Confession first: I haven’t seen much Shakespeare.
Lots of people have probably seen less, but they’re probably not very bothered. I feel like I really should have.
I’ve studied English Literature at post-compulsory level off and on for over two decades (although admittedly without getting any meaningful qualification), got to the semi-finals of Mastermind twice, and been quite willing to argue with people about Shakespeare and quote him. I’ve got a sort of Roger Craig type knowledge – I can identify all the most famous quotations, probably even give you a precis of the plots of most of them, but as far as ACTUALLY HAVING SEEN them, on stage or screen, as far as I recall I’ve ticked off:
Midsummer Nights Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Taming Of The Shrew
And that’s it. Maybe they were all bluffing it as well, but I’m sure most of the people I’ve done Eng Lit courses with had seen more than that. Christ, I’ve never even seen Othello, or Merchant Of Venice, or Romeo and Juliet (I got about half an hour into the Baz Luhrman thing before metaphorically putting my foot through the screen and sending him the bill). Romeo and Juliet! There’s undiscovered tribes in Papua New Guinea who’ve seen three versions of Romeo and Juliet, for Christ’s sake. I’m pretty sure I’ve written essays on others not on that list, and got fairly good grades, but I’ve not actually watched them. Maybe excerpts, but not all the way through.
This has to change.
So – and this is basically me muscling in on one of the entries on my wife’s “Things to do before turning 30” list, which gives us a deadline of 4th January 2015 – we’re going to watch it all.
A few ground rules:
1. Only original text versions. Obviously there’s much dispute about what the original text even is, I’m not going to get excessively anal and insist on unabridged first folio versions or something, but no modernised language versions, or “based on an idea by” stuff. There’s some excellent stuff of that nature – I saw a really good Othello update set in the Metropolitan Police with Christopher Ecclestone a few years back, and Neil Gaiman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is pretty damned peerless, but you’ve got to have rules. Start letting Throne Of Blood in and next thing you’re counting Ten Things I Hate About You, and before you know it you’re ticking off Hamlet because the child watched The Fucking Lion King – AGAIN – while you were in the room.
2. The list I’m using is this:
All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
Antony and Cleopatra
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida
I know there’s others attributed, but that’s what I’m going with. It seems generally accepted and lets face it the world’s not going to end if I’ve missed one. 3. “Watched” means that. It can be stage or screen, amateur or professional, but it has to be watched, radio versions don’t count. Why this will be of interest to anyone is beyond me, but there it is. We currently have David Tennant’s Hamlet, Al Pacino’s Merchant Of Venice and a Globe version of Othello on the TiVo, any recommendations welcomed but not necessarily followed. BRING ON THE BARD.
As a metaphor, the image of the whole country going down the river for the Jubilee is so appropriate, I’m surprised more wiseacre commentators haven’t picked up on it. It is galling enough that a country in such dire straits — with high unemployment, a double-dip recession in progress, a failing health service, and its myriad other problems — can afford to splash out on celebrating the one person in the nation who never need worry about the spectre of poverty or work (the Queen is, after all, permanently underemployed) not dying. But that the manner of this spectacle should be her sitting idly while a pageant of her subjects float past on what might as well be a river of tears, in barges crafted from their dashed hopes and dreams, is nothing short of cheek.She stood watching this flotilla of filthy followers for hours, we are told, as if that was enough to justify her privileged position. The time, money and effort of thousands of people was evident, while all she had to do was put on her best hat and watch them pass in their little boats with the rain beating down upon them, giving them the appearance of drowned rats. It must have looked like something out of a postmodern Wind in the Willows.
I wonder, as she stood there, undoubtedly bored, whether she was aware of what some of her subjects had to endure to enable this event. The Guardian reported that a number of long term jobseekers were forced to work as stewards without pay during the event. That, in itself, doesn’t count as out of the ordinary in this Tory Britain, but the details revealed a sequence of uncaring treatment that was described as akin to slavery. They were bussed in from Bristol in the early hours of the morning and abandoned, told to camp under a bridge like common trolls, made to change into their uniforms in public and had no access to toilets for the whole day. I don’t expect the unemployed to be treated like royalty, but I’d demand at least they be treated like human beings.
