’re made aware of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust at a very young age. But secondly I had a teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, who taught a class that went in great depth when I was in high school. And I found the Holocaust, the Shoah, very intriguing and horrific. And it stimulated my interest in the entire Second World War and then entire rise and fall of the Third Reich. And I’ve studied it tremendously. It’s touched upon many films I’ve made from X-Men 1 to this film, to films like Valkyrie or Apt Pupil I did with Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro about a Nazi war criminal living in a neighbourhood in southern California. It’s just something that will always intrigue me and is the stuff of a billion movies.

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 Is there something about the team film that appeals to you, going back to one of your most successful films, The Usual Suspects, with its uncertainty about who is really a friend and who might be an enemy?

As with The Usual Suspects I cut my teeth on the ensemble film and I just got a little addicted to them. I like, first of all, no one being completely what they seem, because that’s just human nature. And also when you’re doing an ensemble film with very many characters to the audience it seems like there’s so much to juggle, but for the filmmaker there’s more for me to cut to. People are intertwined, there’s more story and I love story and I love character and they go first. So even though there’s a lot of action and spectacle in the movie, characters are first. Hence why we have so many great actors.

 A complaint that’s been made about some of the other recent superhero films is that they take themselves so seriously and that in fact, they’re not for young people any more. Your film has some very real visceral violence, up close, but it’s populated by a lot of teenagers. Are you aware and conscious of that dilemma, especially as your generation, born in the 60s, are the ones who grew up with comics and kind of won’t let go of them?

Well, I think today’s generation is very different. A lot of young people have the internet, they have access to different kinds of imagery, they show more on the news, more graphic stuff’s on cable and television. So younger people’s tolerance level is a little different than it was in earlier times, so you can put some of that stuff [on screen]. And a lot of kids are quite frankly, jaded to it. I have a son myself and I have to make those decisions about at what age I’ll let him watch what film and it’s going to be an interesting challenge for me. And even my own films. Which ones will I show him first?

 There are so many team superhero films out there. X Men started it off 16 years ago. Do you ever get annoyed that everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon and that it might create a saturation point?

Well, as long as they all know that they’ve jumped on the bandwagon, then I’m ok! To be honest, what differentiates X-Men from The Avengers or from Batman/Superman – those are all worlds that are populated by specific superheroes. The difference is that in the X-Men universe there’s tens, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of mutants living among us and they can always come up at any time with any measure of powers, and that’s how we cling on to our central theme. And it informs our characters and it informs the scope of our universe, which is every bit as large as the remaining Marvel or the DC universe. I’m very flattered and complimented by fact there are so many comic book films. I just want to make sure, well one, everyone sees this film, even if you’ve not seen an X-Men film, but also that they don’t clutter the [film] theatres where other films that I love to death, like Steve Jobs – I love this movie – or films like that don’t get the theatre play that they deserve. So that’s the yin and yang of the superhero genre. But they are our modern day mythologies. I said that sixteen years ago promoting X-Men 1. I say it today.

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The trouble with superheroes taking on terrorism..

I love superhero comics and they’ve never been handled with more love than by writers and filmmakers who grew up on them too. And yet.. And yet.. In the latest Captain America Civil War film, when a terrorist bomb goes off outside a UN meeting leaving a scene of devastation I feel an increasingly familiar unease.

Superman II: Presidential humilation in the Oval office

There seem to be coach loads of superheroes clogging up our multiplexes in different bombastic combinations with ludicrous outfits that materialise out of a wristwatch or fold away. Why are you trying to be “realistic” about terrorism? The old Christopher Reeve Superman films offered a less pretentious escapism. And somehow Superman II, which came out during the humiliation of the Iranian US embassy hostage crisis, had some resonance in portraying a superhero and a superpower who find themselves suddenly impotent and humiliated by a cruel enemy. (Kneel before Zod).

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I put it to Zak Snyder, director of Batman V Superman. Snyder is at least out and out proud that he takes superheroes very seriously. The Lucifer/Messiah imagery is rather stylishly shot. Don’t like his 18-rated version of Watchmen? Tough. THIS IS SPARTA! (He made that, too.) Batman V Superman uses a great deal of 9/11 imagery to depict how reckless superheroes can recklessly kill thousands in their skyscraper-toppling planet-saving battles. Lois Lane goes off to the desert to interview an Osama Bin Laden figure and has to be rescued by a Messianic-Man of Steel. “To have them [the films] be just fun is not ok with me,” Snyder says. “To me the mythology only plays if it’s played against the backdrop of the rules we understand. We could easily make the baddie an alien and have it be an abstract evil. But does that really mean anything to anyone?”

