Wednesday, July 25, 2007


As happens most weeks, I picked up the new issue of Radio Times with a sinking feeling. Emblazoned across the bottom of the cover is the legend “IS THIS THE GREATEST BRITISH FILM EVER MADE?” and above this absurd question is a shot of Robert Carlyle in a peaked cap, beginning to unbutton his shirt. Not only is The Full Monty nowhere remotely near being “the greatest British film”, it’s not even Robert Carlyle’s best film.

Turn inside and you find that this is just one of four different Radio Times covers on the same issue. Me, I’ll collect anything that there’s more than one of, but even I draw the line at buying four otherwise identical magazines for the pleasure of “the full set” of covers. That’s what RT hopes some will do though, and, while they don’t mention it this time, they’ve gently but firmly suggested that readers might “collect” the differing covers issued on past occasions.

And what are the other three candidates for GBFEM? Why of course: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Trainspotting and Zulu. Er … Zulu? Even the doyen of movie guides, Leonard Maltin, only awards this ‘masterpiece’ three stars and he’s not exactly hard to please. (He gives Monty three-and-a-half and the others three each). Zulu apart, these movies only begin to nudge the frame if you’ve seen nothing made more than fifteen years ago. So the EM part of GBFEM (EVER MADE – do keep up) is not really under consideration here, is it.

These four reasonably diverting but hardly important movies – actually, I exempt Trainspotting, which is indeed considerably more original and significant than the others – turn out to appear in a list compiled from the votes of 2,500 Radio Times readers (if indeed anyone actually reads the rag any more), these votes weighted by being cast from lists of genre candidates chosen by that dreary old middle-of-the-roader Barry Norman and RT’s staggeringly dumb film editor. Movies can only be classified by genre nowadays, otherwise we wouldn’t know what to think about them.

It’s noticeable that these initial lists spread themselves through the history of film since 1935 (nobody considers silents any more) but the voters heavily favour relatively recent fare. So, all the voted-for movies are in colour, with the single exception of Brief Encounter (which has grown in stature over the years and which was greatly helped to its position on the overall list by its category – Love & Romance – being less obviously represented by film-makers in the past thirty years). But there’s a curious anomaly here. In the Love & Romance section, Brief Encounter actually polls third behind Four Weddings and Gregory’s Girl, the latter of which doesn’t make it to the list of lists. How does that work, then?

The readers’ list is, in votes order: Monty Python’s Life of Brian; The Full Monty; Four Weddings and a Funeral; Trainspotting; Lawrence of Arabia; Shaun of the Dead; Withnail & I; Brief Encounter; Zulu; Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There’s a suspicion of an organised Monty Python write-in there, I would submit. It’s fascinating that the only true auteur represented here occurs twice: David Lean directed Lawrence and Brief Encounter. I would argue that his Great Expectations is quite the equal of these two undoubted masterpieces and that Oliver Twist and Hobson’s Choice are not far behind. In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago are all greatly superior to anything else on the RT list. Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting, is the only other director here doing rather more than a job of work and I doubt that many could name all (or indeed any) of the directors of the other movies. In my extremely well-informed opinion, the only top ten for which Withnail & I qualifies would be top ten most overrated.

An accompanying list of seven chosen by the British Film Council suggests that the pros are not much more discriminating than the public, save that their list at least reflects some history: Goldfinger; Brief Encounter; Billy Liar; Henry V (the Olivier version); The Wicker Man; The Dam Busters; and (good grief) Withnail & I. Again though, the absence of auteurs, of artists rather than journeymen, is striking. Where in either list are Michael Powell, Carol Reed, Anthony Asquith, Robert Hamer, Alexander Mackendrick, Sidney Gilliat, Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Terence Fisher, Joseph Losey, Richard Lester, Ken Loach, Nicolas Roeg, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Neil Jordan, Terence Davies and Mike Leigh? Where is the most famed British director ever, the one who virtually invented the auteur figure, Sir Alfred Hitchcock? Again, only the buffs would not be hard pressed to name the directors of most of the films on the Film Council’s list. And where is the work of Britain’s most instantly recognisable studio brands: Ealing, London, Gainsborough and Hammer?

