Thursday, November 30, 2006


Earlier postings were extracted from my book Common Sense, which can be downloaded free from my website – just click on COMMON SENSE: The BOOK in the sidebar. Here are new thoughts, previously unpublished, provoked by current events. Feel free to engage ...

Two teenagers have been sentenced at the Old Bailey for murder this week. They stabbed a man in the street, making off with his mobile phone, his oyster card and a small amount of cash. They were given "minimum terms" of 21 years (for the 19 year-old) and 17 years (for the 18 year-old). Frankly, I don't think it's enough.

Now, I wasn't in court and I haven't read the transcripts. It's unwise to make sweeping assumptions based on newspaper reports of trials. Nonetheless, this appears to be a peculiarly straightforward case with no detectable mitigating circumstances. And the sentences are consistent with those meted out to other opportunistic, petty-theft-related killings. So I cleave to my view. I don't think it's enough. Even should the younger killer serve his full term, he will be 35 when released, a mere four years older than was his victim at the time of his death. 17 years from now, the victim would have been 48, probably at the peak of his career. His fiancee, his parents, his friends feel bereft and robbed. I think they'd be wholly entitled to feel vengeful too.

Vengefulness is not an emotion we are supposed to indulge. We are expected to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to bury our grief by hoping for the killers' redemption. Well, bugger that. If anyone I loved were taken from me by knife-wielding thug, by suicide-bombing fanatic or indeed by drunken driver, I suspect that my instinct would assuredly be to go out and kill somebody in their turn. Don't let's be squeamish about these things. If you're religious or liberal, you perhaps genuinely can find some degree of charity in your heart for the killer. Not me.

My question, I feel sure, would be Lear's: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/And thou not breath at all?" (King Lear, Act V, scene III). Why indeed should those rats, those who killed for trash, live? As one bereaved by murder, required by the ghoulish media to make some public statement on the steps of the Old Bailey, I fancy I should want to say something like this:

"21 years is a piffling punishment for robbing someone else of perhaps 50, 60 or even 70 years of life and for robbing me of that person's love for so long. Why should these dehumanized husks of men have any kind of expectation of a resumed life? If the juridical process cannot eliminate these degenerates who, at 40 and 35, will certainly not be too advanced in years to visit similar crimes on others, then I, if I have wind and limb, will seek them out and do so myself at some point after their release. Or rather, to make a better match with their cruelty to me, perhaps I will seek out and eliminate their own loved ones, if they have any such". Even were the threat more token than real, the making of it should a) provoke a useful public debate about the role of vengeance and b) give the murderers a worm of dread to eat into what passes for their minds while they serve their terms.

Is there an argument for restoring the death penalty? I supported abolition as vehemently as anyone in the run-up to its enactment 40 years ago. It was a different world then. Guns were only known to the denizens of organized crime and barely at all to the police. The knife culture was an unimagined concept. Kids roamed in gangs and fought with fists and maybe with bike chains but they did not go about armed, save for the flick-knives that were more feared than actually carried. Murder was so rare as to be sensational, usually a crime passionnel or some Frankenstein's monster-like misfortune perpetrated by some retarded soul. Capital crimes were really rare.

Today barely an edition of the 6 o'clock News passes without bodies being found or somebody being sentenced for murder. And these are just the cases that make "a good story". The majority of killings go virtually unreported, meriting no more than a paragraph in a local newspaper, if that. The want-it-now philosophy reinforced continuously by the bombardment of advertising has its impact on people's tempers too. Why should I simmer down, "count up to ten" as an earlier generation advised, when I can have what I want – the end of a relationship, peace and quiet, triumph over a rival – by a nice quick killing? Murder, like sex crime, is really about exercising power over someone else. Our culture urges us constantly to seize power, to stand up for our "rights", to grab what we want, to triumph. To end someone else's life is to impose the ultimate sanction, to be like a god.

Tony Blair, a great one for squirming in the face of contradictions, got cross with journalists who persisted in questioning whether his support for the execution of Iraqi justice meant that he agreed with the execution of Saddam Hussein. Blair, with his Christian conscience and lip-service to liberal social policy, couldn't bring himself to say that any human being should die, however "evil" (his word, not mine). You wonder how he squares that with his knowledge that he sent troops into Iraq to kill thousands of innocent civilians. Ah yes, "collateral damage". Unfortunate but an inevitable price to be paid for a necessary operation. Not the same as deliberately stringing a man up. Oh, think it through, Tony.

I don't in the end rescind my opposition to capital punishment, even for the two teenaged stabbers whose claim for mercy seems to me to have less merit than any I can imagine. But I don't think they should be out of jail before they are 60 years old. Let us feel safe from them. There could hardly be a crueller fate than to be murdered – or to have a loved one murdered – by someone who has been released into the community after doing time for a previous murder. In such circumstances, I'd want to take my vengeance on the judge who imposed an inadequate sentence and the parole board who released the killer. Suppose that goon Michael Stone had managed to breach Stormont security and carry out his mission to assassinate Gerry Adams. Where would that leave the ludicrous policy of granting a so-called "political amnesty" to subhumans who claim a political justification for murder and mayhem? No less bankrupt than before but at least demonstrably so to politicians, that's where.