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Critics panned Batman V Superman for taking itself far too seriously which seems unfair, given that Captain America Civil War has an almost identical plot premise: The UN wants to put superheroes on a register to stop this reckless endangerment of entire cities. My main objection to Batman V Superman was that it ended up with the same kind of entire-city-destroyed-with-nukes battle the film started off denouncing.

To its credit Captain America:Civil War starts with mega destruction and ends with a very personal fight between 3 people. But it still plays with a stylised fantasy version of real-world terrorist imagery and brainwashed soldiers – a terrible trauma visited on POWs in the early Cold War. Iron Man even drops a crack about The Manchurian Candidate.

The directors of Captain America Civil War, Alex and Joe Russo, are a delightfully cerebral duo. They grew up on great dark comedies like M*A*S*H – set in Korea but made while the Vietnam War was raging. So I ask them: Are there places where superhero films shouldn’t tread?

“Absolutely, but our intent is to reflect reality as much as we can,” says Joe Russo. ” The reason that these movies are so popular is because they are once removed from reality. It allows people to deal with issues that are painful in a way that is not like looking at reality. It gives you a window ..without your emotions and your fears feeling too exposed.”

For the Russos superhero films now are what Westerns were to American audiences in the 1950s. Good versus Evil in a cathartic, simplistic way for troubled times, even though Westerns often had very ambiguous messages encoded within their black hat versus white hat dynamics. And certainly many of the comic books that provided source material for these block busters, like Mark Millar’s Civil War original, have far more intriguing dark political ideas than the screen versions.

But in the end superheroes’ only solution – however many classy actors they bring in to add some political allegory (Holly Hunter in Batman V Superman, William Hurt in Civil War – I  salute you) is to thump the hell out of everyone and everything. With not even a chipped tooth at the end of it. And the fundamental concern I have about these films is that they totally misunderstand the reality of evil in our world; its hive-mind. Thousands of ordinary young men and some women, are going off from our cities to join ISIS’s playground for torturing-psychopaths.

Even closer to home in recent days how angry have you felt at realising the scale of reckless endangerment by our officials and executives from Hillsborough to BHS and its eleven thousand employees? Sometimes I just want to say, OK, Captain America and that ludicrous army of yours. Take your pick and solve one of these. These are strange days when corporate entertainment is playing with the imagery of terrorism. Because I’m sure of one thing – they couldn’t be more wrong about the agents of misery in our world.

 A version of this article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine – on sale from UK street vendors. Journalism worth paying for. Subscriptions available here

Further listening

My interview with the Russo Brothers (BBC Front Row April 2016)

My interview with Zack Snyder (BBC Front Row April 2016)

My Interview with Bryan Singer on X-Men Apocalypse is on BBC Front Row next Monday May 16th at 715pm or iplayer after 

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Johnny Guitar? You probably think this film is about you.

This is the text of an introduction I gave at a re-release screening of Johnny Guitar at the British Film Institute on May 6th 2016

I saw Johnny Guitar for first time here at the BFI to whom I”ll always be grateful. You kind of need to see it in company to believe it got made. Leonard Maltin called this cinema’s first “kinky” Western which is a very American term that undersells its sexual weirdness. I have myself in the past called it polysexual and plain wacko.

In Johnny Guitar, all the conversations and backstories suggest almost everyone is in love with everyone else, or has had everyone else in the past or would like to have had everyone else. But most importantly, the main point hammered home for the benefit of its star is that every man in this film, is really also only in love with Joan Crawford. Which is as it should be.

Joan in a dress

Joan in a dress

Which is why the more I watch it, even though it’s based on a novel by a different Western writer, I think of this film as forgive the pun. Fifty Shades of Zane Grey. This is a more intriguing fantasy of a 50ish woman – that’s about how old Joan herself was at the time. Not being a virgin. But being in charge and everyone is in love with you from the hormonal teenager to the grownups. Even if some of the gunslingers around you are called things like Turkey and The Dancing Kid.

