The Prisoner: An Anglo Saxon poetic meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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Filth, fury and the funny way Britain feels about Joe Orton

You never forget your first time. I was 19 years old. I descended into a dark, cramped basement where student actors brought to life a weird, twisted sexual triangle. Going to student drama productions in odd spaces around the University was one of my greatest joys of those years in the late 1980s. But this one was like no other. I knew nothing about author or play. It was timeless and simultaneously a nightmare version of a British tv culture familiar and strange from old sitcoms and Carry Ons and earnest black-and-white archive news programmes. Twenty year olds were dressed in nylon negligees and leather trousers and those weird sixties NHS specs playing a sexually frustrated older woman and man; an Adonis like something out of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Modern, So Appealing?

Richard Hamilton (1956)

That performance of Entertaining Mister Sloane and one shortly after of What The Butler Saw sucked me in to a lifelong fascination with Joe Orton, whose plays were hugely popular among my generation of students, 20 years after his death. After graduating I would spend evenings after work listening to the audio version of Kenneth Williams’ brilliantly articulate if misleading published autobiography, talking about his admiration of Joe Orton, and reading Joe Orton’s own graphic diaries alongside them. I endlessly rewatched Stephen Frears’ film of the John Lahr biography Prick Up Your Ears, which remains one of my favourite films of all time, thanks to Alan Bennett’s delicate screenplay.

Most of all I was intrigued by the Malcolm Gladwell-10-thousand hours-esque ten years from RADA to fame. Fifty years after his appalling murder I asked to make a special Front Row for Radio 4 on Friday Aug 11th about this remarkable talent. A working class man of incredible determination and graft, who spent a decade in London reading and writing and honing his skills before fame came. I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone who we spoke to for their interviews and generosity. Special thanks to my wonderful producer Ekene Akalawu who did such an amazing job shaping this programme and editing it.

London made John into Joe Orton, but we wanted to go back to people who knew him and to Leicester, the city that bore him.

The house on the Saffron Lane estate is gone. Joe’s sister Leonie told me she’d pleaded with the council to keep just that one house. The replacement bungalow has a tiny shabby blue plaque easy to miss and almost too high to read. As I look at it I think with frustration of the lucrative tourist industry around Paul McCartney’s National Trust owned council house in Liverpool. I wonder why the councillors of Leicester didn’t see that too?

With Leonie Orton at the Pork Pie Library, Leicester 7th Aug 2017

The Pork Pie Library (it wasn’t called that then, officially) is just round the corner. Leonie Orton, Joe’s youngest sister, who’s become his proudest and most generous champion, drove 3 hours from Norfolk, where she now lives, to talk to me. It’s a stunning art deco building which hasn’t really changed at all since Joe first started bringing her – she was 4, he was 15. She leads me to where they’d go – the children’s section. He’d read her Enid Blytons and Alice in Wonderland. She remembers how much he loved reading Shakespeare and Greek classical drama. One time they walked out and he produced a copy of Black Beauty he’d nicked and gave it to her: “Here, you can keep that.” She was too young to be able to really think about what he’d done. It’s not that anyone thinks the theft is alright. What hits me again and again is the breaktaking sense of anger and defiance of authority alongside the self-instruction that comes from every aspect of Joe Orton’s life. It’s a privilege to talk to Leonie for an hour. Sorry we couldn’t fit it all in the programme.

With Sheila Hancock

Sheila Hancock, who starred in the Broadway production and a 1968 BBC film of Entertaining Mr Sloane shared amazing stories of their friendship. Both had been born the same year, both working class and both overlapped at RADA though they didn’t know eachother as students. She fondly remembers walking with Joe around Greenwich village, pushing her pram, having Sunday lunch with her mum. Given his murder by his partner Kenneth Halliwell, she still feels regret at whether her encouragement of Joe to leave Noel Road and move on might have contributed to their arguments. Her insights into why his work has such enduring power and the impact of it in the still very deferential early 60s is hugely valuable.

John Lahr, author of Orton biography Prick Up Your Ears

John Lahr, who wrote the definitive biography Prick Up Your Ears told me he’d come to the conclusion that revenge was what motivated the greatest comedy. He felt it had motivated Orton and also his own father, the actor Bert Lahr. He also reflected on the sheer power of Orton’s eloquence; how his love of precise language is a skill that is being lost in our instant sharing age.

Daily Mirror August 10th 1967

I also asked John about the modern accusation that his biography, framing Orton in his murder, could be seen to have unfairly defined this writer by his sexuality and his tragic death; a gay martyr. John firmly challenged that idea.

With Dr Emma Parker at New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester

Nor did we shy away from difficult questions about Joe Orton’s sex holidays exploiting teenage boys in Morocco.  Both Leicester University’s Dr Emma Parker and Nikolai Foster, artistic director of Curve theatre, acknowledged how he was a working class iconoclast, who nonetheless displayed a colonial mindset as a sex tourist. Dr Parker does point out that it’s clear from his diaries he never slept with boys under the local age of consent. And it seems important to acknowledge the importance of British criminal law and social attitudes in persecuting and distorting gay men’s lives.

In the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery Dr Parker and I took a closer look at copies of some of the remarkable book covers Orton and Halliwell made and reflected on their excessive 6 month jail sentence for criminal damage. There are two excellent exhibitions on Joe Orton right now. One at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester What The Artist Saw: Art Inspired by the Life and Work of Joe Orton and the other at the National Justice Museum in Nottingham: Crimes of Passion – the Story of Joe Orton. If you thought it was just tearing up books and scribbling in the margins, look again. Dr Parker also had an intriguing theory about Orton defacing only the Arden editions of Shakespeare, used by grammar schools and universities, not the cheaper Everyman editions which he owned and loved.

Nikolai Foster, Curve Artistic Director

Nikolai who directed an acclaimed Curve production of What the Butler Saw, starring Rufus Hound earlier this year, is passionate about how much Orton still speaks to modern Britain about class and deference and sexual taboos. We had a wonderful conversation about how Orton and working class talent is still held at a distance by the theatrical establishment; how much of a battle there still is for fair access and respect. Watching many of the films in the BFI archive, some of them being screened at BFI Southbank this month, it struck me that his work really comes truly alive only as theatre including the potential of TV, rather than the cinematic films which tried to open the stories up into other locations. The Bacchae-inspired TV play The Erpingham Camp, about a revolt in a holiday camp, is still remarkable viewing, and connects like an arrow to the world of Chris Morris and Black Mirror.

Like Curve, Soft Touch Arts, a community based arts project, has done fabulous work to engage young people in Leicester in Joe Orton’s work. Jenna Forbes, who grew up on the Saffron Lane estate, like Joe, was wonderfully passionate, thoughtful and articulate about how he changed her life. Young people have made their own boardgame based on his life. Jenna told me today how it was the most popular object on Wednesday’s opening night of their exhibition. There’s also art work by young prisoners and a copy of Generation X – the 1960s book about young people’s attitudes in which Joe Orton got quoted extensively, after lying about his age. Do visit their show, Breaking Boundaries: Joe Orton and Me at Soft Touch Arts, right opposite the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

After spending a few days absorbed in Joe Orton’s world view, even opening the local Leicester Mercury offered me up an unmistakably Ortonesque headline:

Leicester Mercury August 8th 2017

Sitting in the Pork Pie Library Leonie says what hurts is the thought that now she and Joe would, should have been sharing their stories, and reminiscing. She’s 71; he would have been 84. They should be golden years. Grief must be compounded by an anger we should all feel that he was robbed of all the years he would have gone on to achieve so much more. Her terrific memoir, I Had It In Me, raises important challenges to some of the artistic licence taken in the film of Prick Up Your Ears. It reveals unpleasant truths about how the family has been treated over the years by the literary establishment of agents and lawyers as Leonie tried to take responsible ownership of her brother’s papers. I’m most shocked by the fact that the original London diary has disappeared. Only partial typescript copies survive of the original that John Lahr was able to use in his research. The missing last few entries in the days before Joe’s murder have never been found. There are theories about whether they were removed to protect famous names alive at the time. Perhaps some or all of these papers are sitting in a lawyer’s vault. It still feels as if there’s a middle class Establishment attempt to control and limit the raw power of what Joe Orton could do with words.