I tried my best to avoid coverage of the Jubilee, but the signs and signifiers were everywhere. I reached a point where I swore that, if I saw another Union Jack, I would wrap myself in it and immolate myself in Trafalgar Square. Displays of excessive jingoism only seem to manifest during royal events, football tournaments and wars; the rest of the time, most citizens couldn’t give two patriotic shits about the country. But stores have done a roaring business in red, white and blue tat – from bunting and tableware to clothing and cushion covers – so every home can look like the venue for a BNP rally. The only theme that I’ve found more annoying is constantly being confronted with the litany that I should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ on posters, mugs and T-shirts. In the current political and economic crisis, that’s the equivalent of saying ‘What iceberg?’ when the ship is already sinking. I, for one, will be donning my T-shirt featuring the slogan ‘Time To Panic and Set Fire to Things’ any day now.
I’ve nothing personal against the Queen. As run of the mill old ladies go, I suppose I find her inoffensive enough. If I were in a post office queue, she’s the kind of person I’d rather was behind me than in front of me, as you know she’s going to try to engage the person serving in conversation about her various aches and pains, the doings of her million grandchildren, and what her husband said to the Chinese ambassador this time. I’m also not going to let this article descend into an over-reaching republican diatribe, in spite of that being the general thrust of my opinions. My issue here is with the misplaced and mystifying adoration of her social position.
In 2002 a BBC poll revealed the country’s preferred list of 100 Greatest Britons, which placed Elizabeth II at number 24. Two monarchs beat her: Queen Victoria and her namesake, Elizabeth I, the only crowned head to reach the top ten. But, tellingly of the contrary nature of all of us, Oliver Cromwell, who chopped off a King’s head and briefly turned the country into a republic, beat all monarchs bar one. Three Prime Ministers and a man who tried to blow up parliament with a King in it also placed nearly as highly, or higher than, our present Queen. The rest of the top of the list was completed by notable scientists, authors, explorers, mathematicians, military leaders and musicians – in other words, people who actually contributed to the betterment of the nation and its people, not just someone who got to where they are merely by being born. So do we really love our monarchy as much as all the pomp and trumpeting would have us believe?
Tradition was you’d rid yourself of a troublesome head of state by divorcing their head from their body. Now, any policy passed by parliament must be signed into law by the monarch, meaning they would have to sign the law removing themselves from the constitution, and finding any monarch progressive enough to throw themselves from the royal gravy train is as likely as finding a stone that bleeds blue blood. The truth of the matter is that we still have a monarch because this system is set up in such a way that no government would make so radical and potentially unpopular a proposition as to abolish the monarchy, and no monarch would put themselves out of a job. It’s a classic elephant in the room dilemma. Everyone knows the role of the monarch is entirely ceremonial and symbolic, but no one is prepared to take the steps to cut away the dead flesh. It’s tradition, but that’s just another way of saying we do something a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I’m not sure that our adoration, bordering on religious idolatry, doesn’t come about largely because it’s expected of one.
I also wonder what the rest of the world thinks when they see the footage on their evening news. Undoubtedly the royals are good for tourism, they’re a spectator sport. But so are the Hunger Games, and if the country needs a distraction in these troubled times I would rather the O2 Arena was rechristened the O2 Thunderdome and the privileged few would be forced to duel until only one was left standing, and in that way at least they would have earned my respect, and any right to parade.
Last week, research scientists sent an open letter to a group of activists called “Take the Flour Back” imploring them not to damage and destroy a field in Hertfordshire during a day of “planned action” at the end of May. The field is part of Rothamsted Research’s study into a genetically modified wheat which, it is hoped, will be highly resistant to aphids. A crop, which if successful, could eradicate the need for pesticide use.
Which is a good thing right? Well clearly not according to some.
