What made America great? On the trail of Laura Ingalls Wilder

It was the 2008 crash that somehow inspired me to finally read the Little House on the Prairie books. I was clearly craving comfort, safety, a kind of nostalgia for a vaguely remembered 70s girlhood in which I half watched the Melissa Gilbert TV series and read the first few chapters of the Little House on The Prairie (the third book).

I bought them all in the old Puffins of my youth and, like thousands of other women it turned out, rediscovered their unique power in the aftermath of economic crisis. These were the books The Great Depression couldn’t stop, as the marketing went in the 1930s when Wilder’s fairytale like evocation of a disappearing living memory resonated powerfully in an America struggling through dark times.

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My husband told me the way I kept talking about them with such passion meant I should choose them as my topic for Celebrity Mastermind. And I won! And felt like Laura in that Spelling Bee in which Pa triumphs. You can watch it on YouTube in the side bar widget. to the right here.

Anyway one day I said, I’d go to Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield Missouri to see where she wrote them. And seven years later I did.  Laura Ingalls’ America is on Radio 3 on Sunday December 10th and iplayer after.

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Here I’m posting some of the photos and videos of my trip to Wilder Day there. It was a really moving experience. The warmth, kindness and generous hospitality of the friends and  visitors at the Laura Ingalls Wilder House and Museum will always stay with me. So I take this chance to thank them all and my producer at Whistledown, Anishka Sharma, who somehow managed to weave and squeeze the spirit and complexity of Wilder’s dreamlike, beautiful and often disturbing stories into just 45 minutes.

Three generations of Laura fans

Special mention to Elizabeth Tyre from Texas and her mother, sister and nieces from Oklahoma who reunite for Wilder trips and have visited 10 out of the 11 Wilder family sites across America (just Almanzo’s childhood family New York farm to go) and really captured for me the way Wilder’s books celebrate American women, kindness and joy,  family and rebellious girls.  In the photo above: Back row l-r Jennifer Dohlman, Jonelle Jensen, Elizabeth Tyre. Front row l-r Carmen Dohlman (age 7), Katelyn Dohlman (age 10).

The Fountainhead film 1949 (written by Ayn Rand)

We do explore in the programme the complexity of Wilder’s political legacy. I believe you can love the books but still be troubled by how their version of American manifest destiny reads now. Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – one of the so-called godmothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand – has undoubtedly tainted Wilder’s legacy. And once you know the connection, it’s certainly interesting to see the link between Pa’s rants about standing on your own two feet in the stories, and the big city fury of Lane and Rand in a film like The Fountainhead.

Laura Ingalls’ America is on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday December 10th 2017

Further listening/reading

There’s more about my trip to Rocky Ridge Farm on the BBC News website.

World Service Business Matters (Dec 9th 2017) – I discuss the business of the Little House books and tourism industry from 14 min 30 sec

Little House on the Prairie and its contested political legacy – New Statesman (Dec 2017)

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Jodie Foster on why The Silence of The Lambs is a perfect film

I recently wrote about why the 1990s was such an amazing time to be a young woman. Jodie Foster confirmed the sense of a breakthrough at a screening of The Silence of The Lambs on Friday night at the BFI Southbank in London. Flashing her FBI pass of authority this film holds up remarkably well. Like Contact its power is in the focussed intent of its heroine for her mission.   Here’s a write up, mainly on the film, but also with insights into her life long plan to be a director and her long term optimism about America’s culture wars.

Foster began with a remarkable observation about The Silence of the Lambs: “[It] inspired people to do probably the best work they’ll ever do in their own lives…I was 29. I didn’t realise it was never going to happen again.”

Foster revealed she wasn’t the first choice  for the role of Clarice Starling. When she read the book and tried to buy the rights, she discovered Orion already held them.  Her experience playing a rape survivor in the harrowing The Accused helped explain her passion to secure the role.

“In my whole life I’d played a lot of victims. That IS a big part of women’s history. For me there was a healing process, a growing experience, to finally play the woman who saves the women.

“If you think of the mythology the film comes from — the Prince whose country is suffering from an illness. He goes into the forest and battles monsters and trolls to bring back a panacea and realises once he’s cured his people, he can never be one of his people again. That story has never been reserved for women. Is there no such thing as female agency?”

Gene Hackman had originally planned to make his directorial debut with the film, and also playing the role of Crawford – Starling’s boss. However Foster said he dropped out “because [he thought] the script was too violent”. Once the director was fixed Foster lobbied Jonathan Demme for the part.