My Front Row Joe Orton special  produced by Ekene Akalawu is on BBC Radio 4 on Friday August 11th at 715pm and via this link and iplayer after.

Further  reading

People at Work: Richard III and the 60s Town Planner (2013)

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Oh Boy! Why certain Radio 1 DJs are missing believed wiped

If you sat down to watch a night of lost pop music TV shows from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, what would you expect to find?  Fun, nostalgia, eye popping colour and experimentation, some great music. What I didn’t expect to find was that technical brilliance was reached in 1958 and never equalled since. Or that a modern purging of archive would result in shows being screened with an attempt to edit out the presence of abusers who thrived in the sexual predatory culture that was such a prominent part of TV production till  the 1990s. So here goes with my account of last Saturday’s Missing Believed Wiped session at the British Film Institute Southbank, organised with the archive rescue production house, Kaleidoscope: 

The highlight of the evening was the unmatched technical and innovative magnificence of Oh Boy! Mostly lost, as the live shows were rarely kept on tape, the pioneering British TV music show was a remarkable achievement of slick rehearsal and theatrical staging that made decades of Top Of The Pops look amateur and lazy. Brought up only on TOTP and its equivalents, Oh Boy!, broadcast live before an audience from the Hackney Empire, was a revelation to me. The rediscovered and earliest complete show from November 1958 used shadows, spotlights and careful direction that I’ve never seen bettered. I had assumed Oh Boy! was carefully edited for its seamless, Hollywood feel. Weirdly the easiest way to get a sense of its style is in watching the show sequence that Cliff Richard and his chums put on in an old abandoned theatre to save their youth club in The Young Ones.

There was also a palpable sense of the real range of popular music that British teens might be consuming at the time with their families, and the social change afoot as Caribbean and African American acts took equal stage presence with home grown stars such as Richards, Lord Rockingham’s 11 and the John Barry 7. The single stand out moment of the episode was the exuberant Blue Danube Cha Cha performed by a lady who seemed to be a cross between Audrey Hepburn, Fanny Craddock and Margarita  Pracatan.

As veteral Radio 1 DJ Pete Murray said at the event: “Jack Good was the greatest TV director of all time. No one could touch that today.” I have to agree.

Everything else suffered in comparison. It was impossible to watch the old Top of The Pops episodes from 1969 and 1975, without cringing even more than before at the poor direction and lame literalness in props and Pan’s People choreography. Cameras too low or too high; fumbling, unflattering shots that only started to move after the director had cut to them, an obsession with closing in on scaffolding-based glittery sets to peep through the bars; huge spaces left in the audience for the cameras to lumber through. The worst of these, was the recording of Adam Ant singing Strip for Supersonic in December 1983. He was fine, in his prime and never less than game, but the director seemed to think the way to use the giant tin foil set, huge and empty, like a copy of Starlight Express, was to peer like a peeping tom from its periphery as if held there by centrifugal-forces. Twice a camera assistant in a blouson jacket appeared prominently to jerk a giant cable around. It still got broadcast.

The 1967 Border TV clip “Cock O’ The Border” offered Diana Dors wielding both a whip and a knife against a grinning hirsute man she seemed to be hunting in some riverside shrubbery. It was enough to confirm every London child’s fear of The Borders.

Keith Martin(l), David Hamilton

The whole evening was expertly compered by the genial David Hamilton looking delightful youthful, with a little help from fellow good guy Pete Murray – proof that the Radio 1 DJs have divided into the Dark Side and the nice ones. For early on as they discussed the transition from shows like Oh Boy! to TOTP came the mention of Jimmy Savile – “if I may use that word”. It was a legitimate question. The DJ presenter links had been edited out of many of the episodes on show because they featured Dave Lee Travis. Chris Perry from Kaleidoscope, which runs Missing Believed Wiped confirmed that it was the BBC’s decision. My understanding is that it’s the criminal conviction for sexual assault and DLT’s lost appeal against it that the BBC has used to determine whether such presenters should be shown in BBC archive material. But it gave the whole evening a strange sense of artifice. Here we were watching entire programmes with certain people exorcised from them. In terms of continuity links we were left with little but Ed Stewpot Stewart (another of the good guys, I assumed) getting a gift from a sailor off HMS Fife. Although a BBC colleague has, since I first wrote this blogpost, reminded me of some of the questionable attitudes in Stewart’s autobiography.

You had to listen out for the snippets of reality. Like The Who got to sing about “girls of 15, sexually knowing” in that 4/1/73 TOTP, to appreciate what was no big deal at the time. Unease came in odd juxtapositions: In another TOTP of that era the Bay City Rollers (who we now know, were horribly exploited and some were sexually abused by their notorious manager Tam Paton – the so-called Jimmy Savile of Scotland) were bizarrely draped on a line of Rolls Royces while the drummer was raised up and down on a hydraulic lift. I can’t get away from the appalling direction.

Interestingly with the whole audience all too aware of the underlying culture of sexual creepiness in the entertainment business at the time,  the Screaming Lord Sutch 1969 Jack The Ripper pop video, contained a certain kind of innocent charm. This clip, incidentally was a gem recovered from the huge mass of tapes kept by the late Bob Monkhouse.

Rod the Mod – a black and white 1965 documentary about the young Rod Stewart – was a helpful reminder of how unimaginatively filmmakers aped the highbrow Monitor and Face To Face style of acclaimed TV formats. The topic was fascinating – young Rod living above his parents’ shop, talking clothes, music and his brief engagement with politics in CND: “We used to go down to Trafalgar Square to see Bertrand Russell… but it’s played out. Nothing in it. It’s just had it now.” Plus a delightful sense of how early he’d transitioned to the essential state of mind of the great 70s rock star:  “There’s a lot of apathy now. I used to worry a lot, but now I don’t care”. But it was shot with ludicrous pretentiousness, closeups so tight on bits of his face – half a lip a bit of his forehead -that it was impossible to focus or concentrate on what he was saying. John Schlesinger’s Darling was parodying this sort of guff in the same year. And by 1967 Peter Watkin was drawing out the sinister in pop in his documentary style dystopia Privilege. Oh for a sensible head and shoulders shot. Still it was fun hearing Rod’s dad observe of his son’s slavish dedication to pointy shoes/Cuban boots: “He had to go into hospital with a septic toe”.

Vision mixer turned director Steve Turner brought some welcome visual originality as he discussed his BBC2 series, Colour Me Pop.  The show was commissioned in 1968 when the BBC decided to introduce colour, and while it hasn’t all dated well, his shows experimented with wonderful sweetness with the idea of what a pop band, a rural location and some pretty, rainbow-coloured, floaty materials might do to showcase the “power” of colour tv;  like Help! crossed with Witchfinder General.

Even more intriguingly ex pirate DJ Keith Martin, revealed that as a continuity announcer on BBC TV he would, on early shift, be required to turn on the Crystal Palace transmitter with a special key which then set off the relay of transmitters around the country. Essentially the turned on TV all over the nation. It was the sweet sense of trust that we marvelled at. No thought that anyone might swear or abuse the power.  That sense of honest loyalty to the Corporation comes through talking with so many veteran BBC workers I’ve met over the years. The abuses of the likes of Savile stand out all the more for their reliance on his entitled position with those in power, running institutions, not serving them.