We’ve been tinkering with the science of genetics for thousands of years, it’s almost as old as agriculture itself. Wheat, the most widely grown crop on the planet, is already a hybrid of many different species. Commercially grown modern wheat, untended, wouldn’t even survive in the wild; human beings have changed it beyond what would ever appear naturally. The grains are a lot bigger than undomesticated varieties and it has a real issue with seed dispersal, an impotence which has been cultivated through years of selective breeding: so it’s easier and more worthwhile to harvest. We’ve also bred in “dwarfing” which means the stalk is shorter, so the energy of the plant can be more usefully diverted to the production of seed. Trying to grow it in the wild would be the agricultural equivalent of releasing a sausage dog into the wilderness and expecting it to survive. All the aspects that make the dog desirable to us – in this case resembling a tiny-legged-sausage-with-a-face, would be exactly the things that would give it no chance. It is as far from a wolf as it’s possible to be – because that’s how we want it. But to most of us it’s not a dangerous abomination, it’s just a sausage dog.
So what has inspired such promises of violence towards a field of GM wheat? After all, since the late 90‘s when the widespread commercial use of GM crops started in the US, there has never been a single proven case of anyone ever having suffered ill effects through their consumption. All those millions and millions of people and nobody’s grown another head or a third armpit. Presumably because extensive trials, like the one under threat in Hertfordshire, are carried out to ensure the product is safe. GM Crops undergo a far more rigorous process of regulation than their non-GM equivalents and have since the very beginning.
“Take the flour back”, have suggested the threat of contamination, but that doesn’t really ring true. The safety measures in place for this particular trial are impressive to say the least: the crop will be surrounded by inert fields far beyond the dispersal range of the wheat’s pollen, making the threat of contamination as effectively close to zero as it is possible to get.
It’s difficult to understand the mindset of a group, whose concerns regarding GM include the fact that not enough research is being done, destroying that very same research. Protesters often cite the dangers of corporate oligarchy – control and profit, as a reason against GM crops, and whilst this is a very valid reason for scrutiny and where my own concerns normally lay, it doesn’t apply here either: the end-product, if successful, will not become a patented biocrop only available to the highest bidder. Despite all the doom-mongering, Rothamsted Research is not a malevolent multinational, hushing up mutants in it’s basement, it’s a group of well respected scientists whose aim is to improve on what we have and share it with the world. Their ultimate aim is a crop whose yield, resistance to drought, nutritional value, shelf-life and cost to grow could help end starvation in the Third World.
When I hear people say that we don’t know the results of long term use, that we’ve only been using GM crops for 20 years, I think to myself – that is considerably longer than millions of Africans are currently living. With around 15 million children dying of hunger every year, destroying this important work is destroying a manifesto whose ideals would wipe out famine.
In keeping with the subject of mutation, the word “activist” is one whose meaning has perhaps mutated as much as the crops some seek to destroy. In this instance though it is a moniker that seems destined to ring true. Rather than the admirable mission of concerned citizens, activist is now the “go-to” word to describe any campaigners associated with some degree of violence or destruction. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that this is exactly the wrong thing, as a protester, to do. As soon as you become a crusader with the mindset of a terrorist, then you sacrifice, not your ability to be noticed, but your ability to be taken seriously, it dilutes the purity of your message. The role of a protester is to engage sympathy through peaceful actions, to shine a light on inequalities or dangers and thereby expand your audience. Once this has been achieved you voice valid points to that audience – be they the community, the government or the world.
You raise your voice, not your fist.
I make absolutely no effort to find out anything about it, yet every time I turn on the TV, browse the internet, walk down the street, read a newspaper, go to a pub or a shop, even go to work, it’s being rammed down my throat so hard it makes me sick.
Ironically, the propaganda churned out by the Royal press machine to brainwash the population that these celebrations are worthwhile has served only to increase my opposition. The more I am encouraged to take part in and enjoy the jubilee celebrations, the less I want to. I’ve always had anti-monarchist tendencies, but ever since the ridiculous charade of the Royal Wedding last summer, my Republican views have grown ever stronger.
But let’s remember that wonderful day last April – wasn’t it just the Wedding of The Century? Britain at it’s best?
Kate’s lovely dress! Will’s dashing uniform! Their kiss! The carriage! The flag waving school children! An extra bank holiday! A nation united!