When I made a documentary about Westerns for Radio 4, I found that in the 1950s women made the key choices about cinema viewing and they loved Westerns. Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns, earlier Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious.

I think for 50s housewives who went to see Johnny Guitar – a film about a powerful business woman who’s always right, – she’s often handling her cash on screen – who defies the threat of a lynchmob and who has everyone in love with her – how secretly empowering was that? It also has a memorable song by Peggy Lee and some teasing guitar music. Come on, a title character who’s really good with his fingers. This film is the best introduction to the psychology of sexual symbolism you could offer anyone.

Mercedes McCambridge: The Exorcist demon

Mercedes McCambridge: The Exorcist demon

Now I do think Johnny Guitar would technically fail the Bechdel test. However the film is entirely driven by the dynamic of the two female characters Joan and her nemesis, played by Mercedes McCambridge. The men are very much in their shadow. McCambridge went on to voice the demon possession in The Exorcist. There are a couple of great moments in this film when I think you glimpse that infernal madness.

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The other thing I ‘ve gained watching it a few times is the parallels with Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause which came out the following year. From the shade of Joan’s red Lipstick – just compare it to Natalie Wood’s trembling lip when she first appears. To the use of Tramp as a term of abuse – tramp as in slut.

But especially in the way the appearance of a hand gun – you remember Pluto the Sam Mineo character in Rebel – brings one with him – can be like a snake with all the Freudian connotations that flood this film.

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And most visually noticable for me is the way Ray uses buildings and films around staircases for weird perspectives, shooting upwards and downwards on characters; the same in his James Mason-on-steroids film Bigger than Life. Outside the studio saloon there’s an amazing sense of location in the red rocks of the desert. And as for the sexual imagery in the physical landscapes! Like the Griffith Observatory in Rebel, in Johnny Guitar a key location draws us in and upwards to where the climax – in every sense of the word – takes place.

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James Mason: Bigger Than Life

James Mason: Bigger Than Life

Watch out for the difference in Joan’s power when she’s dressed as a woman rather than as a man with her guns. Sharon Stone’s The Quick And The Dead did something similar.

The Quick And The Dead

The Quick And The Dead

That film, directed by Sam Raimi, is probably the spiritual heir to Johnny Guitar. With a lot more explicit sex with a very young Russell Crowe and Leonardo Di Caprio.


Finally I think it’s interesting both that so many male French directors like Godard and also Martin Scorsese claim to have loved it and that Ernest Borgnine is in it, who went on to star in The Wild Bunch. The kind of Western model that endures to this day with its emphasis on cruelty and male bonding and women as whores and/or victims. Because Johnny Guitar is so genuinely female centred in a way none of their films ever have been. And we will never see its like again. It’s as if there was an edict to shut down this kind of female focused sexual western because the men, while they have great roles, are so clearly not the centre of attention.

Oh, and on the title, another clever trick of the director and marketing of this film. To misquote Carly Simon: Johnny Guitar. You’re so vain, you probably think this film is about you, don’t you?

Further reading

How The West Was Fun (Radio 4 blogpost)

Why I Love Westerns (2011)


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At home with type: Alan Kitching – master of letter press

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All photos copyright Jerome Weatherald/BBC. No re-use without permission

To step inside Alan Kitching’s studio is to enter the past and the future present. The rich fragrance of ink and wooden trays transports you to a pre digital world.  This is the world of Sergeant Pepper-style retro font posters and design that mixed old and new to create such rich and beautiful images and book covers and products in the 1960s. For BBC Front Row producer (and photographer) Jerome Weatherald and I got to see round his world and his passion for making beautiful typographical prints for the modern world the old analogue way.

Kitching has proudly stood still as mass printing took over in the 1970s and drove small presses out of business. In the long term it’s meant he has a thriving business as a renewed interest in craft and analogue quality brings clients like Sky Media seeking physically textured designs to market their digital products. In this case, drying from pegs, a poster for a new season of programming, with each drama or film title picked out in a carefully chosen font and colours chosen to express the theme of each. Like vinyl records the niche for letterpress is an interesting part of modern digital based consumption. Though we talked about the strangeness of how the newspapers he helped redesign over the years including The Guardian, are disappearing from the physical world, while his old-style physical typography is increasingly valued and cherished.