Martin and Hamilton both mused on the rule-breaking selective promotion of powerful BBC stars.  Most mocked screening of the night: Bruce Forsyth singing a bizarre maudlin ballad, most sincerely, folks, about an alcoholic suicidal housewife with post natal depression on TOTP. Sample lyrics: “She’s a good little housewife, but sometimes she talks like a fool.” It wasn’t in the charts, which was against the rules for getting on the show. “But it WAS produced by BBC records,” they pointed out.

One of the joys of the watching entire episodes and bits of continuity of 60s ad 70s TV is that sense of dipping your head into the water of a sustained chunk of archive and find yourself in a land that time forgot. A fawning lovestruck male presenter on Granada Reports (Tony Wilson) couldn’t hide his infatuation as he realised he was actually getting to interview Debbie Harry before a performance by Blondie. It was somehow fresh, in a way that modern jaded pop presenters and celebrity news anchors can never achieve.

But again and again it was the horror of poor directing that you noticed – staging a Hot Gossip number in a narrow corridor facing out on the grass– on a 1984 Pebble Mill At One. There’s an act that hasn’t dated well with its solemn mission to be naughty.  That dance move when you pretended to gripped someone’s hair and yank it. They did it a lot.  Though thanks to Arlene Phillips for finding and donating the footage.

An episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test from 1973 managed to film keyboard Merlin, Rick Wakeman, entirely from behind.

In conclusion Chris Perry emphasised their unease with the exorcising of certain presenters from footage. “We try to unearth the past, we don’t try to make judgements about the past.”

Missing Believed Wiped always challenges my assumptions in some way. It continues to offer a valuable insight into the way we lived till just before now, and a nation’s shared escape and fun through the ravenous eye of the TV screen, in the days of mass communal viewing. I’m not sure I disagree with the BBC’s decision about footage at this stage in time; criminal and official public inquiries are ongoing. But that can’t be a longterm policy.

Nice stuff I learned: Jethro Tull, despite all my prejudices, looked like a lot of mad Wombling fun. Julie Driscoll was damned sexy and charismatic. They even found someone good to direct her. But the most powerful impression I took away was the realization that no one has ever made a pop show more exciting and original than Oh Boy!


Further reading

How RBS bankers wiped The Life of Brian rushes: Stories from Missing Believed Wiped






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The making of The Stars of Sergeant Pepper

What are Mae West and Diana Dors doing on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’ Lonely Hearts Club band? If you feel you’ve heard too much already about the 50th anniversary of  the record, then fear not. Producer Luke Doran (who modestly insisted on remaining hidden in the photo above) came to me with the genius idea of exploring all the faces on the sleeve. Hence we’ve put together 13 hours of archive dramas, documentaries and interviews this Saturday on Radio 4 Extra: The Stars of Sergeant Pepper. Why were they there? What did they represent? And how did they make that photo shoot anyway?

The BBC Grams library copy of the album was only partly helpful. Though the large Please Return Promptly sticker might explain why this original mono copy has survived all these years without being pinched.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Luke and the team at BBC Radio 4 Extra dug out some gems from the archive including a Shirley Jenkins story The Child, starring Marlene Dietrich. And a dramatization of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum from 1943, never we think re-broadcast since. Paul’s girlfriend Jane Asher had of course starred in Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, one of his landmark cycle of Poe adaptations in the 1960s.

“You did WHAT in the 60s?” With Barry Miles

In between we’ve done new interviews about the shoot. Barry Miles was there. He ran the Indica bookshop at the time and recalls Paul McCartney coming in to check out books and a shopping list of names being sent by The Beatles. You might like to check out Chris Shaw’s website – Sergeant Pepper Photos – which is tracing the provenance of every photograph used on the cover.

Artist Jann Howarth who co-designed the cover with her then partner Peter Blake gave me a wonderful interview, speaking from her home in Salt Lake City. She explained how her father, the Hollywood designer of such films as Some Like It Hot was in London working on the Half A Sixpence film. He suggested some Hollywood illusion work to help create the crowd of stars, sticking the photo heads onto cardboard stands and treating them with a special varnish. Howarth also has strong views about the lack of women on the cover and is involved in work on a mural in Salt Lake City correcting the imbalance.

Alec Guiness in the 1952 film of The Card

I particularly loved her insight into how the Beatles originally conceived the shoot as a parody of them as Northern boys getting the freedom of the city  from a mayor in front of a floral clock. It seemed such a sophisticated self aware idea, not dissimilar to the image of Arnold Bennett’s The Card – the young maverick who defied expectations and came back a hero. The flowers that were delivered made that impossible and Jann recalls the challenge in coming up with an alternative budget design before they all wilted. The story about the shoot is a marvel of make do and mend. She reckons she and Peter were paid no more than a couple of hundred pounds between them.

Luke went to Madame Tussauds archive to find out about the sad Ringo and those other wax figures that join the Beatles – Diana Dors and boxer Sonny Liston. While Matthew Sweet offered expert knowledge on the Victoriana obsession of the mid 60s.

Smashing Time (1967)

I remember George Melly at a screening of Smashing Time (also 1967) recalling how the Victorian dresses Rita Tushingham wears and Alice in Wonderland references – (Lewis Carroll is on the cover of Sergeant Pepper too) were the height of fashion at the time of shooting. He said hostile critics complained the fashion was already obsolete by the time the film came out.

So whether you’ve heard the album or not, the Stars of Sergeant Pepper is a fascinating delve into the cultural attic of a decade and an insight into the richness and ambition of McCartney’s mind especially, hanging out with beat writers like Burroughs and Ginsberg, listening to avant garde composers. While Harrison’s fascination with Hindu spiritualism is expressed in 3 gurus and the goddess Lakshmi. John in stockbroker belt Weybridge will soon break out. Decades before we began presenting carefully curated profiles of our influences on social media, the cover of Sergeant Pepper is an analogue template. 40 years before MySpace and decent digital photo manipulation here is the very idea of a personalised web presence composed in real time, with decaying flowers and bits of card and sticky tape.

Luke has found some breaktaking bits of archive, notably the jeering mockery of Diana Dors on an edition of Any Questions. Listen out for it ahead of her Desert Island Discs. It’s a sobering reminder of the attitude lag among powerful public figures towards younger people and any women in the public eye who defied conservative social convention. And for those of you who cherish her presence in Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming video, it will make you love her more.

Dion Dimucci, one of only 5 survivors from the cover, reflects on his presence and the fact that he was supposed to be on the plane that crashed, carrying Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. And for anyone who grew up fascinated by the disappearing world of old Hollywood, variety and music hall there are gems aplenty in our 13 hours of programming to keep them alive in our collective memory.


The Stars of Sergeant Pepper is on BBC Radio 4 Extra from 9am to 10pm on Saturday June 3rd and iplayer after.


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Stop making do. Is Britain up for mending a culture of exploitation?

A few years ago I was in a cathedral with 400 sixth formers. We were debating ethics and green living. Many seemed very concerned. “How many of you buy cheap clothes that you throw away?” I asked. I saw plenty of unsettled expressions. At that time textiles volume had grown massively as a proportion of UK landfill – it’s still 350,000 tonnnes a year – linked directly to cheap manufacturing in the Far East, sold at dirt cheap prices by high street chains turning big profits on large turnover.

If you can buy a cool new outfit so cheap, who cares if it falls apart? Wear it a couple of times and throw it away. It turns out Britain could mutate from a make do and mend attitude that endured well past the 70s, into a throwaway nation in just one generation. It’s not teenagers I blame. Adult Britain at large needs to examine its conscience through its spending.

You may not buy illegal counterfeit cigarettes that avoid duty (many do), but what about some of those cheap nail bars and makeshift carwashes that have sprung up nationwide? As I learned recently at a government conference on tackling serious organised crime, these can be big business for criminal gangs exploiting trafficked migrants. That’s slave labour. It all relies on nice law abiding citizens turning a blind eye because, well it’s so cheap isn’t it? Maybe trafficked people would rather be exploited than deported and who wants to get sucked into that political issue? And anyway everyone else is going.