Bollocks. What a ridiculous fuss over the marriage of two people we don’t know and we are unlikely to ever meet. I can’t understand why there was such adulation over two people, who, if they were not obliged to, would not give a flying fart about 99% of those who profess to love them. Millions of pounds spent on security that could have been better spent elsewhere. The unconvincing attempts to portray a public schoolgirl of millionaire parents as a People’s Princess. The totally one-sided sycophantic 24/7 media coverage. Or the baffling obsession with Pippa Middleton. I wouldn’t. (No offence Pippa, if you’re reading this).
And we’re getting it all again…
The Queen’s wonderful service to the nation! The concert at Buckingham Palace! Kate’s charity work! Harry larking around (he’s such a card)! William protecting the Falklands! The barge parade on the River Thames! The flag waving school children! The community spirit! Street parties bringing the nation together! An extra bank holiday! The economic benefits to our struggling economy!
The last one is rather questionable. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that each bank holiday costs the UK £2.3 billion and the Diamond Jubilee is no exception. Even the government’s own impact assessment for the extra bank holiday states that “inevitably there will be an impact on economic output as most workers are likely to be given the day off by their employer”.
Of course it’s not all about the economy though. In a further attempt to justify the celebrations, the impact assessment gushes that there will be a lifting of national spirit, improved national identity and increased profile of the UK to the rest of the world, extra tourism and trade, etc (it actually says etc). These benefits are naturally all intangible though and are impossible to accurately predict or measure. Isn’t that convenient?
Leaving aside the Jubilee for a moment, the arguments for and against the monarchy have been well documented over the years. For: history/national pride/tourism. Against: cost/undemocratic/inequality.
Much better writers than me have debated these arguments in detail so I don’t intend to discuss them here, but what I do want to do is highlight a few of the many recent royal stories that have attracted my attention.
The first one concerns our Brave Prince William, who was recently sent to the Falkland Islands to fly a helicopter around.
I quote Rear Admiral John ‘Sandy’ Woodward: “To have a Royal anywhere near the front line is a bloody nuisance for the rest of the front line. You have to take extra precautions that he doesn’t get shot down, that his plane doesn’t fail. You maintain it three times as carefully. If you have a Royal on board your ship it is the end of your career if he gets so much as a scratch. It’s never said, but it goes without saying. He’s not there as a military man, he is there as air sea rescue which is really not military at all. It’s civil. I think it’s pointless, I can’t imagine why they sent him. Maybe they were just trying to wind up the Argentinians, I don’t know.”
My personal view is that this was a marketting exercise ahead of the Jubilee to increase our pride in the Royal Family and for them to highlight their usefulness to the nation – but then I am a cynical bastard.
Without question this episode demonstrates the blatant inequalities created by the very existence of a Royal Family: one man’s life valued much higher than that of the Joe Nobody’s around him, simply because he was born into a family of privilege.
Further evidence of these inequalities was recently provided by Buckingham Palace itself.
The job’s duties include: “collect and deliver tea/coffee trays, breakfast trays and newspapers for Royal and Household purposes in an efficient and discreet manner” and “to be responsible for the valeting of guests and Members of the Royal Household invited to stay with the Royal Family ensuring that clothes and uniforms are cared for to the highest standards”.
Christ, this doesn’t half boil my piss. It’s England in 2012, and we still have people serving other people. Masters and servants. This needs to stop right away. Let them carry their own trays, pick up their own newspapers and wash their own clothes like everyone else.
And they want us to celebrate this shit?
30 years ago this week the ZX Spectrum was released upon the unsuspecting Eighties; very quickly it claimed a huge chunk of market share and many happy hours of my childhood. At £125 it was cheaper than it’s rivals and looked it; anyone that has ever used one will still miss the iconic grey rubber keys with their bouncy/sticky feedback, the rainbow slash, the separate tape player and that signature tune as the screen border flashed and frazzled whilst loading some of the most wonderfully BASIC computer games ever devised. Yes kids you had to wait for a program to load back then, there was none of this instant clicking of icons, you had to load software via tape cassette every time you wanted to use it. A full 5 minutes of growing excitement with only a heavily pixellated screen still for company – it was almost always worth it. Released during the employment famine of the early eighties when £125 was a proper investment, it was the enfant terrible of Clive Sinclair, later knighted for his efforts. His mission was simple and audacious: to bring home computers into the UK mass market. He achieved this by keeping the price down and giving us the barest of bones: a black box of RAM and a tiny processor. And I do mean tiny. To give you some idea of the genesis of the home computer and a snapshot of how far the PC has come, I am tapping this article out on a MacAir which has a processor speed of 1.7GHz and SDRAM memory of 4Gb – very modest by today’s standards. In 1982 my ZX Spectrum had a processor speed of around 3.5MHz and an 8-bit memory, in other words my laptop is getting on for 500 times faster and with a staggering 4,000,000,000 times more SDRAM memory.