But none of it would be possible of Kitching hadn’t kept, and in some cases, acquired further “obsolete” collections of typefaces. He bought up an entire theatrical poster letter press he and his late wife found housed in two medieval barns many years ago: “She told me do you want a pension or do you want this?” He still teaches new generations of students and still loves his work. What emerges from talking to him is that the art emerges from a joy in mathematical puzzle-solving. The physical pieces must be carefully slotted together, but an infinite number of combinations is possible. Details count. In digital formatting who notices that the tip of one letter doesn’t line up exactly with the base of the next one as they do in letterpress?

One of Kitching’s presses is at the graphic design exhibition of his work at Somerset House in London and you can visit to see him printing there for several days this week and next. More info on the link below. And there’s an exquisite book, too, on his career and designs.

My interview with him is on BBC Front Row Wed April 27th and here on iplayer after 

Further reading

Pick Me Up at Somerset House, London – tickets for the Alan Kitching Exhibition


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Up the Wellington Arch with Beatrice the Angel of Peace

English Heritage are doing a cleanup on the largest bronze sculpture in Europe – the quadriga of the Angel of Peace by Adrian Jones. Note the war booty in that chariot and the mixed message of the olive branch in one hand and the laurel wreath of military victory in the other. Producer Tom Sabbadini (who also took the photos) and I got a bird’s eye view for Radio 4’s Front Row. Historian Steven Brindell gives a wonderful insight into the creative genius of Adrian Jones, his obsession with this masterpiece and the level of detail far beyond any normally lavished on a work to be displayed so far above street level. He also gamely speculates on my wild suggestion that the golden Angel of victory above the Siegessaule in Berlin looks rather similar. Maybe there was a royal rivalry with the British King’s Prussian cousin? And how do we know she’s really called Beatrice? You can find out here on tonight’s programme and iplayer after.

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All photos copyright Tom Sabbadini and BBC. No reuse permitted

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The man who knew infinity: Difficult history & dreaming spires on film

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How do we re-visit history? Watching the continuation of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford I went to see The Man Who Saw Infinity with a greater consciousness of how our institutions choose to tell their own versions of the past.

My interview with Jeremy Irons on Radio 4’s  Front Row (March 31st)

The film about the self-taught genius Indian mathematician Ramanujan stars Dev Patel as the devout Hindu who believes his complex formulae are revelations from God, and Jeremy Irons as his atheist Cambridge don friend and champion G H Hardy – struggling to make sense of this exotic talent who speaks the same language of pure maths but interprets it through intuition, not the rigour of making proofs.

For a film that is mostly ploddingly predictable and cosy in its construction and imagery, to its credit, it does not play down the racism – Ramanujan was denied a fellowship by Trinity College Cambridge dons who called him a wog as much as the louts who beat him up on the street. Like many other modern screen dramas it has a plot arc that sees the maverick outsider talent (female, black, gay, working class) admitted at last, despite the narrow mindedness of the time and the men in charge (see all those US military films like GI Jane, Men of Honor and in its own way Trading Places with Eddie Murphy). The optimistic momentum of all such films is that exception is always made for special talents and eventually the social climate changes too. To its credit that idea doesn’t wash here. An exception is made for an exceptional mathematician. There is no sense that Cambridge as an institution was willing to consider Indians as true intellectual equals. It’s worth remembering that the University denied women degrees till 1948. In a parallel plot Bertrand Russell is fired for his pacifism as the First World War erupts and reveals the confidence of the ruling classes. As Hardy sees him off, expressing regret for Russell’s treatment, he asks where he’ll go. “Oxford,” declares Russell, played with a rakish moustache and a twinkling eye by Jeremy Northam, “and wait for them to ask me back.”

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It’s interesting to see that The Man Who Saw Infinity does play fast and loose with the truth to make his story more palatable in different ways to a modern audience. GH Hardy was in reality in his 30s, only a few years older than Ramanujan, not the 60 something we see on screen. Jeremy Irons, who plays him says he thinks there was something Charles Ryder-like about his fascination with the Indian genius, and points out that Hardy went on to have a homosexual relationship in later life.