There are cannabis factories; pop up brothels offer trafficked and abused women in a short term online rented flat near you. “Pop up” brothels? This is a phenomenon. But wait, what about the market for the happy home grown, ethically sourced British sex worker we hear so much about? I ask a senior female police officer who’s worked in tackling sex trafficking for years. She looks at me with matter of fact bemusement. In her experience the kind of men going out to buy sex are not worried about whether the woman has been coerced or not. How did so many British men come to think it was ok?

Even without obvious criminal exploitation, the zero hours contract and task economy requires a lot of blind eye turning. Look again when visiting major cinema chains. Do you see young low-paid staff, never enough on duty to cope with the queues or the cleaning, or to notice that the sound isn’t on in your screen? Maybe they’ve improved the website to make it easier and cheaper to buy tickets online. Unless you want to buy overpriced snacks you needn’t come face to face with a harried overworked young person and feel guilty. An unintended but welcome consequence for cost-cutting senior management.

So here we all are, spending less per visit, but buying more and more leisure services. Not just cinemas, but in theme parks, chain restaurants and budget airlines. Companies have worked out ways to maximise profits (pay extra for a fast pass because the rides are understaffed and leave others to fume in a long waiting line) to keep up the illusion of value. The task economy, under the claim of “flexible” working has created new jobs that offer cheapness on the back of unprotected workers and tiny per-unit payments. When so many of us working are so hard for so little, we are encouraged to crave our treats more than ever. Just click and order.

It is easy to be nostalgic as one gets older. And look where nostalgia has got Britain since last year’s EU referendum But if we are going back to the 1970s in terms of our national independence, then we should look a little harder, beyond the possible return of blue passports, at some perhaps worthy values we held then, too. An American tech entrepeneur from Silicon Valley reminded me the other day how unions ensured a standard of living that enabled most citizens to become aspirational consumers. Win win. The challenger voice in the 70s said the personal is political. Look it up on wikipedia. The slogan reminded us all that our individual actions including how we consumed, said something profound about our values as a society. With a pending general election, it might not be a bad thing to adopt it again as we seek to redefine ourselves as a nation.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue. Online subscriptions available here.

Further reading

30 pop up brothels a week in Swindon (BBC News Feb 2017)


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The making of Do Pass Go: boardgames in the internet age

Do Pass Go my BBC Radio 4 documentary, airing on Friday April 14th 2017, has its origins in a piece I wrote about the Libyan dictator General Gadaffi playing chess on TV in the run up to his toppling, and in my bemusement about the global success of Settlers of Catan. I had built up a big collection of old boardgames from my own youth and was intrigued by the new generation of youthful players that were spawning board gaming cafes and carving out their  own terrain separate to online or video games. This post features some of the many amazing designers and players we didn’t always have time for in the final edit. Thanks to everyone who made the time to talk to us.

All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use without permission

If you’re ever wondered why the city of Essen features on so many game board maps, such as Pandemic and Ticket To Ride, that’s because it and Germany remain the heart of the boardgaming world. Producer Michael Surcombe and I started our journey in Essen at Spiel 16, where new games are launched, judged and players gather.

Vikings and terraforming Mars were the big trends, with several different competing games, such as Mission To Mars 2049. Its creator Dagnis Skurbe from Latvia, who’s been living and working in London for several years, was inspired by recent NASA missions. You realize how long some of these games are in gestation.

On the train from Dusseldorf to the Essen Messe I met Grant Dalgliesh, proprietor of the Canadian boardgames company set up by his father in 1972; one of the many small board game entrepreneurs among the giant corporate brands. He was relaunching The Last Spike, a railway building game inspired by the Robber Barons of the American railroad. The game has a focused 20 minute running time, cash and strategy and much more fun than Monopoly.

Dalgliesh observes: “The choices that a designer has to make are the hardest part. It’s easy to make a complicate game with endless rules. Less is more. That’s what I believe to be the skill.” So lots of insight into how a good game works, and the balance between ease of play and challenge to make you want to return. I notice it’s one that the teenagers I know choose to play again and again.

I meet groups of friends trying out great new versions of Pandemic. There’s Legacy where the board is adapted and changes permanently, Cthulhu based on HP Lovecraft, and the slower period version Iberia – set in a 19th century pandemic – where you can’t just dispatch a medical team on a jet plane, but must build your own railroad between cities.

Friedemann Friese – a big and literally green name in board games – tells me how he began designing them aged 11. Power Grid is one of his many successes.


There are first timers in Essen too, some with an activist agenda. It was great to meet Jessy Bradish and a team of Northern Californian environmentalists who were still crowdsourcing funding for Climate Oasis, a climate change awareness and avoidance game. Beware the flaming tornadoes. This rather appealed to me having grown up with 60s and 70s SF dystopias like Beneath the Planet of the Apes. You can follow their progress on twitter @climateoasis.

Adult boardgames from Eastern Europe were quite a thing. Neon Limbo redemption which its Croatian promoter described to me as “a medieval strategy game with neon”. So think Victorian steampunk mixed era. I think this involved drinking and getting a bit sexy.

There was much praise from our game experts for the multi award winning CodeNames, a Czech code breaking game that seemed to build on the challenge of the old 70s Mastermind, and has the purity of a simple idea behind the addictive play.

On the shortlist for the Deutscher Spiele Prize 2016,  T.I.M.E. Stories by Manuel Rozoy epitomized another big trend – for puzzle solving locked room boardgames played by a group. (A bit like the old BBC TV Adventure Game?)

The overall winner Mombasa – a German game about land grabbing in imperial Africa – has cover art focused on a white imperial hand with a quill pen, while basket carrying natives toil in the background. It seemed a strangely specific Settlers of Cataan with a deeply odd lack of colonial awareness, which, I am told, is quite a thing with German games and players, where historical focus in schools has always been on the Nazis rather than earlier imperial atrocities.

Speaking of Nazis, what did German students make of Revenge of the Dictators, a fun game from the Netherlands based on stealing radioactive material, trying to take over the world and retiring to a desert island? This group of German friends I met were insightful, witty and thoughtful. I’m sorry our conversation didn’t make the final edit.

With Tom Vasel

I seek out Tom Vasel, mathematician ex-pastor and guru of The Dice Tower gaming portal, for some spiritual enlightenment and context. He says board games have become very international. It used to be the USA v Germany. Then France, Italy, Eastern Europe. But there are more Polish publishers here. Then Japanese, Taiwan, Korea and even some from Africa.

He says he can usually guess where games are from as they have a certain feel. American games,observes Vasel, are usually about conflict. German games are very analytical. The French mix the two. Japan is about unusual weird things like the rabbits getting a divorce. Polish games mix everything together – war, historical, fantasy eg Cry Havoc. “It’s like Avatar. People are going to a planet mining the minerals.”

Ethics have a strange relationship with boardgames as games can be a fantasy escape, a bonding social ritual and a way of thinking out strategy. Autumn, a seriously good Magic the Gathering player offers a personal insight into how the world of semi professional competition has given her confidence.

James Wallis demonstrates Elephants On Parade

James Wallis has turned his love of board games into a fascinating business at Spaaace – an agency that uses games in their business consultancy. We had the most wonderful time comparing favourite games from our childhoods and he talks me through why Elefant Parade – a German boardgame from 1983 – is perfection. A simple idea with endless playing satisfaction plus beautifully designed and weighted, quality wooden pieces. Don’t start me on cheap tiny pieces and boards. Wallis says you’d find Nine Men Morris boards carved into cathedrals by medieval craftsmen. It’s part of human culture.