And yes of course my laptop has many features that the “Speccie” didn’t have, but it doesn’t have the kinky rubber keys, it doesn’t run on a computer language so basic it was actually called BASIC: a language so easy to programme in, that at the age of 7, I was writing rudimentary programmes. And that was the real joy, it was a computer designed for you to tinker with, to see what you could make it do. It willingly led you behind the curtain, admitted there was no great Oz and said it doesn’t matter, tell me what to do and I will do it, my limitations are your challenges. It trusted you. Weekly magazines were available which published lines of code that were there, ostensibly, for you to change anyway you wanted. A generation of coders became very talented at getting around the limitations of the hardware, producing classic games like Horace and the Spiders, Manic Miner and my personal favourite: JetPac.
When the more powerful machines came along the UK had already grown some very talented programmers with a real problem solving mentality, well placed to take advantage of the burgeoning software market and the unstoppable tide of the games consoles.
And then, in the late eighties, admitting that it’s time was up, the black slab of dreams wished them well and went the way of all computers. But unlike other computers, the ZX Spectrum still retains something that has never been seen since, surely the most elusive quality for any computer: charm.
My daughter attends an excellent school. It was the only one in the area with a place, but after a few nail biting weeks on the waiting lists, we were over the moon when it was the school offered. It is also Catholic. We are not.
I have had a few people ask me how I reconcile my belief in separation of church and state with sending my daughter to a school where prayers and church services are part of the school day. I have no problem at all with there being Catholic schools, and with them including aspects of their religion in the school day (as long as the children are not restricted from finding out fair information about other belief systems and are not encouraged to make harmful choices). We could have home educated her, or held out for a school that is less overtly religious. What I have a problem with is the lack of choice for parents who wish to avoid religious instruction altogether.
I start from the general principle that everyone should be free to practice their own religion or none at all. As long as you are not harming anyone, you are respectful of others and you allow members of your religion access to other beliefs, then I don’t see why anyone could object. I also feel that, if you use the facilities provided by a group, you should abide by the rules of that group, and as such you should also be able to get basic services with no special conditions. This is why I do not think that the “collective worship of a broadly Christian nature” in mainstream schools is at all fair.
If we had not been ok with our child going to a school that does not fit with our beliefs as an atheist/agnostic family, we would have had to home educate. There is no option in the state system for a school where no religion or religious practices are imposed on the children. To me, the default should be no religion, as that leaves it to the parents and child to add on whatever they believe at home, or to find a school that does provide religious instruction. As it is, in a country where an active belief in Christianity is very much in the minority, nearly every child is expected to take part in worship at school.
My primary school was a mainstream community state school, yet we had ministers from the local evangelical church in assemblies, holiday clubs and classrooms telling us that evolution was impossible and that non-Christians would burn in hell, which leaves a strong impression on an eight year-old. We also had the standard vicar-with-guitar-and-beard singing hymns at us, and a teacher who told us that global warming is just a test from God. I left primary school in 1996, but websites like Mumsnet are full of the same kinds of stories. Of course, these people are more than welcome to hold whatever beliefs they like and to worship how they feel, but they shouldn’t be able to essentially force children to join in.
Yes, there is the option to withdraw your child from assemblies and religious practises, but why isn’t the default position that of the beliefs of the vast majority of the population? A child is not given the option to refuse to participate, and so is dependant on their parents being aware of the school’s level of religious instruction.
I have no problem with teaching about religion. In fact, call me Gove, but I do think that children should be familiar with the Bible, and the King James version is particularly useful. I also feel that children should be familiar with classical mythology and the stories of other religions too – without religion, much of history and the arts would make very little sense. I would encourage children to respectfully visit churches and other religious monuments, and to meet believers and leaders of all different faiths. I just think that the beliefs of one particular religion should not be taught as fact in the vast majority of schools, unless the parents have specifically opted in by sending their child to a school affiliated to (and partially funded by) that religion.