So, I have a Modest Proposal. Let sentencing policy be determined less by some academic tariff set for the severity of the crime and more by the need to keep the individual perpetrators out of circulation. How can it be fitting for a convicted murderer to be walking the streets a free man at the age of 35? Which of us will be safe from him?

And yes I know that the jails are overcrowded and to keep people in for much longer stretches would only exacerbate the problem. But I suggest that we have too many crimes that carry a jail sentence. The fool of a man who works as "royal editor" (whatever that means) for the News of the World and his contact, supposedly a "private detective", evidently qualified themselves for jail sentences by tapping into private phone conversations. To stick them in jail would be most satisfying to the vengeful feelings that many will have allowed themselves in the light of their guilty admissions. But this kind of white collar crime can be punished in other ways. Fine them. I mean, really fine them. Let independent auditors go through their personal accounts and, on the basis of their findings, let the courts impose stringent on-going financial penalties that will keep them impoverished for a couple of decades. Again, the penalties need to be tailored not to some standard tariff but to a level that determines a precise period over which these individuals will suffer penalties. The public purse would be satisfyingly swelled too.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


It amazes me that a driver who kills or injures is allowed to go on holding a licence. Anyone who inflicts such damage by dangerous or careless driving or while under the influence of drink or drugs should be permanently removed from the road as well as given a term of imprisonment commensurate with a manslaughter tariff. How can there be a second chance? Few will give murderers or rapists another shot at it. Those found wanting in their professional capacities are usually drummed out of that profession. And who of us would stay with an accountant done for fraud or a GP shown to be negligent?

Yet we have a culture in which the rights of the driver are held so sacred that the loss of a licence is considered a cruel and inhuman punishment for someone responsible for the loss of a life. The driver will plead that his livelihood depends on being free to drive. All the more reason always to drive as carefully as possible. That a road vehicle is only capable of killing, at most, a handful of people at a time is no reason to impose fewer constraints on its driver than, say, on an airline pilot whose error could kill hundreds in one fell swoop.

As Anne Karpf put it: “Courts and law-makers seem to believe that killing, when conducted through the intervening instrument of a car, when the murder weapon isn’t held in the hand, only controlled by it, is an altogether different affair … as though the car drives the driver, rather than the other way round. Car accidents are crimes almost without agency, without stigma, without a criminal”.

Needless to say, the road lobby took immediate issue with Ms Karpf’s wise words. “A driver … who kills through dangerous driving is looking at five years plus”, countered William Redgrave, “even if they have a spotless record and are destroyed by guilt and remorse. Those sentenced for careless driving are guilty only of a lack of due care and attention – which few of us could say we have never shown behind the wheel. When drivers who kill avoid prison, it is because the evidence shows that their driving was not particularly bad”.

I cannot understand why a driver who kills deserves leniency because that driving was “careless” rather than “dangerous”. For the family and friends of the victim, the loss is no less. And what court would accept that a piece of driving was simultaneously lethal and “not particularly bad”? This is just the kind of Through the Looking Glass reasoning that leads the motoring lobby to ignore the misery its members cause while it counts angels dancing on pinheads.

What is more, if Mr Redgrave is really volunteering that he sometimes drives without due care and attention, he ought to examine his conscience as to whether he is fit to run a car at all. Like most of his fellow drivers – some women, almost all men – Mr Redgrave lightly wears the awesome power of his car and the damage he can inflict if his concentration should fail him for a fleeting moment. Perhaps when – as he surely will – he knocks down a pedestrian, he will feel that it was just an accident, that it was bad luck, that he has had a good run and it’s bound to happen to you some time. He won’t of course be thinking about the real victim.

Once behind the wheel, many normal people lose contact with their brains. The popular press had a mini field day in February 2006 with the chanteuse Britney Spears when she was photographed driving with her baby laid across her thighs. Naturally, no journalist has ever taken a chance while in charge of a vehicle. The month before this outburst of meretricious outrage, I was eating a sandwich lunch while sitting on a bench on the pavement of the Fulham Road in London. The traffic was typically heavy, all stop-start, and the road surface was to a degree affected by winter conditions.

Having noticed a driver who had an open magazine across his steering wheel, I then systematically clocked succeeding drivers while I ate, perhaps a hundred of them on my side of the street. The great majority, for one reason or another, steered with one hand. Around one in ten was speaking into a mobile phone, blatantly breaking the law. If this breach was as common as I saw in a single file of traffic, what proportion of drivers does, routinely or from time to time, use a mobile while driving? One man was either texting or playing a game on his mobile. Several were eating, a pie or ciabatta held in the non-driving hand. One taxi driver had his arms folded and wasn’t steering at all. A woman was rummaging in a bag at her feet. Another woman was conducting a conversation through the passenger window with someone on the pavement, taking the odd glance at the road ahead. Several were consulting maps, A-Zs or other printed matter.