When Radio Times conducts the same exercise about British television – if it already has, which seems most likely, I have happily put it out of my mind – it will undoubtedly name Doctor Who (in its present manifestation only) as the greatest television programme of all time. Pish. Tush. And fiddledy dee.

What we have in this idiotic feature is something perfectly tailored to the present state of Radio Times: trivial, superficial, celebrity-driven, second-hand, meaningless and with no sense of history or quality. All its section editors and regular columnists subscribe to the same petit bourgeois notion of an uncritical, celebrity-led celebration of being constantly diverted, of a set of vacuous values received as a list rather than the demanding discipline of individual thought and constant reappraisal.

Some time in the 1980s, I wrote in a national newspaper about the then decline of Radio Times, though the magazine of that vintage was to its successor as Scrutiny or Encounter was to Titbits. Its editor, a man of intense demeanour in an end-of-the-pier bowtie called Nicholas Brett, invited me to lunch and brought with him an issue from before his time that featured a very young Michael Barrymore and some showgirls on the cover. He seemed to believe that this somehow proved that the magazine had not gone downmarket under his stewardship – I had rather crisply compared it to the kind of free publication you used to find at a supermarket checkout.

I demurred and still do. I am old enough to remember when Radio Times had as its mainstay features on the background to all types of programmes to be broadcast on both radio and television in the coming week. No doubt the current editor would claim the same but she’s wrong. (I heard her not long ago being interviewed on the Radio 4 programme Feedback and she clearly doesn’t entertain the idea that she could ever be wrong). What her organ actually majors in is fawning stuff about celebrities. The current issue has puffs for Griff Rhys Jones, Sanjeev Bhasker, Barbara Windsor and June Whitfield, apart from the usual columns on soap opera, pop music, sport and something mysteriously called “living”. The only coverage of a programme not hung around the star presenter or performer is of a sordid-sounding “drama documentary” about the fatal car crash of the Princess of Wales, Dodi Al Fayed and their driver. This has its own celebrity thrust, of course. There is also a think piece about the programme by the magazine’s editor of television coverage, though her pieces never betray anything as developed as thought, just knee-jerk reaction from the conventional wisdom.

Brett’s version was already well down this path to uselessness. In his day, he may have felt that there was always The Listener to provide grown-up and thoughtful background to the broadcast media for those who wanted it. Tragically, that “always” was misjudged. The Listener perished years ago.

Reluctantly, I still take Radio Times regularly because its listings are the most comprehensive and informative I can find. There is much room for improvement even in the listings: it’s maddening that BBC3, ITV2 and ITV3 each get more space than BBC4 or More 4 while Film4 is pointlessly listed twice. But the clincher is that there is so little competition. Other printed guides look like the cheapest kind of trash and you know you’ll never be able to find therein the identity of the writer of a drama episode you might be interested in or the director of a movie whose title you don’t remember. Sky Arts has just revamped its website, seemingly with the purpose of making it look much more dramatic while removing all information that might be of any use to a potential viewer. Other websites – Channel 4, the BBC – look exhaustive but never seem to answer the one thing I want to find out.

There is no chance that Radio Times will get any more useful under the present editor who is almost certainly doing exactly what the current BBC regime wants. As a follower rather than (as in the ‘60s) a leader of fashion and style and thinking, the BBC will perhaps change if the hunger for celebrity trivia and things organised into lists ever wanes. Don’t hold your breath.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Tony Blair never learned one of the basic laws of politics: how it looks is more important than how it is. He imagined that the constant use of the techniques of spin-doctors would make everything right. But the proportion of the electorate that swallows the doctored medicine is not large enough for the gambit to be worth it. Most of us see these nostrums for what they are. (Incidentally, surprise has been widely expressed that doctors and other health workers have appeared to be the moving forces behind the recent bomb attacks in Glasgow and London. I don’t know why. Doctors have always been rogues and vagabonds. Among the most disreputable characters in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers is a pair of young general practitioners to whom you would hesitate to entrust a scratch on a finger).