Anecdotally, it would seem that most schools have very little religious instruction in the curriculum. However, it is something that schools are assessed on by Ofsted, and a parent has no way of knowing if a school will suddenly start singing hymns or having religious talks. If a school is about to start sex and relationships education – in which a child will be told facts about their own body and how to keep themselves healthy – the parents are called in to discuss it and are given the chance to ask questions and raise objections. Why can’t parents be given the same option when it comes to matters of a far less scientific nature?
On a sunny but windy Saturday 31st March, residents of Washington, young and old, gathered along Concord Front Street to witness the unveiling of the new Miner’s Statue in the heart of the town. With speeches from Councillor Kelly (Portfolio Holder for Safer City and Culture), Sharon Hodgson, Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West, the Chair of the Durham Miner’s Association and the Deputy Mayor of Sunderland City Council it was a day that many had been eagerly anticipating.
I stood with the crowd and watched as the statue was unveiled, people filled with anticipation waited to see what the end product would be and it did not disappoint. The statue was greeted with a warm round of applause and a gentle undertone of genuine appreciation. A few of the comments I overheard included: ‘What a wonderful, traditional statue’ and ‘It has been a long time coming’.
Indeed this statue has been a long time coming!
For a few years now, individuals and community groups have been raising money to get the statue erected in Washington and support has been coming from many different organisations to the cause; from the Durham Miner’s Association to Sunderland City Council. I, like many others, donated money to the Miner’s Family Statue through buying a miner’s lamp key ring a few months ago.
Yet this day of commemoration has been marred by recent events. Not even three days after the statue was unveiled on Saturday afternoon, an unnamed suspect tried to ruin the statue. News broke this morning on Facebook that at around 1AM the statue was targeted by metal thieves trying to hack off the leg of the child – a part of the statue portraying a miner and his family. This news comes as a major blow to everyone who was involved in the planning, fundraising and campaigning to bring this statue to Washington and to all those people who attended the event to see the statue unveiled.
It is sad to think but it was inevitable that some where down the line the statue would be defaced but sadly things like this happen to statues in busy public areas. I spoke with a few local councillors afterwards who had these fears but every one felt that the statue represented something so special to the community of Washington that no one would deface it. How wrong we all were.
This mindless criminality is exactly why people feel that doing projects like the Miner’s Family statue are worthless. Why should we spend money on something we know is going to be ruined by some thug? No doubt this thought will cross many people’s minds over the coming days, but we should not have this attitude towards future projects.
Firstly if we let this deter us from future projects then we have let who ever did this win. Secondly, the way the statue has brought people together. The statue represents a sense of community and a sense of worth that we lost decades ago.People are proud of the statue and the past that it represents in a time when people feel that society gives us nothing to feel proud about.
Why should we punish ourselves for one persons evident disengagement from the significance of the statue? Simple answer, we should not.
I’ve never really understood the depth of bad feeling that “proper readers” have towards “grown-ups” reading Harry Potter books, it smacks of adolescent elitism and a condemnatory bias based on a book’s sleeve (Hey there should be a saying about that?) for surely by their own logic they couldn’t have read the books themselves? So it’s hardly the strongest base from which to attack?
J K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series is about to release her new novel “aimed at adults” and I wonder if the Potter snobbery will cling to this new title as well. I will not critique the original books themselves (I’ve only read a couple) beyond saying that I found them hamstrung by their own logic until the point in the story where it was no longer convenient for the plot progression, at which point new rules were added which circumvented the bothersome pre-established rationality – the resulting inconsistencies got right on my tits.