As a snapshot of driving modes, it was quite educational. I’m sure these drivers would protest that they know the route and their own limitations, they are always in control of their car, cab, truck or bus (on my evidence, bus drivers are the most diligent). But none of them can be sure that someone is not about to step in front of them or a vehicle coming forwards is not going to veer into their path. In such circumstances, each driver’s own reaction is compromised. Very many of them are going to have to make a two-handed grab for the wheel. The few seconds’ difference that this lack of preparedness makes could be the difference between a near miss and a collision, between yelling abuse and suffering or inflicting injury, even death.

People routinely take control of a vehicle lightly, assuming that to drive is second nature and that their ability to monitor this second nature is not altered by tiredness, preoccupation, distraction or the passing years. My father, a terrible driver, felt keenly the loss when his doctor said he should stop. I was glad for the rest of us. He met his end as a pedestrian, felled by a car. The driver was fined £120.

Driving is an adult responsibility, not a game of dare and not being caught. Jeremy Clarkson, a delinquent masquerading as a grown-up (I call him Juvenile Larksome), is the driver’s cheerleader. What an example he sets. With commendable lack of schadenfreude (seeing that he writes for the rival Sunday Times), The Observer reported that Larksome ran a pick-up truck into a 30 year-old horse chestnut in the church car park of a Somerset village as a test for his über-laddish series Top Gear. The BBC paid £250 compensation to the parish council. As Larksome had it in his column, “I was summoned to the office of a BBC bigwig where I spent half an hour looking at my shoes, saying I dunno, sir and it was only a tree … I wasn’t really sorry and I’m still not sorry. I only agreed to say I was because then the situation would die down and we could go to another village and crash into something else”. Maybe his co-presenter’s accident in summer 2006 will encourage him to grow up.

A quarter of a century ago, when the BBC was a tougher cookie in every respect, I was sacked from my job as a producer for talking to the press without prior written consent. So I have some personal resentment that JC acts the playground show-off, thumbing his nose at everyone including his employer. Most of all, though, I don’t understand why his driving licence is not taken away. By his own admission, he drives at the very best without due care and attention.

But of course motorists and professional drivers alike believe – indeed, know – that they are in control of the situation in which they find themselves moment by moment. So they cut legal corners all the time because they are experienced and the rules are made for others, not for them. Speed restrictions only apply to drivers unfamiliar with the route; anyway, they were imposed purely because the arseholes who live on this route lobbied their spineless local council or because some bureaucrat who’s never seen this road thought it was a good idea. Parking restrictions are the result of lefty-cum-EU prejudice against the free market so that you can’t go where you want to go and leave your car. Traffic wardens: well, we all know that in a former life they were the guards driving the Jews into the gas ovens. They’re worse than pædophiles. They have a grudge against cars. Bastards ...

“Well”, the thoughtful driver says, “I know that the volume of traffic is already too heavy for the road network we have and that global warming is putting us all at risk but what can I do? I still have to use the car to go to the supermarket, to collect the kids from school and to drive to work”. But every driver, if she is honest, will admit that the worst aspect of being on the road is … yes … other drivers. It is indeed the other fool who cuts you up, takes your parking space, prevents you overtaking by driving too slowly, causes the accident. It is the rest of the traffic that gets in your way.

So drivers must drive less. “Is your journey really necessary?” as the wartime poster enquired. There needs to be a cultural change, whereby car-owners treat their vehicles and the roads on which they drive with consideration and stop seeing themselves as independent spirits brought to earth by bureaucrats and kill-joys. No one who lives on a getting-busier-all-the-time road (who doesn’t?) thinks of other drivers as martyrs. It is for themselves that they weep ...

Read more of this essay in the chapter 'Bang to Rights', part of the free download of Common Sense by W.Stephen Gilbert which can be found at the website reached through the sidebar link above:


Tuesday, November 28, 2006


When I was young, older people (women, especially) were apt to utter “language!” as a reproof when someone said something that they perceived as offensive. It was shorthand for “Please do not use bad language”. ‘Bad’ or ‘strong’ language consisted of the milder swearwords or anything generally considered vulgar or blasphemous. Expletives – “four-letter words” – were never used, save in very male company, hence expressions such as “swearing like a trooper”. And if you were unguarded enough to use ‘strong language’ without first looking about you (in the street, for instance), a man would be bound to come up to you and say, politely but firmly: “Would you mind moderating your language? There are ladies present”. These days, I am sometimes minded to approach young women who are giving it out loudly: “Please, miss, have a care. There are gentlemen present”. But they wouldn’t get it.

Nobody needs reminding how words that at one time could only be spoken sotto voce are now routinely shouted by six year-olds from the proverbial rooftops, not in order to give offence but because they are used as unselfconscious emphasis. The sense of taboo has simply fallen away. The only word restrictions that survive are upon those that might insult individuals who are different from oneself.