Apart from making the pudgy Ramanujan into the handsome Dev Patel the film imposes a parallel plot about his relationship with his young wife Janaki. In the film she’s an adult and their love is sincere. Her mother-in-law hides his letters to her, to prevent her going to join him in England. In reality Janaki was married to a man 12 years her senior and was only 13 when she moved to live with Ramanujan. For 5 years they were apart while he lived in Cambridge. When he died a year after his return to India she was only 21 and remained unmarried (another traditional Hindu custom) till her death at the age of 94. Status, recognition and a decent government pension only came to Janaki in the 1960s as his posthumous fame grew.

Does it matter that the touching romantic plot line is a modern invention? Or does it legitimately help a modern Western audience relate to him?

So I come back to Rhodes Must Fall. How do we choose to view our history and where do we put our sympathies? Portrayed in much of the British press as a battle between a sensible calm institution and trigger warning-obsessed ungrateful immature agitators, what was shocking was how Oriel College, Oxford, having promised a consultation on whether to keep the statue, speedily shut it down when anonymous wealthy donors threatened to stop giving. Where was the process then? The real outrage is the selective application of “rules” and open process when it comes to privileged institutions refusing to face scrutiny. The Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri observed in The Guardian that Cecil Rhodes in his will talked of “the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world”. A key reason student objectors want to take down his statue is to say we should not celebrate the attitude his bequest was linked to. Like slavery – so integral to much modern institutional wealth – privileged institutions would rather not talk about that history anymore. In which case it’s not the students who are trying to selectively erase history.

Even posh tweed coated period dramas are starting to look little harder at our own past. Perhaps it’s time our institutions did the same.

My interview with Jeremy Irons on Radio 4’s  Front Row (March 31st)

This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors or subscriptions here

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Why Obi Wan Kenobi is pure evil & why R2 D2 is Moses

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An excellent panel of minds got together at Conway Hall’s latest #LondonThinks event last Thursday to discuss the theology and ethics of Star Wars films. You can watch it in full here on Youtube (below). Or open it in another window so you can scroll through the slides, made for the night out of Lego on my son’s Death Star, to illustrate various scenes of ethical conflict. And let me know what  you’d like to see in a future discussions. Thanks to Andrew Copson (British Humanist Association), Dr Matthew Sweet (cultural historian and broadcaster) and Professor Francesca Stavralopoulou (professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at Exeter University).

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How the Space Shuttle Broke My Heart

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This weekend’s Radio 4 Extra Floating In Space 3-hour special (9am and 7pm Saturday Mar 1th and iplayer after) with Simon Guerrier explores the history and the fantasy of manned space exploration from the cosmonauts to dreams of Mars colonies. It was the idea of producer Luke Doran who even got me to put on a space suit, not realising I would find myself revisiting all the powerful emotions I’d explored five years earlier when the Space Shuttle programme ended for  a newspaper feature in July 2011.  (Space suit photos by Luke Doran copyright BBC. All others are copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted.)

“When will we be able to live in colonies on other planets, like Mars?” 

It was an obvious question for an 11-year-old, perhaps. When my parents took me on holiday in the 1970s to Cape Canaveral and Houston’s NASA Mission Control Centre, the campuses were abuzz with excitement about the new “reusable” spacecraft. In 1979 I wrote my question on a visitor enquiry card, dropped it into a wooden box outside the tourist cafeteria and waited.

The promise came three months later in a white envelope with the new 1970s “worm” Nasa logo, an arrow of hope through the letterbox into my dull suburban life. In thick purple ink from a manual typewriter, a Nasa employee had typed a personal reply.

The gist of it was:”Dear Samira, we all dream of deep space travel and living on other world.s We believe our new Space Shuttle programme is a very exciting sand important next step in the development of manned space exploration, enabling astronauts to make frequent missions and develop a permanent space station in orbit.” I didn’t keep the letter. I didn’t need to. They’d answered my question. The Spade Shuttle was a logical step in the evolution of manned space exploration.