But it happens in this particular genre due to the flexible nature of magic (Witness Aslan’s resurrection and the subsequent awkward exposition in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The concept of a normal boy (or girl as in the worst witch series which trod very similar ground over a decade before) finding that they are chosen for a higher destiny undeniably appeals to something primal in all of us, whatever age, it taps in to the hope that we are all special, that the mundanity of our normal lives can be shed: that adventures are waiting for us all. My fondness for this series though, is as a way of reintroducing those that would never normally read a book to the power of fiction. The real magic of the Potter phenomenom was that children and adults were and are picking up books again; they’re discussing characters and motivation, asking themselves what they would do? Morality, hypotheticals, nomenclature, relationships, adolescence and at a stretch war, racism, betrayal, propaganda, tragedy, love and loss are all in there. What’s not to like? And if that leads someone to pick up another book on a similar theme and then another on less similar theme until they are in the habit of reading then surely it is to be applauded? Often the disinterest or even the fear of reading starts at school where the chosen literature has a profound effect on reading appetites – if reading feels like work then it is work. I would far rather give a class of 11 year olds a Harry Potter book – which for many might be the first real book they read, than say, Wuthering Heights which remains a staple on the curriculum? I don’t know too many 11 year olds that fully appreciate the destructive force of Heathcliffe’s love or the inherent elemental symbolism, in fact, I can see certain children being very confused by such adult subject matter and put off books for a good long while following such a baptism of fire. That doesn’t mean Wuthering Heights is not a far superior book, it just means, perhaps, it’s something to work up to.
A recent study suggested that a fifth of teenagers leaving school in the UK cannot read or write, making them virtually unemployable – I can only imagine how angry and scared and let down that must make them feel.
We should try to avoid making the same mistakes as the schools in that we should ask no more than books must be intellectually accessible to their own audience, it is not up to us to judge or dictate that audience.
The label ‘a British Institution’ is too readily applied to our national cultural icons; from the sublime to the ridiculous – from cups of tea or fish and chips to Katie Price’s cleavage. Forty-five years ago, in 1967, a man named Ian Messiter devised a format for a radio based panel game that was so simple and succinct that it has survived, virtually unaltered, since its inception, and on its anniversary is as popular as ever. The premise was this: that its contestants must speak on a given subject for sixty seconds, without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Points were awarded by the chairman, Nicholas Parsons (himself a fully paid up member of the Institution,) for reaching the end of the time period, and for successful interruptions by rival panelists on the grounds mentioned. Unless you’ve been living up a tree and the preset buttons are broken on your digital radio (back at the show’s beginnings, I would have said tuning dial), most people would be able to put name to that program – Just a Minute.
The charm of the show is in its simple rules, which allow the right kind of player almost infinite scope for improvisation. To play well, as well as being attentive to an opponent’s errors, it is necessary to be educated, eloquent, imaginative, confident and, most importantly, witty, as bonus points are available at the host’s behest when the audience enjoy an interjection.
The ultimate achievement in the game is the ‘perfect minute,’ where a speaker continues for the entire time period avoiding any challenge. These events are rare and lauded. Try playing the game yourself, and you’ll see just how difficult it is.
The original team of regulars – often supplemented by a carousel of guests – had ample qualifications. They consisted of the writer, restaurateur and former politician Clement Freud; actor, writer and voice of ‘The Book’ in the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy Peter Jones; actor Derek Nimmo; and Kenneth Williams – he of Carry On infamy. This assemblage was as much a regular fixture on the panel as the self-selecting Arsenal back four of the 1990s. Along with an array of stand-ins to keep the familiar voices on their toes and to add spice, this quartet remained until the death of Williams in 1988.
Each brought something unique to the mix, and played in their own way, whether it was Freud imparting knowledge with paced, monotone delivery, or Williams playing up to the audience. As the original first team departed – Freud being the last, in 2009 – a new generation of talent took their place and continue to keep the show freshly entertaining. Today, Paul Merton, Sue Perkins, Gyles Brandreth, Julian Clary, Graham Norton, Liza Tarbuck, and Ross Noble commonly have their fingers poised on the infamous buzzers, ready to butt in and spoil each other’s flow.
Present at every recording and often, good humouredly, the butt of many panelists’ jokes, is octogenarian master of ceremonies Nicholas Parsons. His steady, unpartizan stewardship has been a major factor in its popularity. Were he to depart after such a long period in the chair he would undoubtedly be missed enormously. But, like Countdown after Richard Whiteley, even without such an integral component, the show is so brilliantly planned that it could function and go on without him. Where its television rivals for staying power, Have I Got News For You, and Never Mind The Buzzcocks have become tired and predictable, Just a Minute enjoys infinite variety.