“I went to see Jonathan Demme. I said I would just like to be your second choice.”

Of the actors lined up as possible Hannibal Lecters, Foster says it was all the usual big names such as Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman. But that changed. “We were keen on a Brit. He’s a manipulator, he uses language” very carefully. Foster said the American Stanislavski’s method style of acting was not right for the role; where the actor seeks an emotional connection or reason. “We needed a Shakespearean monster.”

Much of the power of the film is the way Starling and Lecter’s confrontations are shot head on direct to camera and it’s interesting that Foster says she and Anthony Hopkins never got to meet in advance:

“Hopkins only shot 7-10 days on the film and never came till half way through the shoot. We  rarely saw eachother because we looked into the lens” only hearing the voice of their adversary. “We both claimed to be scared of eachother.”

“It really was a beautiful script. Almost exactly [the same as] the first draft. There was something about [playing] someone [Clarice Starling] who’d been traumatised by sound and being small and not big enough to help or care for somebody.

“Before that in The Accused I was brash and loud. I wanted to explore the challenge of someone who knows they’ll never be big enough so had to engage their heart.”

The shivering intensity of the final section of the film much of it shot in one long take as she goes through the maze of doors in the basement, is when Starling finds the killer and tries to rescue his captive. That intensity certainly seems to have been enhanced by the fact that, as Foster revealed, it was filmed on the last day of the shoot and took 22 hours. Doors kept being left open that spoiled multiple attempts at the long single take. She remembers it as “one of the coldest winters in Pittsburg. The band for the wrap party was sitting waiting. We finished the shoot at 6 or 7am.”

On being behind the camera:

Foster started acting at 3 and made her first feature at 6. “I was always fascinated by the filming process. All the technical stuff. I thought acting was just saying lines out loud that someone else had written.” Foster says the moment of epiphany came when the actor playing her screen dad suddenly began directing episodes. Wait, they let actors do this?

Being on a film set was, thinks Foster, a great film school. She gave a real sense of how she watched and learned everything, even how the film cartridges were loaded; but also the hard to define instincts of good directing:. “Understanding why something works or doesn’t work.” Of all the expertise she hoovered up just watching on set, she observes, “But a lot of actors aren’t interested.”

The major challenge she’d faced in making films was not funding. “I always found funding. It was more about getting scripts [developed] to the right level.”

The political state of America

For those expecting Foster to express grave concern about the tensions over race, sex and sexuality in Trump’s America, she was refreshingly calm. “We’re not moving backwards at all. We’re a very interesting point in our consciousness whether about violence or race. A proportion of our population, maybe the minority, does understand empathy and then there’s a huge section that doesn’t and is existing in the same era. But this is a transition.”

On the partly historic sexual abuse being exposed in Hollywood Foster said  how she felt protected by her mother in navigating her path through it. Reflecting on it, she spoke of appreciating the complex burden her mother’s generation carried: “I got so many messages from my mom. She would always be carrying around the shame and the self loathing of sexual politics of that era. She was also messed up and a lot of mixed messages came out of her.”

Greatest Challenge?

Foster said it was playing Nell – the “wild” child found in the forest in the eponymous film she also produced. Fearful of how to get into the role Foster said she did a huge amount of research, reading books, even tried acting lessons: “I had never gone to an acting class before. And then I realised I just needed to drink a little coffee and wait till they said ‘Action!'”

Further reading

The 90s were a brilliant decade to be a young woman (The Pool Sept 2017)

Chain of Command: A cultural history of the lanyard  (The New Statesman July 2017)


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Making news in the “fake news” age

These are links to further reading from today’s Kingston University journalism/media lecture.

Newswatch – on the Theresa May speech/cough – to see the connection between audience, traditional BBC news and the impact of “viral” social media on traditional news.

The Sandy Hook Hoaxers – model analysis by BBC Trending of the conspiracy and its impact. BBC Trending is a programme you should be listening to regularly

Fake News and the future of Journalism – (Nieman Lab) looks ahead

How do you report on something that isn’t true? (LSE blogs) – great practical user guide for journalists

Breitbart: The web that connects Trump and Farage – Great piece on Breitbart by BBC Trending presenter Mike Wendling

Post Truth politics – (Nieman Reports) gives lots of concrete examples like those we discussed eg MMR vaccine panic

The Jeremy Corbyn traingate story unpicked by DoubleDown News (video)




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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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