In 1914, Bernard Shaw could cause a theatrical frisson with – and at the same time get away with – having Mrs Patrick Campbell utter “Not bloody likely!” in the Galatea role of Eliza in the first run of his 23rd play, Pygmalion. By the time of My Fair Lady, the musical version of Shaw’s play 42 years later, ‘bloody’ had lost its power to cause a “sensation” and Alan Jay Lerner’s Eliza was instead given a vulgarity, yelled in support of her horse in the second race at Ascot: “Come on, Dover!!! Move your bloomin’ arse!!!” (I replicate Lerner’s own multiple exclamation marks).

Shaw understood exactly what swearing was about. It expressed anger, acute pain or, as in Eliza’s case, vehemence in an abrupt and graphic manner. But it was not suitable in ‘polite society’ where such evident lack of self-control sorted ill with the mores. Now that there is no longer any such thing as politeness or, according to Margaret Thatcher, society, the ‘shock’ of ‘language’ has declined.

Instead, expletives are discussed in semi-academic terms in books (eg The F-Word: the Complete History of the Word in All Its Robust and Various Uses, ed: Jesse Sheidlower) and even on telly (eg Dr Germaine Greer advocating the use of ‘cunt’ in a short visual essay). This gives the lie to the argument that ‘four-letter words’ are the purview of people who are barely one up from illiteracy.

But I always knew that was untrue. When, in the late 1960s, I read English at University College London, there were two heads of the Department. Prof Frank Kermode was the most elegant, witty and enthralling lecturer I can hope to hear. As I write, he continues to publish elegant, witty and enthralling books in his mid 80s. Joint head was Sir Frank’s fellow Manxman, Prof Randolph Quirk, now Baron Quirk of Bloomsbury in the London Borough of Camden, to give him his full, splendid title. Lord Quirk was also a witty man. While Sir Frank’s area was literature, his was language. His wonderful book, The Use of English, is still the standard text.

Now, because I stupidly failed Part I in Old English, taken a year before Finals, I had to resit the paper and, along with other failures, I received extra tuition from Prof Quirk himself. My fellow students were less diligent about attendance than me, so I sometimes found myself alone with the daunting professor. The absences irritated him. He would throw open his door and bellow into the corridor: “Where are those cunts?” The air, as they used to say, was blue. Nobody, though, could accuse Prof Quirk of having no alternative words to hand. He was utilizing the full range of language and, you could posit, appropriately in the circumstances.

Victorian novels would convey frustration by having a character (always male, I think) cry “D–– it!” or some equally bowdlerized term. This could be understood by a lady reader to stand for “dash it!”, a mild enough imprecation for her to imagine if not actually to utter. Before and since that time, many mild oaths have been corruptions of blasphemous exclamations: “zounds!”, “lawks-a-mercy!”, “lumme!”, “blimey!”, “struth!” being derived respectively from “God’s wounds!”, “Lord have mercy!”, “God love me!”, “God blind me!”, “God’s truth!”. These euphemisms avoid a breach of the Third Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain".

‘Stronger’ language seeped into literary novels in the early 20th century. Joyce’s Ulysses and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were banned outright in Britain for years. After the trial that liberated the latter book, Penguin’s famous edition circulated widely if discreetly. I remember my teenaged delight at finding a copy secreted in the kitchen drawer. Though notably prudish in all things sexual, my mother could not resist finding out what the fuss was about.

As early as 1934, Cole Porter could remark wittily on the sexual language beginning to appear in the novel:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.

Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose –
Anything goes.

Note that Porter’s “But now, God knows,” is frequently modulated to the more acceptable “Now, Heaven knows,” in recordings of the song.

For my generation, the literature that caused a prurient rush to the bookshops included Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn), Hubert Selby Jr (Last Exit to Brooklyn), William Burroughs (The Naked Lunch) and John Rechy (City of Night and The Sexual Outlaw). These were ‘hot’ novels, not just for the ripeness of their language but more so for the inordinate behaviour that they limned. There is a (conscious) blurring here of the line between literature and pornography, preserved only by the seriousness of intent – or, some would say, the self-serving pretension of the writing.

The function of swearing, it could be argued, is to give offence. While expletives did their job, writers drew attention to themselves by employing them. But there is a perfectly respectable argument for making use of the language that is actually used in society, for writers seeking accuracy and candour in their reflection of people’s talk ...

In 1986, the National Theatre mounted The Petition, a new play by Brian Clark, much of whose work had been written for television. Sir Peter Hall cast Sir John Mills, infrequently seen on stage, opposite the charming and dignified Rosemary Harris. I saw the play in its transfer to Wyndham’s in the West End, where its audience seemed to be even more elderly and conservative than would venture to the National. A distinct froideur wafted from the stalls to the stage when Sir John was obliged to call Miss Harris “a cunt”. To most of the audience, I feel sure, such a word was deeply offensive, inappropriate and uncalled-for, both in such a play and in the mouth of a beloved senior actor. They did not want to be obliged to hear ‘gutter’ language and they resented it. I have some sympathy for their view.

My father and I were watching the late-night programme BBC3 (on BBC2) in November 1965, when that estimable imp, Kenneth Tynan, was asked by the host Robert Robinson whether sexual intercourse might be permissible on the stage of the National Theatre, where Tynan was literary manager.