It’s hard for anyone under 30 to appreciate just how much optimism my generation had about the future of space travel because of the Space Shuttle and what an essential dream it was against the chilling nightmare of the Cold War and terrorist hijackings. The Cold War had fuelled the Space Race, had put men on the Moon, but on Earth it fed, to children like me, a grinding deep fear of nuclear war. Many of the SF movies playing in the cinema or on TV were set in a post apocalyptic world, like Logan’s Run, Silent Running or Beneath the Planet of the Apes. My mother seemed to delight in making her children watch every TV programme about the effects of a nuclear blast. “We need to know this,” she would insist, sitting us down to watch yet another documentary on the effects of radiation sickness. Most of my school compositions of the late 1970s and early 1980s featured nuclear apocalypses or me being kidnapped and held hostage by Italian and German Red Army Brigade guerrilla groups.

The Space Shuttle was,  like its 1970s predecessors, reported regularly on Newsround and the evening news, and a vital counterbalance to the violence and threat of geopolitics. There was even space diplomacy – the 1975 linkup between the Russian Soyuz space station and American Apollo mission, and Skylab – America’s first experimental manned orbital space station, launched in 1976. Most important, our young minds were encouraged to think on a cosmic scale – we absorbed the philosophical wonder of the Voyager probes, launched in 1977, carrying messages from mankind as they headed off towards the edge of our Solar System.

And if the cinema was mostly full of apocalypse, the Shuttle was white and properly “futuristic”; yet, like the Pan Am shuttlecraft to the orbital wheel space station in 2001:A Space Odyssey, familiar-looking. It was also linked to the warmth and grand, optimistic vision of Star Trek repeats and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series, which visualised with real science, the idea of going where no one had gone before. I can still remember the moment he rolled a ball across a blanket to explain space warps and worm holes – the theoretical possibility of a “fast transit system” to our nearest stars. The Shuttle would be a step to getting there.

Many of the Nasa scientists working on the Shuttle programme had been inspired by Star Trek, naming the first orbiter Enterprise. At the heart of its creation was the idea of democratising space travel. The 1970s vogue for what was rather unsexily termed “unisex” styles (matching big hair and top-to-toe denim) was actually the realisation of the 1960s civil rights dream of equality. The Shuttle was the first unisex spacecraft. As a journalist in the 1990s I was to interview Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek’s Lt Uhura) all those years later about her landmark work as a recruiter for Nasa astronauts.

With Nasa promoting broader recruitment, the idea of more routine space travel within 30 or 40 years seemed actually plausible for the 11-year-old me.

Presenter Maggie Philbin left children’s TV to join Tomorrow’s World in 1982, the year after the first Shuttle space launch, where her enthusiasm inspired many viewers. “The promise was that it was ushering in a new era of routine space travel,” she says now. “O sometimes wonder if it was down to the design itself. it looked like a plane. We could imagine ourselves strapped in there.” The name “Shuttle” suggested a mundane public transport system, like Freddie Laker’s SkyTrain, which had just brought affordable trans-Atlantic airtickets to travel-hungry Britain.

Perhaps therein lay the seeds of its doom, marketing-wise. For all the 1970s loveliness of its white curved, wings, it was just a plane. Piggybacking on a jumbo jet infantilised it. Applying some amateur psychoanalysis might the orbiter’s domestic shape – like an iron – have made it in the public subconscious “weak” and “female” compared to the phallic rockets upon which it relied? Within a year it had been lampooned in Airplane II.

Physicist and science author Marcus Chown was a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena in 1983 when he drove out with friends to watch one land at Edwards Air Force base: “I remember staring into the bright sunny sky until someone shouted excitedly: “There it was, a tiny black speck, a spaceship returning to Earth. Immediately I lost it in the glare. It was coming down far faster than a plane – 26-times the speed of sound – and in an arc. It was impossible to follow it. Double supersonic bombs rocked the desert. The next thing I knew, it had landed.” Most of the crowd immediately got in their cars and drove off. But Chown waited and was rewarded: “Real spacemen, in their blue astronaut jumpsuits…were walking towards us across the shimmering desert.”

The Space Shuttle was the next in a remarkable line of energy-hungry, super-noisy, ultrafast engineering marvels that every 1970s British child knew. Thanks to Sir Christopher Cockerell, my generation got to experience the vomit-inducing rollercoaster delights of hovercraft daytrips to the strange otherworldly civilization of France. Rocketing over the choppy waters of a stormy Channel was a reasonable substitute for the G-forces of take-off.

We all stopped in my south London school playground to look up in wonder and desire, everytime we heard the roar of Concorde as it powered up from Heathrow Airport on its transatlantic mission.