Blair never got his head round the problem that the invasion of Iraq and its lamentable consequences couldn’t possibly be made to look desirable, successful, wise, necessary or even a fairly honourable failure. To most impartial observers, it came across only as repellent, vain, dumb, misguided and a craven catastrophe. It made no difference how many times Blair assured us that it was “the right thing to do”. That was never going to be how it looked. He could argue until he was blue in the face. Iraq will be written on his heart just as Calais was written on Queen Mary’s.

The case that, whatever the final outcome, is going to go down in the annals of the Blair years as The Cash for Honours Scandal was also one that could never be made to look other than fishy. It is his misfortune (and Blair’s) that, no matter what high degree of probity he evidently brought to the task of raising money for Labour’s coffers, Lord Levy strikes you as oleaginous, ingratiating and insincere. You want to lock him in a cupboard with Daniel Corbett, David Dickinson and Michael Winner. I have no doubt that the Daily Mail singled Levy out for grotesquely biased treatment, underwritten by a subtext of anti-Semitism. That’s about The Mail’s level (I aver, without actually reading the paper) and I hope Levy sues them and makes off with a healthy cheque for damages. But that doesn’t mean I have to want to cosy up with him myself. If Blair couldn’t see that Levy would not come across to the public as someone you would rush to trust, he certainly wasn’t able to get his head round the notion of how it looks.

It will be hard for the voters to walk away from this saga without suspecting at some level that there can’t be smoke without fire. The director of public prosecutions may have concluded that there is “not enough evidence” to proceed but the public requires no such rigorous examination of the prospects to form its conclusions. Blair is, across a broad range of matters, a busted flush. Gordon Brown has been shrewd to make it his priority to put as much discernible space between his style and method and those of his predecessor as possible. The handy side effect is that, the further Blair slips into history, the more irrelevant is made to seem his true stylistic and spiritual heir, David Cameron. The voters of Southall and Sedgefield seem to have thought so. In a perverse and roundabout way, the tarnishing of Blair’s golden image may have done Labour a favour after all.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Late last evening, we strolled down to the local shops. My partner reads the Harry Potter books (I had had my fill with two) and had ordered the final volume. At my prompting, we decided to join a ritual that will surely never be repeated in our lifetimes: the midnight massing of children and adults outside a bookshop.

There must have been a hundred people there, a far cry from the 6,000 or so apparently queuing outside Waterstone’s biggest store on Piccadilly but astonishing enough for a small town. The mood was festive and friendly, only briefly compromised by passing teenaged drunks. The two kids who had made the most effort in their appropriate costumes were rewarded with a free copy each. Then the rest of us filtered into the shop to pick up our copies. (I bought The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins).

Had I been JK Rowling, I would have supplied independent book sellers with free or at least heavily discounted copies so that they could undercut the supermarkets and chain stores that can sell at a discount through their bulk and preferential deals. But perhaps Bloomsbury would have vetoed such a gesture. It’s a pity, however, that a brand that has made so much money could not have done more to help the dwindling independent sector. The individual shops like our local one could not but open at midnight in order to avoid surrendering important territory to the big guys that only stock the bestselling titles.

I don’t subscribe to the view that the phenomenon of the Potter books (along with the vast successes of Josephine Wilson and Philip Pullman) indicates a new golden age of kids getting their noses into books. Unless kids read stuff that isn’t relentlessly marketed at them through the large and small screens that occupy their eyes for most of the time, all they are doing is obeying Big Brother. When I see a child reading Robinson Crusoe and Kidnapped, Billy Bunter and Just William, I’ll believe that junior fiction is still alive and well.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


I was in London last week. The main focus of my trip was a belated house-warming party given by a couple who have finally domiciled themselves and their children in a big enough home, just before the elder child leaves for university. Since we sold our own flat in town two or three years ago, we have both been obliged to rely on the kindness of friends who have a spare room, or at least a spare bed. Happily, neither of us wants (yet) for ready invitations. But equally neither of us wants to outstay our welcome, to miss that moment when our hosts and/or hostesses start to whisper behind their hands “can’t we be ‘away’ next time he wants to come and stay?”