Irving Finkel: Keeper of Cuneiform

So where else to go but back in time to the beginning of games. I seek out the British Museum’s keeper of Cuneiform Irving Finkel, who is also an expert on board games. We’ve previously discussed how the Nazis made horrific anti Semitic family board games (Juden Heraus) and Vasel has pointed out how boardgames after the war were a central idea of German social rebuilding and familial reconstruction.

Finkel deciphered the rules to the Royal Game of Ur off a clay tablet; I guess you could call it the Rosetta Stone of boardgames. It’s like a much faster combination of Ludo and Backgammon; part strategy, part chase. It was to be superseded by Chess and Backgammon. It takes him a minute or so to explain it to me and we play. It is totally compelling. Irving and I ponder our link to the great civilisations of homo sapiens through the prism of boardgames. Sadly the British Museum no longer licenses or sells versions of The Royal Game of Ur. I eye the few copies on his shelf enviously as I leave.

Do Pass Go  is on Radio 4 on Good Friday April 14th 2017 and on iplayer after.

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The poison that is destroying civility and how to fight it

Alexander Mackinnon filmed by the woman he was racially abusing

‘How did you get into first class? You don’t deserve to be in first class.

‘You should be in common class. In fact, you shouldn’t be in this country at all.

‘You don’t deserve to be here. 
Bloody foreigners. Where were you 
even born?’

The words of Alexander Mackinnon, a 47-year-old, public school-educated solicitor hurled at a Scottish woman, who happens to be of Asian descent, Sanaa Shahid and her 4 year old son on a train.

Shahid calmly challenged his behaviour, called a member of train staff to witness what was going on and filmed the ongoing verbal abuse on her mobile phone. Thanks to her, MacKinnon was arrested and fined this month, after admitting racially aggravated offences. But, as Shahid, said, ‘There were another 10 to 12 
passengers in the carriage and 
not one of them spoke up. That was shocking too.”

MacKinnon had been drunk at the time, which we all know lifts inhibitions. But as official police figures from England Wales confirmed a 41% spike in reported hate crimes in the three months after the EU referendum compared to the year before, many people are asking how deep and widespread such views really are? Has there been a collective lifting of inhibitions from closet racists and misogynists, who might now feel emboldened to express their real feelings?

Anecdotally I’ve heard white male friends describe experiencing threats for the first time in London – “Are you a Jew?” hurled on a crowded tube train at a sole traveller, A group of heterosexual couples threatening to beat up another as a “poofter” because he dared to complain when they shouldered him violently off the pavement as they walked 6 abreast blocking the way.

Civility – the idea of being decent to eachother, is entwined with the idea of citizenship. How we behave as a society defines who we are.  By coincidence a few days after this column originally appeared in The Big Issue the former prime minister Sir John Major spoke about civility in connection with the rise of anti immigrant political parties across Europe. Speaking at Chatham House he said:

“I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities. It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.”

I can’t help wondering if the verbal abuse now routinely inflicted on MPs and judges in recent months, has corroded acceptable standards of discourse to dangerous levels. The far right links of the murderer of MP Jo Cox are truly disturbing.

This House at the Garrick Theatre, London (Feb 2017)

I was mulling on this incivility at the theatre the other night. This House, set in the troubled minority government of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan looks all the more like a time capsule from an alien world. A world in which unwritten rules of fair play governed the Commons. Pairing MPs from opposing sides to prevent unfair advantage – if one side’s went sick, the pair would not vote either. An understanding that there was a core civility beneath the policy rows that superceded political positions.

By chance that night I found myself sitting next to the Commons speaker John Bercow and his wife Sally. It was the very day Speaker Bercow had hit the headlines for declaring that President Trump should not address Parliament on a future state visit because, Bercow had said, “as far as this place is concerned, I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary, are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”

Mr Bercow explained to me why he felt so strongly. There was a clear and assured sense of moral right and wrong in why he’d said what he did. I find it personally fascinating that he’s gone on such a political journey over his career from the younger member of the controversial Monday Club, to a public campaigner against racism. And none of his furious fellow Tory MPs campaigning to sack him are citing the moral and ethical concerns in his words, but only his break with the rules, the protocol of Parliament.

One can see entirely that rules matter. That there is a case to say Mr Bercow has broken with the strict impartiality required of the Speaker. But the circumstances of this battle matter. It’s a time when so many people are intimidated and feel threatened by what they perceive as emboldened racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes from prominent and powerful public figures.

Many BBC viewers/readers complained about this headline and tweet

The row over Bercow reminds us that rules are in danger of being used to by-pass what are hugely important ethical and moral concerns. As the bullying of Gina Miller, who stood up for the primacy of Parliament, reveals, we are living through a time of intimidation and shouting down. Incidentally the BBC received many complaints for the clickbait way an interview with Ms Miller was tweeted with the headline: “Is Gina Miller the most hated woman in the UK?”

It would be good if more senior managers and editors of news organizations cared to look at the increasingly racist abuse being sent to their staff, such as Sky’s political editor, Faisal Islam and thought about their responsibility in setting the bar for acceptable public discourse.

It’s time to restore some civility to public service of all kinds, as much as on our public streets and transport. That means showing solidarity by standing up to intimidation, bullying and harrassment when you see it and keeping up complaints to broadcasters and other media outlets to prevent civility’s further erosion.

This is an updated version of the article that appeared in The Big Issue in February 2017

Further viewing/reading

Video of John Major’s Chatham House Speech (civility comments from 18 min)


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The making of John Ruskin’s Eurythmic Girls

John Ruskin’s Eurythmic Girls is a Radio 3 Sunday Feature which airs this Sunday Feb 26th at 645pm

Intellectual and art school champion of medieval art he may have been, but it is John Ruskin’s alleged horror of female pubic hair that seems to define him in the popular imagination now. I first heard the claim as an undergraduate. Emma Thompson’s film Effie Grey appeared to add that he was an oppressed mummy’s boy, too. My documentary programme grew out of an invitation to address Speech Day at Queenswood School in Hertfordshire 2 years ago which suddenly opened up a new way of seeing him.

The school had been named in reference to Of Queens’ Gardens, Ruskin’s famous speech and subsequently published essay about raising girls like flowers, to be educated and freed from the narrowest constraints of traditional feminine upbringing. Archivist Dr Wendy Bird showed me photos, letters and a mini mock up of the infamous “purple horror” floaty Liberty-designed dresses that early pupils would wear for special occasions. There was a white wafting gown, too, really very Isadora Duncan, to dance like flowers. I was fascinated by the unashamedly aesthetic glamour. There were photos of the Queen Mother who came to a display back in the 1950s.

Sutton High School chemistry lab designed by teacher Annette Hunt (far right) photo taken between 1895 and 1928 (photo SHS archives)

I thought of my own memories of attending a girls’ school, founded in 1880 and of the many like it; their photographs of Victorian and Edwardian girls in laboratories or lined up in teams as hockey players in long skirts and piecrust collared blouses. How did girls’ education come so rapidly to include the same ambitions of sporting and scientific prowess as boys? Did Ruskin, even before the female suffrage movement, help set that off?

I enlisted Simon and Thomas Guerrier, my regular Sunday Feature producers from HG and the H Bomb and The Fundamentalist Queen, to help me explore John Ruskin’s Victorian vision of female liberation.

Ruskin wanted to educate women only as far as they would make superior wives and companions for their empire building husbands, and bear healthy children. Actor Toby Hadoke does a wonderful job bringing him to life for us, while Dr Matthew Sweet, author of Inventing the Victorians, gives an insight into his huge intellectual celebrity. But it wasn’t a simple revisionist thesis, to reclaim Ruskin the medievalist as a feminist. There was a prejudicial disgust at what he regarded as inferior races. The V&A’s excellent Lockwood Kipling exhibition catalogue on the renowned sculptor and art and design teacher points out that Ruskin dismissed the richness of Indian art because of his insistence they were savages.