As a Channel 4 News reporter  I found myself writing and broadcasting the obituary of each Concorde with a lump in my throat. created just a few years before the 1973 Oil Crisis, their fat was, like the Shuttle’s linked to their unalterable thirst for fossil fuel. And the Space Shuttle had been compromised from the start. It was supposed to be re-usuable, gliding in to land, in contrast to the massive rockets of the Mercury and Apollo programmes. There was an early eco-promise in that. As Marcus Chown points out: “Instead we got a sorry compromise, with solid fuel boosters which had to be replaced and giant fuel tanks that had to be collected from the sea.”

In 1993 the Star Trek-spinoff show, The Next Generation which had brought empathy counsellors and a creche aboard the Enterprise, found that warp speed travel itself was damaging the fabric of the universe and would have to stop. It seemed a metaphor for what had happened to the space programme.

So when did I know that the Space Shuttle was a broken promise? The 1986 Challenger disaster, the year I left school, was, with hindsight, probably the watershed. It was suddenly old. Precious Nasa resources had to be spent on making it safe again, not developing the next step to the stars.

The video gaming that emerged in the early 1980s seemed connected at first to the space programme. But the internet, games consoles like the Wii , the iPad, the handheld shopping scanner I use in the supermarket — all science fiction made science fact – have grounded us in consumerism. An atomised generation, we can play fabulous simulator games, but the grand vision of joint human endeavour and facing a new frontier has gone.

The best hope an 11-year-old today has of making it into space is to become a big shot in the City and save up $200,000 for a rid on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft. it’s like we’re back in the pre-SkyTrain age.

It is no coincidence tha the most stimulating and innovative area of science fiction and fantasy in the USA and Britain now is steampunk – a retreat into a benign Victorian vision of the future. This engineering-focussed Jules Verne and HG Wells’ fantasyland is powered by infinite amounts of black smoking fossil fuels and unashamed romantic derring do.

My son, now 11, himself, and his 9-year-old sister – like many modern children – devour Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines novels in which Victorian cities fly through the air on coal-fuelled steam. At the steampunk exhibition at London’s Key Bridge Steam Museum this summer (2011) many lovers of space travel will be watching 19th-century Cornish beam steam tubines at work, or taking part in tea-duelling. There is nothing in the sky to look at from the playground.

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The Nasa administrator and former Shuttle astronaut, Charles Bolden, was on the defensive at the time of Atlantis’ last launch on 8th July 2011, insisting: “We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking necessary and difficult steps today to ensure America’s pre-eminence in human space exploration for years to come.”

But we feel in our hearts that Nasa’s grand dream has been scuppered by political reality. The Agency was pushed to divert resources on a wild mission-to-Mars project by President Bush in 2004, then informed by post-credit crunch Barack Obama that no, we can’t.

So what do I have left of the Shuttle era? There’s my T-shirt with the 1975 Nasa “worm” logo, bought on a trip to the Huntsville rocket centre in Alabama; its streamlined shape, like the Shuttle, designed to suggest a “modern” vision of space travel. That logo was abandoned in 1992 for a return to the 1950s motif – Nasa itself trying to channel a kind of Right Stuff nostalgia. I have a small rubber fridge magnet of the Shuttle. I bough it at Cocoa Beach in Florida, where my husband and I took our infant son to watch the Mars Odyssey probe launch in 2001. And there’s the giant print of Saturn, one of the many tantalising glimpses into deeper space taken by the Hubble Telescope that hands in our house – images that were only made possible by the engineering feat of those brave astronauts who fixed it in the Shuttle bay; mechanics, not new world explorers.

I follow Nasa’s Voyager 2 Twitter stream, which updates its distance as it moves towards the edge of the heliosheath, at the furthest boundaries of our solar system. It epitomises the gulf between the dream and my domestic internet-enabled entrapment.

When Atlantis touches down for the last time I will do what I have always done.Stop, listen to the understated calm Nasa TV commentary and watch in silence and awe as the supersonic bird arcs down for the last time. When it does, it will indeed, for me, finally, be childhood’s end.

A version of this article was originally published in The Independent in July 2011

Radio 4 Extra Floating In Space  produced by Luke Doran is on BBC Radio 4 Extra Saturday March 1th 9am and 7pm and iplayer after. 






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