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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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, much 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.

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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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Adjust your privacy settings now, fool! Reading The Woman In White in the instagram age



Note: Illustration does not resemble actual plot in any way

(Warning contains some partial but not big spoilers!)

“Habits of literary composition are perfectly familiar to me. One of the rarest of all the intellectual accomplishments that  man can possess is the grand faculty of arranging his ideas. Immense privilege! I possess it. Do you?”

So declares Count Fosco to the hero as he sits down to write his own explanation of his dastardly deeds near the end of the Woman In White. What reader under 30 these days can imagine the pace of a world in which the breathtaking action is painstakingly written up longhand just after it happened? It must have taken hours.

Finishing the book this morning for a BBC Front Row tackle-an-unread classic-in-a-week challenge, it struck me that:

1. Even for a Victorian novel involving women inevitably in corsets, there is a LOT of fainting; perhaps an indirect comment on their evil, as our hero is stunned by the “rare beauty” of a woman unconstrained:


2. Its form – entirely written in diary-style entries and post-event journals – is essentially a Storify project.

For younger readers, reluctant to attempt such a tome, I’d suggest imagining how differently the protagonists would handle the situation today. Walter Hartright would probably live tweet his first encounter with the Woman In White, inspiring lots of helpful suggestions from both conspiracy theorists and online Victorian trolls about hysterical women. Later on, instagram postings of subsequent encounters would help the reader make sense of the confusion of identities.

It’s also helpful to transpose the analogue writing culture of the age and the book to modern times. Hence Marian’s daily write ups of the action in her journal which she left in her unlocked desk and her habit of putting important letters in the communal postbag are equivalent to leaving her email open, not adjusting the privacy settings on Facebook and  leaving the locations setting on her mobile phone set to public. Fool!

Got one big question: How did that happy marriage near the end happen if the lady’s identity couldn’t be proved? In a novel emphasizing the total power of  authenticated legal documents, parish registers and birth certificates, surely it would have made it impossible to marry legally under her real name?

Favourite bit: When Walter pretends to sell his beloved’s “poor, faint, valueless sketches, of which I was the only purchaser” to give her the illusion that she’s at all useful.


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Ladybird books: Constructing the future past of modern Britain


I used to visit a beloved university English professor  and his wife. He had won the Military Cross for hand to hand combat in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945 but never talked about the terrible things he’d seen. After he died in 2003 I would meet his widow for lunch and once, when she asked for my news, I started talking with excitement about the flat my husband and I were buying in Berlin. I saw her face fall in horror.

“Have you ever been to Germany?” I asked, the truth dawning on me. “No. And I never would,” she said with determined distaste. I felt terrible. For failing to anticipate how someone of her generation might feel about that country 50 years on.


While some people like my friend felt a line remained drawn that they could not cross, other made a different kind of choice. Ealing comedy producer Michael Balcon and the German-Jewish émigré director Wolf Rilla made the 1958 smash hit romantic comedy Bachelor of Hearts starring Hardy Kruger as a German exchange student learning the strange ways of Cambridge University and falling in love with Sylvia Syms. It was a kind of benign propaganda to make British people trust young Germans again. As Kruger’s own website acknowledges his international career was launched “when no one wanted to see an actor from a country that had brought death and ruins to the people of this world”.


That idea of benign propaganda applies equally to what Ladybird Books were doing at exactly the same time. I’ve been thinking about the books a lot, digging out all my old copies of the Well-Loved tales and especially the People At Work series: The Nurse, In a Hotel, The Shipbuilders, In a Big Store – because I was recently hosting an event at Conway Hall with social historians and transport and architecture geeks (Helen Day, Tim Dunn, Concretopia author John Grindrod and a special guest appearance by We Go To The Gallery artist Miriam Elia) to muse on why we love these books so and what they reveal about their creators’ vision of postwar Britain.

Crucially I’ve realized they weren’t complacent nostalgia. They were a celebration of a new Britain built out of ashes. The executive behind the series Douglas Keen was, like many of his artists, a middle aged man from working class roots who’d served in the War (an RAF radar unit) and had a socialist vision of the future. One that celebrated social housing, new concrete shopping centres in the place of bombed out medieval cities and the expanded public sector of the NHS and other emergency services. As one of his daughters said at his funeral: “His socialist principles imbued him with a deep respect for the traditions of working-class occupations such as mining, and for public service occupations, eulogised in my own favourite series, “People At Work”.