“Certainly” said Tynan, seeming to answer a different question altogether. “| think there are very few rational people in this world to whom the word ‘fuck’ is particularly diabolical or revolting or totally forbidden”. Coming back to Robinson’s point, he went on: “I think that anything that can be printed or said can also be seen”.

Tynan’s conclusion is a major provocation and merits debate. Sadly, his uttering of ‘fuck’, the first recorded instance on British television – conceivably on any television – raised the mother of all hullabaloos. There were questions in the House (in 2006, the great broadcasting issue exercising MPs was Radio 4’s decision to axe the early morning theme tune) and Tynan’s dismissal from the NT was widely called for. Happily, Tynan’s boss, Sir Laurence Olivier, held his nerve and the storm blew out.

Four decades on, ‘fuck’ is heard far more on television than, say, ‘socialist’, ‘existentialism’, ‘poetry’ or ‘modesty’ ...

To read the rest of this disquisition – on the general corruption of language, not merely the rise of "bad language" – see the chapter 'Never Heard Such Language' in my book Common Sense, which is available as a download, entirely free, by clicking on the sidebar link called


If anything in it catches your eye, please pass the link to others.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Movies are not as much fun as they used to be. When there was a studio system in Hollywood and movies were turned out as if in a factory, a lot of good stuff got made by default because studio heads were too busy to pay attention. The stars were on contract, typically for seven years, and so were the writers, directors and producers. They may have been obliged to work on projects that they didn’t care for or that reinforced an image or philosophy that they would have repudiated – all of which made for a pretty big downside. Among the pluses, though, was a degree of security in a fickle industry and all the advantages of a collegiate regime of predominantly talented (even brilliant) people working to excel and to make others do the same.

Nowadays, every movie, no matter how modestly conceived or relatively inexpensive to make, is like a life commitment for at least the writer, producer and director, sometimes for some of the actors too. The biggest effort goes not into the shoot itself or the writing or the editing or the casting or the often-protracted process of post-production. The biggest effort – involving the producers, stars, financiers, production companies, directors, marketing people, even writers (and, of course, all their managers, lawyers and consultants) goes into the initial deal. It usually takes longer to set up a production than to execute it, release it and promote it (though promotion too can be a marathon). No studio system hammocks anyone or takes care of below-the-line costs. Every production is like founding an uncharted industry from scratch.

No wonder so much is compromised. If it takes months, even years, to raise the budget and sign the participants and ‘develop’ the script, it is inevitable that so many first choices – technicians, actors, locations, weather conditions, release dates – fall out of the equation. Besides, cinema is an art, not a science. People work by their instincts rather than by things they can prove. They all have an opinion based on almost nothing. As William Goldman famously wrote in his memoir of ’70s Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING (his caps).

The nature of stars has changed. In the vintage years, there was a quality that seemed essential, particularly for male stars to possess. Think of James Stewart, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jean Gabin, James Cagney, David Niven, Spencer Tracy, Jean-Louis Barrault, Fredric March, James Dean, Errol Flynn, Charles Boyer, William Holden, Robert Donat, Leslie Howard, Alastair Sim, William Powell, Vincent Price, Edward Everett Horton, Jacques Tati, Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard, Rudolph Valentino, Burt Lancaster, Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, Edmund Gwenn, Laurence Olivier, Joel McCrea, Melvyn Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Robert Montgomery, James Mason, Claude Rains, Marcello Mastroianni. Robert Mitchum, Franchot Tone, Laurel & Hardy, Anton Walbrook, Ralph Richardson, Bill Robinson, Roland Young, Rex Harrison, Walter Matthau, Charles Coburn, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Ustinov, Don Ameche, Ronald Colman, Yves Montand, Boris Karloff, Paul Henreid, Michael Hordern, Kenneth More, George Sanders, Dean Martin, Ray Milland, Douglas Fairbanks père et fils , SZ Sakall, Rock Hudson, Roger Livesey, Joseph Cotten, Marlon Brando, Nigel Bruce, even in his way John Wayne. All had it in spades: charm.

Women stars, even the greatest, needed it less. They were sexy, decorous, sweet, fearless or fearsome. But many charmed effortlessly: Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard, Judy Garland, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Judy Holliday, Dolores Gray, Shelley Winters, Vivien Leigh, Elisabeth Bergner, Lillian Gish, Myrna Loy, Celia Johnson, Jessica Tandy, Irene Dunne, Louise Brooks, Ingrid Bergman, Edna May Oliver, Dorothy Lamour, Marjorie Main, Natalie Wood, Hattie McDaniel, Janet Leigh, Marie Dressler, Margaret Rutherford, Billie Burke, Irene Handl, Ida Lupino, Françoise Rosay, Anne Bancroft, Ruth Gordon, Margaret Sullavan, Giulietta Masina, Hermione Gingold, Joan Blondell, Phyllis Calvert, Joyce Grenfell, Kay Kendall, Ann Sothern, Helen Hayes, Ann Sheridan, Vera-Ellen, Beryl Reid, Ethel Barrymore, Joan Greenwood, Eleanor Powell, Esme Cannon, Rita Hayworth, Beatrice Lillie, Coral Browne, Mae West, Audrey Hepburn: note how many had comic gifts.