These things can be delicate. One of my keener benefactors – who anyway has been promising without issue to come and stay with us again for more than a year – was overdue for the benefit of my own lodging but there was a question mark over the party: would she have been invited and, if not, would she expect me to take her as my (uninvited) guest? I decided to avoid this bear trap. There was a pair of likelier candidates who were happy enough to offer their spare room (a relatively comfortable one; at my age, these things weigh). So I enquired discreetly of the party-thrower if she had indeed invited them, wanting (as I did) to avoid a ticklish situation in which the houseguest goes off to the party, leaving the host(ess) languishing at home. “You are wonderfully tactful,” she declared in her email, confirming that they had indeed been invited too. I’m not sure that I was being other than modestly wary.

The party was on the Saturday evening. I wanted to stay for a few days so it made sense to travel up to London on the Saturday afternoon and take my few days after the party, thus avoiding the bad train travel times (Friday – expensive; Sunday – delays). It meant that I was able to go straight to the house where I was staying, rather than having a day and evening in town before rolling up at the lodging shortly before bedtime, which is what I do when I travel up in the week. Thus I could take a bouquet for my hostess from our fabulous local florist, who knows exactly what flowers to choose for surviving a couple of hours on train and tube. I don’t like to arrive empty-handed but, if you’ve been in town all day and sat in a theatre all evening, few gifts still glow with rude health. Even chocolates are a little wilted from a couple of hours in a bag in a theatre cloakroom. And I rather baulk at taking wine, which smacks of students’ parties. It’s hard to know just what wine is appropriate, unless you’re very sure of the victim’s taste. So unless I’m going straight to the house, there is often no alternative but to make some gesture at the end of the stay.

The flowers were well received, as were (overwhelmingly so) the flowers I had had delivered ahead of the party. Said party was a total delight and its hostess and I yakked on the phone for an hour on the Sunday. I called her on my mobile, not wanting to tie up the household phone for a chat call, and as a result I had to be sparing for the rest of my trip because the battery had run very low.

When I got in late on the Monday evening, I heard that the party hostess had been trying to reach me by phone: her mother had died that morning. I decided it was too late to call, but missed her next morning and again during the day and we didn’t get to speak until late on the Tuesday evening. The funeral would be on the Thursday and she hoped I would come. I had thought ahead about this. I felt I had to decline because I had brought no clothes with me remotely suitable for a funeral. My host had already offered me the loan of a tie but that, I felt, would not have been sufficient to cover my discomfort. The bereaved daughter declared that she and her sister wouldn’t mind how I was dressed. “But I would mind” I said and she saw that this was conclusive.

Not everyone observes it these days, but I have always held that the immediately bereaved are the focus of attention at a funeral, the bride and (to a lesser degree) her mother at a wedding, the parents at a christening or bris, the confirmand at a confirmation or Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the graduate at a graduation and so on. It is not the purpose of the guests to be conspicuous, either by commission or by omission. It is as heinous to be underdressed as overdressed on these occasions. Better not to attend at all than to pull focus from those on whom the spotlight should fall (if I may mix the movie-making metaphors).

You could say that this whole piece is about an observance that is almost lost in the me-me-me scream of contemporary life: etiquette. The unwritten rules that govern social behaviour still mean something, even if the great majority are not even aware that they exist. I cannot trace whoever it was who first observed that “a gentleman is never unknowingly rude”, an exquisite aperçu that leaves on the table the certainty that asperity is never inadvertent. But whoever it was remains so right.

PS: in my last entry, I misspelled Lord Carlile. This was not the rudeness of a cad but the misapprehension of an ignoramus. I beg his pardon.

Monday, July 02, 2007


I have a lot of time for Alex Carlisle, appointed from the Liberal Democrat benches by Tony Blair as the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation and retained by Gordon Brown. On The World at One today, he was talking about the issue of the limit on police detention of terror suspects (currently at 28 days) and calling for “a mature debate … free of party political points scoring”. I eagerly join such a debate.

Lord Carlisle proposed that any number of days is an arbitrary limit and that the police ought to be able to detain terror suspects for as long as the investigation takes, always provided that such detention is monitored regularly by a representative of the judiciary and, he implied, according to stricter tests than now obtain. He cited as support for this line the fact that the Glasgow police are currently holding a man who requires lengthy hospitalization because of the burn wounds he suffered when the car in which he was travelling rammed the entrance of Glasgow airport and ignited some of the combustible matter contained therein. It would of course be absurd were he to have to be released without interrogation because of the time lost while he underwent medical treatment.