Drill at Darley St School (copyright Leeds Library and Museum)

Yet there were clearly so many revolutionary ideas brewing in his theories. At a time when reading novels was considered dangerous for female minds he promoted the idea that girls should have a wide education in science and art (though not theology) and that a “noble girl” should be given free rein in books as she would choose wisely and not be harmed. Asa Briggs’ Victorian Things quotes his advice, in a letter to a girl correspondent, about using a magnifying glass to look at crystals: “I send you one for yourself, such as every girl should keep in her waistcoat pocket always handy.”

Talking fit bodies with Fern Riddell

At the British Museum Fern Riddell, author of A Victorian Guide To Sex discussed Ruskin and Charles Kingsley’s fascination with the muscular bodies of the Greeks in their loose robes. The idea that healthy bodies made healthy minds would have had a political power in Victorian England, where childbirth was so dangerous and malnutrition, poverty and child labour stunted growth. But Riddell warned against giving too much credit to Ruskin and his friends, when women doctors and health campaigners were at the forefront of female education programmes around sexual health. Still isn’t there a fascinating modern legacy in women, whether homemakers or career women, obsessed with both success and strength, having abs as honed as those of Jessica Ennis Hill?

With Dr Debbie Challis and Dr Amara Thornton. 3 career women discussing Ruskin & mummies around the kitchen table

Dr Debbie Challis from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL and Dr Amara Thornton from the Institute of Archaeology, UCL offered insight into the world of adult education opening up for women who whether as archaeological explorers themselves, or night school enthusiasts, signed up to study the growing knowledge about the Egyptian and classical worlds.

At Angels Costumes with Louise Scholz-Conway

Ruskin’s focus was on middle class women as the angels of the hearth. To get an insight into what physical liberation meant to them, Simon insisted I needed to try on corsets at Angels Costumes. The experience challenged another of my lazy assumptions – that women hated corsets. To liberate oneself from the feeling of protection and support it gave at a time when women were considered physically weaker, required a significant leap of faith.

The dancing that schools like Queenswood promoted represented both a very Ruskinian idea of the intrinsic beauty of the feminine and a delightfully female-focussed physicality. The school staged elaborate classical and mythological based plays and masques. The development of Delacroze Eurythmics formalized aesthetic ideals amid the more traditional wholesomeness of outdoor games.

Queenswood register (Queenswood archives)

One of the most moving moments of making the programme was when Dr Wendy Bird showed me through the registers of Queenswood School. Reading the entries of when girls joined and when and why they left was an insight into changing times: In the early years many were returning home to nurse invalid relatives or to early marriage. But surprisingly fast, they are going to be teachers and company clerks, and increasingly to university, as female colleges began to flourish.

Old Queenswood girls Annette Haynes (L) Diane Maclean (centre) Dr Jean Horton (seated)

For our programme Queenswood brought together old girls Annette Haynes, Dr Jean Horton and Diane Maclean, from the 1930s and 40s who remembered eurythmic dancing lessons and the unexpected paths their lives took after. They looked themselves up in the register Dr Horton holds in the photograph.  Some of their generation had become wives of empire, joining husbands working for Western corporations in Africa and the Far East, but others, like Dr Horton, a renowned anaesthetist in Hong Kong, never married, defying the goal Ruskin had in mind for his flower girls.

Queenswood girls today: Check out those badges

It was fun to read Ruskin’s own views on girls to current sixthformers (left to right above) Isobel Beynon, Aoife Morgan Jones and Natasha Ragan, and hear what they made of him. Their blazers were festooned with shields and badges celebrating sporting and debating and academic success; exactly the kind of ambition Ruskin thought so unladylike.

The Victorian ladies’ schools that still thrive today, and there are many of them, have long defied the idea of producing humble helpmeets. Girls from all over the old Empire come to get a British girls’ school education. Would Ruskin flinch in horror, Effie Gray-style at the monster he’d created? Does it matter? Now more than ever a young woman finds herself entering a garden of delights thanks to the possibilities of a good well rounded education.

With gratitude to all our interviewees, but especially the staff and pupils of Queenswood School.

John Ruskin’s Eurythmic Girls is on Radio 3 on Sunday February 26th 2017 at 630pm and iplayer after


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How to win the coming culture war in 2017

A version of this article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine in January 2017. Journalism worth paying for. Available weekly from street vendors or subscriptions here.

History rarely falls into neat numerical decades. I would assert the 1980s (yuppies, power suits, a money obsession) didn’t really end till the mid 1990s when a new generation of politicians began to take power. Policies and attitudes take a while to gain momentum and once they do (as with equal marriage and attitudes to homosexuality) they can make a seismic impact.

Similarly since the US Election and the EU referendum there’s a major debate about whether supposed liberal progressive values have been rejected and the alt-right is in the ascendant. A battle you might say between those who want to make society better versus those who want to make it “like it used to be”. But go to the cinema, turn on the TV, read some books, and you’ll find that “mainstream” doesn’t change that fast.

Shortly after the US presidential election I went to interview the directors of the smash hit Disney film Moana and found two boyishly smiling sixty something white men dressed in Hawaiian shirts. Ron Clements and Jon Musker joined Disney as young art graduates in the early 1970s and trained under Walt’s first generation of animators who made such classics as Pinocchio. They pioneered technology with early CGI in Basil the Great Mouse Detective but also changing attitudes. Encouraged by conversations with their female storyboard artists, they’ve written strong women like Meg in Hercules for years. “We started this movie 5 years ago,” points out Ron Clements, “but,” Jon Musker jumps in, “if it’s an inspiration for young women to follow their own inner voices and feel that they don’t have limits and if it’s an inspiration for people to celebrate diversity and culture we like that result.” I realized two things. The first was how much joy there was in their work (Duayne Johnson’s character’s tattoos show all his feelings however hard he tries to hide them).

But I also realized this is the frontline. This is what Susan Faludi has called the Thirty Years War that many who support Trump are waging against social change. But the fact remains that a major American corporation like Disney now instinctively wants to make inclusive films that don’t patronize girls or boys. And it’s normal that older white men, as much as anyone else, get it.

In short the progressive stuff that had been going on for 30 years hasn’t just stopped. In fact it’s all the more noticeable.

Jane Seymour reminded us last month that her long running TV show Doctor Quinn: Medicine Woman (1993-98) was no guilty pleasure, but essential Vitamin C in the fight against prejudice and environmental short sightedness: “Pollution in the water, intolerance to different cultures, medical choices of whether to go to a doctor or believe in faith medicine, dealing with immigration, book burning, fear of people’s sexuality, the history of what happened with the native people – you name it, we touched on it,” she said in an interview with Metro in December 2016. “I knew it was a good show when I did it, but looking back on some of the issues we dealt with is phenomenal – and people have been dealing with them for a long time.”

The new Wonder Woman film has high expectations for Gal Gadot’s performance. Marvel comics are selling well with a number of female stars; 7 foot tall, green super-attorney She-Hulk , Thor, Captain Marvel and the young Muslim-American heroine Ms Marvel.

At rehearsals for Everyone’s Talking About Jamie
(l-r) Front Row producer Hannah Robins, me, Jamie Campbell,composer Dan G Sells, writer Tom MacRae

Theatre is full of inspiring celebrations of the power of great music and social progress. Hamilton opens in London this year. Motown, Strictly Ballroom, the forthcoming Everybody’s Talking about Jamie opening in Sheffield this month, inspired by the true story of 16 year old Jamie Campbell and his plans to be a drag queen. You can hear more about it on Front Row next Wed 25th Jan.

Dreamgirls is a celebration of how African American music transformed America, and a personal love letter to Etta James. Composer Henry Krieger told me how he used to sneak off to the Apollo theatre in Harlem as a teenager to watch the acts.