Among today’s stars, we all can list our charmers, being careful to leave out those whom we merely fancy. If your list is rigorously compiled – and, unintended omissions aside, the absences in mine are conspicuous, even a touch harsh – it will be clear how few living stars (those under 65, anyway) possess true charm. Men typically exude a different central quality but what is it? Maybe it is something like invincibility, a carapace patented by two undoubted charmers way past 65 who, in the long view, changed things: Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood.

The younger women have what was always demanded, plus a sense of exposed sexiness. Nobody advocates a kind of Hays Code, imposed in 1930 and operative for three-and-a-half decades, whereby restrictions governed what could be shown in a movie distributed in the States. Many of these strictures were notoriously silly, such as the stipulation that, where a man and a woman were seen (fully clothed, of course) on a bed, the man must keep a foot on the floor; and it was odd always to see married couples in separate beds. But the useful function served by the Hays Office was to oblige filmmakers to be inventive, artful, witty and blithely subversive in conveying sexuality.

Now that there are no restrictions, there is neither any mystery. Actresses – and increasingly actors too – are routinely expected to divest themselves of clothing and expose their parts to the public’s dispassionate, incurious gaze. This is hardly conducive to nuance ...

Remarkably many actresses allow themselves to be conned into believing that there is some mysterious “artistic” imperative that requires them to get their kit off in front of the camera. So they agree to do it, unmindful that the director is (by the by) relishing his power to demand to look at their tits. It doesn’t take very deep analysis of most movies to see that the necessity to bare the performers’ bodies is no necessity at all.

Some actors need little persuading to let it all hang out. Glenda Jackson did disrobe on a regular basis in her movies. The breasts of Helen Mirren were filmic fixtures through the 1970s. The hoax reporter Dennis Pennis asked Demi Moore (unkindly but not unjustly) if she would consider a role that required her to keep her clothes on. And you could expect the young Simon Callow to bare all on stage or screen as reliably as Katharine Hepburn would take to the water.

But for every gratuitous flash of nipple, testicle or pubic area, there is some telling shot that may have cost the performer something to do but yet enhances the movie. In Transamerica, Felicity Huffman plays a pre-op male-to-female transexual. To cast a woman is the movie’s best idea (the screenplay has no ideas remotely as good) because, having set up a roadside shot at night in which Huffman is seen peeing from a (prosthetic) penis, writer/director Duncan Tucker can then linger briefly on Huffman in the bath, post-op and ‘transformed’. A leading performance of sublime perception and exact judgment transcends the movie’s other shortcomings.

In an exquisitely turned episode of the Channel 4 drama serial Shameless, the 60-ish actor Paul Copley played a temporary suitor to Marjorie Yates’ Carol (the neighbour’s unreliable mother). That he would prove to be rather too sexually adventurous for her was signalled from the first morning of his stay, which he passed in the stance of a naturist. Copley’s willingness to appear in any situation naked fuelled the comic momentum that the story strand needed.
These are not instances of gratuitous nudity. You don’t shift gear from watching a character to ogling an actor. The actor stays in character and the performance is deepened by the moment. This is not what most screen (or stage) nudity is like. The trendy Nederlands Dans Theater once came to London with a ballet performed entirely naked. As one critic delicately remarked, the focus of one’s view alters dramatically when the dancers’ parts are visible. One certainly found oneself distracted from the niceties of the choreography.

An RSC revival of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus addressed the perennial problem of how you carry off the magical, silent appearance of a vision of Helen of Troy by having an actress stroll naked across the Stratford stage. It was striking of course but in no way magical. A production by the Oxford University Dramatic Society trumped it. Having secured OUDS graduate Richard Burton to play Faustus, director Frank Hauser persuaded his then wife Elizabeth Taylor to walk on as Helen. It was heart-stopping, even though my fellow theatre-goer Tony Coult and I had earlier had the potentially myth-destroying experience of following the Burtons up the front steps of the Randolph Hotel, upon which occasion the generous width of Mrs Burton’s seat was proclaimed by the electric yellow of her jeans ...

To read on, see my book, Common Sense: this segment comes from the chapter entitled 'Film of Dust'. You can download the book entirely free of charge, along with its index (itself a pleasant diversion), by clicking on the sidebar link above:


As you may know, the world has degenerated into a sorry place – a loud, thuggish environment in which, with a few honourable exceptions, the race goes not to the swift but to the steroid-enhanced; the spoils go not to the victors but to the party donors; and history and philosophy are written not by historians and philosophers but by comedians, soap opera actors, day-time chat-show hosts, ghosted footballers and people who have thrust themselves onto what is laughingly called “reality television”.

In such a world, out-dated qualities such as expertise, modesty, kindness, wit, knowledge, reticence, honesty, irony, patience and understatement go not so much unrewarded as incomprehensible to the decision-makers and opinion-formers.