The white heat of technology was celebrated in books about The Hovercraft or The Computer. There was a photo-realist delight in putting real healthy contemporary children’s faces into retelling old fairy tales or Peter and Jane books celebrating the joys of ordinary life. It turns out that it’s not just our imagination that the skies always seemed to be blue in those books. The illustrators often waited for a fine day to take their guide photos and make their sketches. It’s an interesting coincidence that Keen and illustrator John Berry (People at Work series) were both raised by single mothers whose fathers had left them. Robert Lumley (The Magic Porridge Pot, The Elves and The Shoemaker) had fought at Monte Cassino. John Kenny (Tootles the Taxi and The Story of Nelson) had landed in Normandy on VE Day. Robert Ayton (The story of Ships) was a wartime motorcycle dispatch rider. Their Ladybird work was unashamedly optimistic and idealistic.


Andy Dickens, nephew of illustrator Harry Wingfield, had his own sixth birthday immortalised in the easy reading book The Party. As he told The Guardian last year: “There was no “wow factor”. The adults around at that time – some had been fighter pilots, some had commandeered U-boats. There was a general acceptance that people did what they did and we were equally respectful of the milkman.”

So much of the political vision of the 1950s has been dismantled – in housing, the public sector and the workplace. Think of the work culture exposed in big companies like Sports Direct. Far from being exercises in nostalgia, Ladybird books remind Brexit Britain how it was people who’d endured horror who had the ambition not to focus on fear, but to build a brighter, fairer future.

 This article originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine ahead of an event I curated at Conway Hall on October 10th 2016.

Further listening (audio of the event):


Posted in Books, Children, Culture, Design, Environment, Germany, History, Media, Uncategorized, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

We’ll get the President we deserve: Suzan Lori Parks on Hillary Clinton & America’s woman problem

“You’ve consumed too much of the Kool-Aid that the man has been serving you.”

Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Susan Lori Parks came into the Front Row studio last week to talk about When Father Came Home From The Wars opening at the Royal Court Theatre. We discussed James Baldwin, the “wormhole” presence of The American Civil War in modern America and, of course the upcoming Presidential Election, especially the question of whether Hillary Clinton is being held to a different standard of accountability and expectation than Donald Trump. We didn’t have time to air that section, but what she had to say on that is really worth listening to..

(All audio is copyright of the BBC. Photo copyright Samira Ahmed)


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Lessons for Trump and us all from the Ronald Reagan Memorial Library

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“I wonder what it’s all about, and why

We suffer so, when little things go wrong?

We make our life a struggle

When life should be a song…”

We should perhaps we grateful that the teenage Ronald Reagan never grew up to be a full time poet, judging from this extract from “Life” that got published in his college magazine. Though it does suggest that in 1928 jocks like this lively American football player weren’t afraid to embrace their gentler side and go fora more Renaissance man profile.It’s one of the many gems on display in his presidential library in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles that makes me wonder at the political cultural gulf between the US and Britain. 

Of course it’s biased. Rupert Murdoch is one of the trustees of the museum charity. But the attempt to put one’s career up for public display – a kind of physical combination of eulogy, memoir and public record office (the thousands of documents in the archive all available for scholars and historians) – is a fascinating idea. For the thrill seeker there’s the original Air Force One to climb aboard and an exact reconstruction of his Oval Office (fascinating in a way you never get to see in movies or on TV).

My first real memory of Reagan is the Not The Nine O’ Clock News spoof after his election in 1980 when they sang a cowboy song about how they couldn’t believe he was President. Visiting the Library days after watching Trump in action at the Republican National Convention, I wince as I compare the two men. What cynical critics undervalued at the time, was Reagan’s true ability as a communicator, a skill first developed from visiting factory floors and small towns all over America as a radio announcer. The yellow legal pads he used to write up and amend speeches are fascinating for his notes and re-drafts. 