Sanjeev Bhaskar, Nicola Walker in Unforgotten

Closer to home in a crowded TV landscape of police procedurals, many that celebrate torture and female abuse under the false flag of a female lead (The Fall, most Scandi-noir) there are shows like Unforgotten that celebrate the essential decency of our criminal justice service and the calm dedication with which its civil servants – police, forensics, prosecutors try to solve crime.

Culture matters. Not because I disagree with Peter Cook’s line on Weimar Germany: “Those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second World war.” But because we all need fun to escape misery, and shared joy binds us. Frank Cottrell Boyce, who co-created the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony wrote recently “A nation is not an opening ceremony. But it’s not a referendum either. A nation is a project.”

So go and see stuff to escape and make yourself happy, but think about how much of it actually celebrates equality and diversity and entertains while reminding us how far we’ve come. Rogue One as much as Ali Smith’s novel Autumn. And not just for its post Brexit zeitgeist, but for Autumn’s reminder of how pop artist Pauline Boty was written out of 60s cultural history and our need to challenge the agendas of those who write the official versions of things.

Pauline Boty

Be cautious too of those films that masquerade as progress while protecting old privileges. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, as others have pointed out, is in that odd genre (like Doctor Strange) of erasing people of colour, and indeed gay people, while exploiting their experience.

One of the last deaths of 2016 that might have slipped your notice was Disney artist Tyrus Wong born in China in 1910; one of Walt’s pioneers, who worked on Bambi.

One of the many citizens who made America great. “He had a gift for evoking incredible feeling in his art with simple gestural composition” said the corporation in a statement on New Year’s Eve.

In the war to define who we are I’ll be seeing films, shows, exhibitions and reading books to collect cultural reminders of what defines the best of us through the year ahead. I urge you to do the same.

Posted in Books, Comics/graphic novels, Culture, Film, Media, Music, Politics, Radio, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Theatre, TV, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How should broadcast news journalists interview and talk about extremists?

CNN has apologised for this on screen caption Nov 22 2016

CNN has apologised for this on screen caption Nov 22 2016

Over the weekend I spoke to veteran ex BBC journalist Robin Lustig, Berlin correspondent Damien McGuinness for an insight into Germany’s media and Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s 2012 senior strategist for 2 articles I wrote for The Guardian and The Big Issue magazine this week. Space limitations mean a great deal didn’t make the final edits. Here are the interviews in full, conducted via email. Obviously a lot has been changing in coverage since the first few days after the Trump election win, but the core issues are the same. My thanks to all three for their time and insight.

Robin Lustig

Q I’ve seem anecdotal examples of stories where racist views eg of the Breitbart boss now on Trump'[s team are being described  as “populist right” rather than anti-Semitic. In one US paper the “ape in heels” comment about Michelle Obama was today called “allegedly racist”. Reporting Nigel Farage’s personal insults about Obama as a “creature” without context on BBC News website. Many journalists are saying there’s a normalisation of views we used to call out as over the line unacceptable racism/misogyny/antimsemitism going on in the papers. Do you think this is the case?

For me, the key is to ensure a clear divide between news and comment. If I’m reporting what Stephen Bannon says, I don’t need to call it either ‘anti-semitic’ or ‘populist right’. I can leave that to others. And I would make sure that any news report included critics of his language. In opinion pieces, of course, anything goes. The argument over ‘normalisation’ is an odd one — if what someone says is newsworthy, it should be reported. e.g. If the leader of the American Nazi Party says he hates Jews, that’s not newsworthy. If Bannon says all Muslims should be locked up, that is. If Farage calls Obama a ‘creature’, why does it need context? I would quote what he says, and then follow it with horrified reaction from others.

Q And if so is it reasonable? (Again anecdotally been told editors of some newspapers telling writers to tone down rhetoric so as not to offend the Trump team). Is it fair to say the media need to  give them the benefit of the doubt, a bit like Obama saying we need to make this work? Are these views ones we need to spell out before we can discuss their appeal?

I worry about the ‘We must give Trump a chance’ argument. Yes, Obama has to, in order to maintain the ‘dignity’ of the office of president. But journalists don’t. If Trump says he’s going to deport 3 million illegal immigrants, let’s report it. If he says all illegal immigrants commit crimes, let’s report what he says and then quote the official figures that contradict him. I was worried before the election at the way the NY Times and the WashPo both turned their news columns into attack-Trump columns. Apart from anything else, I couldn’t see the point: how many potential Trump voters were reading those papers anyway?

Q Decision to give Le Pen a solo spot on BBC on Remembrance Sunday?

I think it was absolutely right to interview Marine Le P. It was unfortunate that it fell on Remembrance Sunday, but it was the first Marr show after the US election, so they obviously needed to get it on air at the first opportunity. Personally, I would have liked Marr to press her much harder on her party’s attitudes to French Muslims. As for the media ‘building up’ Farage and Trump, I think there’s a danger in blaming the messenger. I do accept, however, that for much too long, both Farage and Trump were treated a joke figures who were good for the ratings and a refreshing change to the usual dull old politicians. It took us much too long to challenge them head on.

Q Is there a legimitate comparison to normalizing fascism and Hitler and the 30s? Is there any real comparison for the press/media in the UK and USA?

There was no free press in Nazi Germany, so there is no comparison. When Trump starts shutting down the NYT or locking up journalists, it may be time to start making those comparisons. But not yet …

Q What advice would you have for news editors in this climate:? Really wonder what if anything you’d do differently if you were editing BBC News or presenting The World Tonight still?

I think news editors should do exactly the same with populist leaders as they do with any other politician. Report them fairly, and challenge them robustly. In the case of Trump, I would throw major resources at investigating potential conflict of interest issues. I would also look v closely at Moscow’s links to all Western populist right parties.

One general point: I think liberals are still too prone to blame the media for political outcomes they disapprove of. Many of the people who vote for populists regard the media as part of the despised establishment anyway; I very much doubt that they are influenced by media treatment of them. Treatment of issues like immigration, refugees, and crime, on the other hand, may well feed into a perception that ‘ordinary people’ are being let down by traditional political leaders. 

Q Are you worried at all? Is this like anything you’ve covered in your career before?

What worries me most is that so few metropolitan journalists, in both the US and the UK, saw either Brexit or Trump coming. It is a sad example of how badly local papers are needed, to reflect the fears and aspirations of the millions of people who don’t live in cosmopolitan London, LA or New York. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the so-called mainstream media have failed to reflect accurately the full spectrum of views in the communities they serve. 

I think the sense of mutual alienation between traditional media and a ssection of the ‘majority’ (ie white) community is greater than at any time in my lifetime. On the other hand, let’s not exaggerate: in the US, more people voted for Hillary than for Trump, and in the EU referendum, the country was almost evenly split. Sometimes the media reaction seems to suggest that some great tsunami of extreme nationalist sentiment has swept across both nations. It hasn’t, although clearly there is a lot of it about. As there is in most other European countries as well. 

Stuart Stevens: political consultant, writer, worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid

Q Back in May you told CNN: “I think one of the greatest dangers of Donald Trump is the idea that he might normalize a speech and an attitude that as a group in America we have decided is unacceptable.” What sort of attitude/s did you mean?

America is founded on religious liberty. That’s all religions. America is nation of immigrants. If we start to make it acceptable to challenge these principles, it’s deeply troubling. 

Q Do you think that’s happening and how should mainstream news organisations – especially broadcasters respond?

Unlike most of the world, apparently, I really don’t believe those of us who aren’t journalists should be advising those who are journalists how to do their jobs. I write books, articles, tv shows but I’m not a journalist. I’m more in the support journalists while they deal with this than criticize them mode 

Q The British philosopher Alain De Botton has accused politicians and news media of a kind of “political Stockholm syndrome” -which he called “the rush of gratitude that a leader may not be outright murderous, merely wrong on almost everything.” What’s your view on the way to handle Trump – both for politicians and for the news media?