It follows that having had three books previously published is no passport to the publication of a fourth. After a long and disheartening struggle, I have elected to offer my latest volume as a free download to anyone minded to dip into it. The book is called, somewhat combatively perhaps, Common Sense. It is a tour d’horizon of the world as seen by a baby boomer for whom the age of 60 is just around the next corner.

You need be no whiz kid of the computer to access this text. Simply go to the sidebar link on the right above that says


This links you to my website; just follow the instructions you find there. You can readily download the book and its index onto your own desktop: the book occupies 2.7MB of space and the index (which itself, I suggest, is a diverting dip) 352KB. The thumbnail device on the left side of the Adobe reader will facilitate finding the page you want (the Chapter Headings will be found on page 3 of the volume).

Creatures that inhabit the ether survive by word of mouth or, I suppose I mean, word of keyboard. If you find anything in the text that engages, enrages, amuses, enthuses, mystifies, edifies, horrifies or revivifies you, please direct the occupants of your address book to the download. Who knows? – perhaps one day some lame-brained publisher will come to rue the day she failed to project a whole book from a sample chapter or, more common still, he declined to read it at all.

Thank you for your indulgence.

It always seemed to me, innocent as I am in weapons technology and realpolitik alike, that if Saddam Hussein really did possess the famed “weapons of mass destruction”, he would be bound to use them against the allied forces massing on his borders ahead of the invasion. If not then, when? What other occasion would he have to use them? What point would there be in developing them if he weren’t going to use them against an enemy determined to overthrow him by whatever means? Did Bush and Blair send in their troops believing that there was a real risk that WMD would rain down on their heads? Or did they know full well that there was no such risk?

I always had difficulty understanding the basis for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bush and Blair modulated the argument as they went along, personalizing the issue onto Saddam Hussein. What I call “the bogeyman theory of history” (or ‘boogieman’ in American) seems to me a facile kind of worldview. Demonize a country’s leader, call him a madman and despot and pretty soon you have a rationale for invasion, provided the country is much weaker than yours and your electorate are profoundly ignorant of that country’s history, culture and political system or of whom his successor might be ...

My greatest difficulty with the demonizing of Saddam Hussein was that every time an allied spokesman described a president who had not been legitimately elected, who flouted the will of the UN, who did not recognize the remit or indeed the very existence of international law, who invaded smaller and weaker nations, who imprisoned enemy troops without trial, who tore up treaties and who was developing more and more terrifying weapons of mass destruction, I thought he was talking about George W Bush.

This is no mere debating point. It is too easy to argue that the actions of our leaders are taken in full transparency and honour and good faith, while the other guy pursues the same policies out of malice and guile and bad faith. There is a fearsome irregular verb to be conjugated in description of what governments call ‘defence’: “I am a strong, moral leader who is developing his nuclear deterrent in order to protect the sovereignty of his nation and the greater security of the world; you are a leader who is not to be trusted with such a nuclear capability and who must reduce your stockpile of weapons; he is a mad despot to be disarmed by force of all his weapons of mass destruction”. If it is dangerous for the other guy to have nuclear capacity, how come it is merely prudent for us to have it? If we are powerful and responsible enough not to need to acknowledge the fears of other nations, why is he too foreign and wilful to be trusted?

Western diplomacy appears to believe its own propaganda and conducts itself as though the black-and-white world politicians depict for their electorates is just as simple in reality. Bush’s “axis of evil” may play in Peoria but appears merely foolish in Damascus, Tehran and Beirut and indeed in Moscow, Paris and Strasbourg. One woman’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter: that was always true. Those who believe that the ‘War on Terror’ is a comic-book struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ will never understand the complexities of the means by which peoples of different faiths, tribes and traditions hunker down and co-exist.

Tony Blair began to address these matters in a most significant speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles at the height of the hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah in the summer of 2006. After an implicit acknowledgment of President Bush’s child’s-eye view of the world – “there is an arc of extremism now stretching across the Middle East and touching, with increasing definition, countries far outside that region” – he developed an argument that force alone was inadequate for “our strategy to defeat those that threaten us”.

Blair proposed that "we will not win the battle against this global extremism unless we win it at the level of values as much as force, unless we show we are even-handed, fair and just in our application of those values to the world … tolerance, freedom, respect for difference and diversity … This war can only be won by showing that our values are stronger, better and more just, more fair than the alternative … Unless we re-appraise our strategy, unless we revitalise the broader global agenda on poverty, climate change, trade and, in respect of the Middle East, bend every sinew of our will to making peace between Israel and Palestine, we will not win … This is not just about security or military tactics. It is about hearts and minds, about inspiring people, persuading them, showing them what our values at their best stand for".

Much of the rest of the speech was a post hoc rationale of US/UK actions in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, crediting radical Islam with a long-term strategy of destabilization, a strategy which Blair considered “virtually obvious” despite the west’s unerring ability to play the role that the strategy assigned to it. "The purpose of the provocation that began the [present] conflict was clear. It was to create chaos, division and bloodshed, to provoke retaliation by Israel that would lead to Arab and Muslim opinion being inflamed, not against those who started the aggression but against those who responded to it".