His brush with death is presented dramatically: the footage of the assassination attempt on a loop; the suit he wore on display – the bullet hole and faint bloodstains visible – next to an exact replica of the gun used. The documents on display include the handwritten letter of April 1981 which he composed while still recovering from the shooting. Sent to Brezhnev, against state department officials’ advice, it was a man-to-man approach seeking a way forward on nuclear disarmament: “Is it possible that we have let ideology keep us from considering the very real everyday problems of the people we represent?”Walking through the foreign policy section with dramatic footage of the history of the Berlin Wall, there’s even a section on the Iran Contra affair – when it emerged the government was selling weapons to Tehran – to fund Contra rebels in central America. Seeing how the world looked to a leader of his generation,who saw Communism as their greatest threat, is a useful insight.

The satirists’ view of the deluded B-movie actor has evidence there too – the many films he made allegedly fuelling a mental confusion decades later that he HAD served in World War Two, rather than in the US Military’s film unit. The telegrams a besotted husband sent to his wife are both sweet and unsettlingly childish: “Mrs Reagan if you are going to be home in the morning I wonder if I might drop in on account of I love you.”

Is there an inherent American national pride, beyond anything else that explains the Presidential Library system, because these are leaders voted for by direct election? Or is powerful corporate and individual support the big secret? When Lady Thatcher’s children auctioned off her clothes it seemed obvious that Britain at the very least needed a Smithsonian-style repository for objects of national interest. Of course that would mean their offspring donating, not expecting to maximize earnings by selling off Mummy’s clothes or in the recent past, Daddy Churchill’s papers. And with Tony Blair’s legacy so overwhelmingly tarnished in public discourse now by the Iraq War it’s hard to see any hope of such a library system anytime soon.

But understanding how our leaders saw the world and how they tried to present themselves (Reagan as an early advocate of alternative energy is one of the more intriguing displays) can only be useful. I can imagine Churchill’s playing down the disaster of Gallipoli and his early enthusiasm for eugenics. It’s not likely to be a popular idea in these politician-loathing times. But a British Museum of Political Artefacts at least. For that I’d campaign.

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

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Why Nerve is the selfie generation’s Desperately Seeking Susan

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 19.28.03

Discussing Nerve and immersive gaming in film with Naomi Alderman on BBC Front Row on Radio 4 on August 11th and iplayer after. 

The Green Dress. I knew I’d seen it somewhere before in New York the moment it appeared on screen. It helped that I”d avoided the trailer and any prior reviews or images of the film. Nerve works its power best if you don’t watch the trailer which is full of spoilers. This post avoids big ones but assumes you’ve seen it.

Then suddenly it came to me: the green dress is a tribute (subconscious or deliberate?) to Rosanna Arquette’s in Desperately Seeking Susan. And then the parallels wouldn’t stop coming:


  1. Emma Roberts has the same gangly, toothy beauty and charm. Like Rosanna’s New Jersey housewife, this Staten Island Venus is a shy, uncool suburbanite who commutes into the city and dreams of escape.NERVE GREEN DRESS MOTORBIKE
  2. That green dress: With its sparkles and its shortness the green dress is in both films a Wizard of Oz like Emerald metaphor for transformation and new powers. Our heroines discover their elegant sexiness (legs bare, everything else covered) and inhibitions are lowered ready for:DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN MOTORBIKE
  3. The motorbike hero: Aidan Quinn takes Rosanna on a tour of the neon city and into its flamboyant underworld. It’s less high octane and rather more twee than the high speed dare of Nerve and its equally charming and handsome hero, Dave Franco, but the vehicle of transformation and the impact is the same.Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 19.13.39
  4. The personal ad versus the online game. Roberta/Rosanna starts out as a watcher through the personal ads – the 80s precursor to Tinder and all the rest of today’s social media apps, but is sucked into the Game just like Venus in Nerve. Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 19.15.35   Only her secret diary reveals how boring and frustrating her life is. In one of the great scenes of the film Susan/Madonna can’t believe it’s real. “No one’s life can be this boring!” It must be a cover for something.  Perhaps the big change is whether Venus, like other teenagers and 20somethings would even keep a private as opposed to online journal anymore?
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