Trump should be treated like any POTUS. It’s not theoretical. He will be in Lincoln’s office. Don’t grade on curve.

Q On principle should people like Romney be working with him at all given the senior role of people like Steve Bannon? (I know we don’t know result of Romney’s talks yet).

Hey, I am going to stay away from any questions that touch on Romney. Don’t want any confusion I might be speaking with him or sending signals, Etc. Appreciate your understanding.

Q Have you talked to Romney? What are he/people close to him/senior Republican figures saying about the principle of working with Trump’s  administration?

Sorry. Same as above.

Q It’s still earlier days but the way the Hamilton Mike Pence tweets have pushed the Trump University fraud case court settlement off the headlines has sparked a discussion about whether this is some kind of deliberate distraction strategy, or actually rightly the focus of our attention. What’s your view?

Whatever the intent, seems an early lesson to be studied.

Q You seemed confident in the past that Trump wouldn’t pull off a victory. Here we are and I wonder how you feel about the immediate future of American political discourse? (There are those who say progressive values are too deeply embedded in mainstream culture to be overturned so fast).

I’ve got a lousy track record on predicting Trump and don’t see why that would change now. But I do know POTUS is a role model and how anything is said by a POTUS has deep ramifications. It’s essential civility  and tolerance and general decency are qualities seen in any POTUS. Here’s hoping.

Damien McGuinness – Berlin based correspondent, BBC

Q There was footage of Trump rally supporters chanting something akin to Luegen Presse during the campaign. How have the German media been covering Trump?

All German media, on the left and on the right, high- and low-brow, is very anti-Trump and is not shy about expressing this. Headlines the day after the election expressed horror. And this week’s Der Spiegel cover is entitled “the end of the world as we know it” with a picture of Trump as an open-mouthed comet heading to destroy earth. It’s fair to say that there are no mainstream newspapers which represent or support populism (which in Germany right now focuses on the refugee issue and virulent opposition to Merkel’s stance on migration.) The mass daily Bild, the nearest thing to a tabloid Germany has, is pro-refugee. The left-wing press supports Merkel’s humanitarian stance. And while some right-wing commentators are unsettled by migration, the language is moderate — they’re also aware that Merkel still means electoral success for the CDU. Mainstream moderate Germany is appalled by Trump’s simplistic approach to foreign policy (particularly when it comes to NATO / Russia / Syria). And there is a strong strain of anti-Americanism in Germany’s far-left and far-right that means that even though the AfD has welcomed Trump, his world view clashes with most far left and far right supporters who scorn American exceptionalism.

Q What has the German media’s experience been with Pegida and their own populist far right movements? Are there any useful comparisons with Farage and Trump?

There is no credible acceptable leader of Pegida. All of them are too extreme and tainted by neo-Nazi associations / scandals. Lutz Bachmann is the most well known leader, but he’s got a criminal past, and too much baggage to ever be credible (e.g. a scandal of him posing as Hitler in a photo ). He’s not someone you would ever see on public TV. and he won’t even talk to the press anyway as Pegida refuses to give interviews, accusing the press of being part of the “system” (nazi term for establishment). Lots of splits and rows which means the movement has lost momentum. But Pegida has also lost influence because the AfD has become more radical and picked up their supporters, entering regional parliaments and likely to enter national parliament for the first time next year. Frauke Petry is the respectable face of the AfD. Young and attractive and a woman she tries to make the AfD’s anti-migrant stance acceptable. 3 years ago the AfD was anti-euro and had moderate leaders who were seen on public TV. With the refugee crisis the AfD split, became more radial and now  focuses on being anti-migrant. This makes it more toxic for moderate voters — but more successful with non-voters. Over the last year, as the AfD has entered regional parliaments, public TV has been forced to change its stance (e.g. one German public TV station has decided to stop calling the new AfD “right-wing populist” which in German is tantamount to being “right-wing extremist” ) and treat the party and its politicians and supporters as legitimate. Pegida is different because their statements and rallies often cross the border of illegality into hate speech.

Q How far is that limited by clear law? How far is there a mindset? You mentioned the press being inherently conservative and pro-Establishment. Can you explain that a bit?

I’m not sure if conservative as such is the right word. Certainly not socially or politically conservative. The media debate tends to be left-wing liberal — Germany is anyway essentially more left-wing than Britain when it comes to attitudes towards migration and the size of the welfare state. Even right-wing parties support a large welfare state and the EU. (mainly because they are “Christian” parties and see welfare for society as part of their responsibility)  So in that sense the media is supporting mainstream German society and the establishment. Traditionally anything that could be seen as veering too much towards right-wing extremism (ie Nazi ideology) was toxic. That is changing with AfD. But generally anti-incitement laws and anti-hate speech laws tend to trump (as it were!) ideas of free speech because of Germany’s Nazi past, and because of Germany’s constitution in which respect for the individual is key.

Also public broadcasting has a strong moral component, having been set up after the war to preserve democracy (modelled on the BBC) — but public broadcasting has less of a culture of two sides … there’s more of a sense that there’s a correct way of thinking and talking (ie not racist, pro EU, not sexist, pro environment ) which would preserve democracy. Even if not everyone thinks this. Anything not in tune with that is often seen as not legitimate. My opinion is that in part That’s where the Luegenpresse label comes from. So public broadcasting here tends to try to form and educate, rather than simply reflect. Quite an old fashioned top down approach which is very different to the BBC and British media culture. Whether that’s good or bad is another question. This traditionally means that populism spreads less into the mainstream. but also that the populism there is, has no voice in the mainstream media, and therefore tends to be more extreme. i.e. anti-Muslim Pegida marches with slogans that I couldn’t imagine seeing in the UK. Instead in the UK the debate is on the BBC which by nature means the language / views are moderated slightly. Though this might change in Germany with the electoral success of the AfD

Q I instinctively feel this story and its presentation (Nigel Farage’s comments on President Obama and Theresa May on a talk radio station) presents a dilemma about how far people like Farage are carefully pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse.  How would it be covered in Germany do you think?

Difficult to say: in some ways racially charged or sexist terms are often more acceptable in mainstream German society than British society. Germany is quite new to multiculturalism and some parts of Germany have quite traditional attitudes towards women (eg when it comes to motherhood). So in fact you do occasionally get politicians saying things that would be unacceptable in Britain. They cause a row, but they’re still said in meetings / private events etc (eg. Oettinger’s comments recently about Chinese delegations). The public media debate though is different, and often more politically correct. I think anyone defending Trump like this would be shot down by mainstream media. He wouldn’t really be a able to talk on the radio like this anyway. And it’s hard to imagine public broadcasters reporting this without talking about why it’s problematic.

Q Andrew Marr show just interviewed Marine Le Pen. Some people complaining that this is exactly what you shouldn’t do just after the Trump victory. BBC says she’s polling 30% and hasn’t herself said anything illegal. With your German experience can you offer the German media view on it?

I think German broadcasting is also struggling with this. Pegida is probably too toxic to appear on talk shows etc, but they won’t appear anyway, so it’s not an issue. Some members of AfD though do have views which would not have been expressed on German TV 10 years ago. (eg Hoecke waved a flag on one show which caused an outrage) But now that large numbers of people are voting for them (eg 30 percent in Mecklenburg Vorpommern ) they can’t be ignored. Still seen as controversial though. And I’d be surprised if they d get le Pen on.

Further reading

From Trump to Le Pen: We must challenge extremist views with tough questions (Big Issue column)

How to interview extremists and avoid normalising racism (Guardian)

Associated Press on writing about the “alt-right”

Robin Lustig’s blog

Stuart Steven’s website

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