This analysis begs virtually obvious questions: if the purpose of the provocation was so clear, why did the west allow Israel to play so readily into the hands of the wicked provocateurs? Does the west really embody “tolerance, freedom, respect for difference and diversity”? Are western values “stronger, better and more just, more fair than the alternative”? Beyond the rhetoric, we must look at UK and US social policy, the execution of law and justice, immigration and asylum measures, the provision of health, of education, of housing and of benefits for the poor, control over trade manipulation and powerful vested interests and avoidance of sleaze. Is our culture so wholesome that we can offer it as a better way than that of radical Islam? Or is it all too easy for even a moderate imam to point to “western decadence” and warn against such a fate? If Mr Blair were ever to wade through all that I have written here, he will see that I – and those who agree with any of my thesis – have grave misgivings about the tenor of contemporary life in the western democracies. Who would want to import our culture? And remember that Blair sacked Jack Straw from the Foreign Office for his Muslim sympathies.

The ‘destruction’ – easier said than done – of movements that came into being because significant numbers of people feel aggrieved can never be achieved unless those grievances are addressed. The very existence of Israel is the most long running and intractable of such grievances. No politician will ever dare to alienate the numerous and powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States – that is, unless and until the Arab demographic exceeds the Jewish. But the Middle East will never be at peace unless an American regime is prepared to force boundary concessions upon Israel instead of continuously underwriting her occupied territories with a blank cheque.

Neither Hizbullah nor Hamas is listed by the UN as a terrorist organization, the USA, Israel and Canada dissenting. The EU, UK and Australia regard Hamas as terrorists but not Hizbullah. Hamas, which is a Palestinian, Sunni Islamist grouping whose name means ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’, won the 2006 election in Palestine and formed a government for the first time. Hizbullah, a Lebanese, Shi’ite Islamist grouping whose name means ‘Party of God’, was founded 25 years ago specifically to free southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. It was its capture of two Israeli soldiers that precipitated the sustained attacks on Beirut, Tyre and other Lebanese centres by Israel in 2006. Hizbullah’s resistance was more resolute than Israel had anticipated ...

to read the rest of this essay, see the chapter 'When Will They Ever Learn' in the book Common Sense by W Stephen Gilbert, available as an entirely free download by clicking on the link in the sidebar above:


Sunday, November 26, 2006


At the beginning of the 1990s, I was working at a television production company. Euston Films, now defunct, was the subsidiary that made drama on film for Thames Television when the latter held the ITV franchise for broadcasting on weekdays in London.

Rather to my surprise, for it was hardly my natural territory, I was acting as script executive (script editor, as we called the post when I began in television and as I think of it still) for one of the big guns in ITV’s drama output, Minder. It fell to me, indeed, to devise the character – name, relationship to Arthur Daley, general function – who would replace Dennis Waterman’s Terry as the eponym. I am happy to report that the casting did not come under my purview.

One day a call came through to my office from Michael Church, an old chum from journalism days, who was then features editor on a national newspaper. He asked if I would like to consider writing a regular column for the paper. Most would no doubt accept such an offer at once and wing it. Doubtless too diligent for my own good, I instinctively felt that my script editing was a full-time job and that I could render neither it nor a column justice by trying to do them simultaneously. Without more ado, I reluctantly declined.

But “consider” lodged in my head. Middle-aged as I was, I had begun to feel utterly out of sorts with the times, not merely with the drawn-out demise of Tory rule but with the whole Zeitgeist. I had only to stroll down the street to feel alienated. As that camp old gargoyle Ernest Thesiger said of fighting in the World War I trenches: “My dear, the noise! And the people!” Of course it was a function of getting older but it seemed more deep-rooted than that. I felt that our values had come adrift and that this everyone-for-the-lifeboats and devil-take-the-hindmost mentality, much gingered up by the cult of greed that characterized the Thatcherite view of anti-society, was manifesting itself in multifarious ways, both vast and minuscule.

The promise that fulfilling the script editor function on Minder and on Euston’s short-lived and fraught new project (a drama series-cum-serial about a psychiatric practice called Shrinks) would be rewarded with my return to producing was not made good. Anyway, I got taken off both shows. Towards the end of the second year of my contract, it was clear that Thames would lose to Carlton its fight to keep the ITV franchise and, one by one, the company script editors were told that their contracts would not be renewed. By this time, needless to say, Michael Church was no longer a features editor.

I put together a few sample columns under the title ‘Now Don’t Get Me Started …’ and sent them around. No features editor was remotely interested. Eventually the country had had enough of the Tories and elected something calling itself New Labour. By the time well-merited disillusion had set in with that regime, I had decided that Now Don’t Get Me Started … could be a book ...

To read entirely free of charge that book, now entitled Common Sense, please click on the link in the sidebar


and you will go to the webpage where the book is available as a download