In celebration of its longevity, Radio 4 broadcast two special commemorative recordings. One, a three hour collection of highlights featuring classic and contemporary players, Just a Minute: Without Hesitation, the other an episode recorded in Mumbai and starring Paul Merton, Dominic Brigstocke and two Indian stand-up comedians. The audience, mostly, you would imagine, unfamiliar with the format, responded warmly and very quickly were playing along, booing, cheering and applauding in all the right places. A testament to this genius invention, that it can transcend cultural and language barriers.
On BBC2 on Monday 26th March 2012, at 6.00pm, Just a Minute will begin a ten episode run as tea-time television quiz fodder. This isn’t the first time it has made the transition, but now it has a chance to win over the radio-shy segments of the British public and it will, hopefully, become an idea on which the whistle will never blow.
‘It’s a gift and a curse at the same time…You get the pain much worse than anybody else, but you see a sunrise much more beautiful than anybody else.’
Can it really be ten years since the passing of one of my heroes, writer, poet, musician, actor, campaigner and comedy anarchist Spike Milligan? His status as the father of alternative comedy and unquestionable influence on British culture has often been documented both in his life and since his passing, and this is not intended as a tribute or biography. The chronicle of his life and works have been recorded elsewhere, better and more thoroughly, and often by those who knew and worked with him.
Prevalent in his life, and what most interests me, underlying every endeavour – The Goons, Puckoon, his war memoirs, the various Q series, his humorous and serious verse – was a long battle with mental illness. The term manic depressive – bipolar disorder, to give it its contemporary label – might almost have been coined for him, struggling as he did against extremes of madcap creative genius and complete mental and physical inertia, accompanied by the darkest, sometimes suicidal and even murderous, contemplations.
The often cited trigger for his depression was an incident during his war service in Italy, in which he came under heavy shellfire resulting in a lengthy hospitalisation and a number of complete breakdowns. Shellshock, as it was known then, or post-traumatic stress as you would now call it. He was removed from front line service, although he remained in the army and in Italy until after the war, which was the period in which his entertainment career began.
But according to his confessional appearance on In The Psychiatrist’s Chair with Dr. Anthony Clare – originally recorded in 1982, but transmitted as part of Radio 4’s recent programming* in honour of the late Milligan – his anxieties and many of his psychosis can be traced back to his upbringing in India when he was a awkward, introverted child, sometimes beaten by his mother, without his army-absent father, alone until a brother came along eight years later. As a result he grew up overly-sensitive and with little tolerance. His extroverted persona and lunatic behaviour were compensation for an underlying shyness.
With his depression at its worst, Milligan opted for an induced narcosis for three weeks, when he simply could no longer cope with his issues. This hit during what most would consider the pinnacle of his career – The classic, surreal radio comedy, The Goons. He wrote the scripts on automatic, like a production line, and would come to resent this period of his life. The fact that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the stress and mounting psychosis, he turned out an impressive body of ground-breaking material, is an astounding achievement, and what most impresses and inspires me.
I have my own experience of mental illness, both personally and affecting those close to me. When asked if he would swap the illness for a more balanced life, Milligan, as is common with those who suffer with bipolar disorder, declined. Like a sine wave, the unbearable troughs are countered by soaring peaks, in which he and others are capable of their greatest works. Medication, although it takes the edge off the lows, can dull other things too. Being a long standing admirer, I know something of Milligan’s life story, but learning details of the depths he reached, and how he coped with his illness, for me, earned him a new level of respect.
As he aged, he learned to cope better with his problems, although he was never free of them. His controversial epitaph, inscribed in Gaelic on his tombstone, ‘I told you I was ill,’ sums up the man. He maintained his sense of humour throughout, even when facing the end.
I’m always conscious of avoiding direct comparison between my efforts and those of the subjects of some of my articles. I am not a creative genius, nor have I ever plumbed the depths of despair like Spike Milligan, but I can appreciate in my own way what he went through and what it meant to have still been able to write through it all.
* The Spike Show: Milligan Remembered, a compilation of new and old programming, presented by Milligan’s secretary Norma Farnes.