This strikes me as a pragmatic and sensitive solution, provided it is deployed with care. I don’t as a rule believe that the police have any business arresting anyone if they don’t possess the evidence to justify holding them for any length of time. Whenever there is a terrorist incident, a flurry of arrests quickly ensues and some of those arrested are soon released. The damage that such arrests do is a serious consideration. On the one hand, they may well hurt the reputations of those wrongly held and have long-term effects on their family relationships, social lives, employment status and so on. There is no mechanism for getting redress for being herded into police custody on the whim of some officer who is concerned to make eye-catching gestures or to keep his numbers up. On the other hand, such treatment sows further resentment against the establishment within the community – at present, generally, the Muslim community. We could all do without anything that drives more disaffected youth into the power of mad mullahs. But provided that there is some better control exercised over willy-nilly police reactions to incidents, it ought to be possible in certain, minutely monitored circumstances for genuine suspects to be held pending the gathering of the relevant evidence.

But Carlisle also permitted himself a thrust that did him no credit. “Civil liberties groups have got to wake up to the reality of the situation” he said. It’s always alarming when a lawyer, particularly one who carries weight in Whitehall and Westminster, implies that we ought to stand ready to surrender our liberties. In situations such as the present state of maximum alert, it is all the more crucial to be vigilant about the instruments of the state arrogating to themselves extended or additional powers in the name of security. History, both recent and ancient, tells us that the police, the armed forces, the intelligence community, the bench and governments in full self-righteous mode are more like our enemies than our friends in the battle to keep our rights. Powers taken in supposed critical times can be handy in calmer days to employ against any group or individual whom the powerful believe they have a reason to dislike. The present government, like all its predecessors, will protest that it of course always has our interests at heart. But if it puts into the hands of a future dictator – a British Mugabe or Milosovic for instance – instruments by which he can silence his critics, jail the dissidents and hold indefinitely those he deems to be “different” while protesting that he is only making use of the powers that he inherited, the government will have done us a profound disservice.

It has been proposed that our airports should more resemble those of Israel. Unless you have flown into, within or out of Israel, you won’t know what that means. It means being interrogated individually for at least twenty minutes by someone who looks like a bright schoolgirl, being required to field questions of an often extremely personal nature (“so why are you with your partner?”, not in the sense of being together on this trip but of being together at all). These sessions are designed to wrong-foot you, to make you angry and to explore whether your story is genuine or a convenient cover for wrongdoing. They do indeed succeed in making you angry, which is probably just as well because it is when you start resenting it and contradicting yourself and failing to have a thought-through account that they begin to believe that you are an authentic traveller without an agenda. If this technique becomes the norm at British airports, where there is no such tradition of interrogation, I predict fights, riots and assaults on staff.

More seriously, I don’t think it is unreasonable to set the hurdle a lot higher for a first entry into this country, whether as a tourist or business visitor or as an immigrant or asylum-seeker. Perhaps the odd business traveller apart, no one comes here for the first time on an impulse and if they do they will just have to be obliged to think again. It ought to be acceptable for everyone applying for first-time entry, even from another nation within the EU, to agree to undergo some routine but rigorous examination of her or his background and circumstances. As the United States does, we could require a visa for entry and make the issue of a visa conditional on a check-up in the country of origin, by way of the embassy or high commission. This would have to apply to everyone entering Britain because we could not be seen formally to be discriminating against those from Muslim nations but of course in practice those coming from such nations would be examined the most rigorously as a matter of course. I think it is reasonable to expect people who do not have an allegiance to this country to have to bear with a harder test of their trustworthiness, from wherever they come. This is not an anti-immigrant issue. It is a matter of securing the borders.

But within Britain, we should not let the present emergency go to anyone’s head. We ought only to contemplate surrendering any of our hard-won civil liberties if the institutions that seek to erode those liberties agree to permit themselves to be far more accountable to the public and its representatives. The armed forces, the police and the security services cannot continue to be their own judge and jury over complaints made against them. While such outrages as the Deepcut barracks affair and the shooting of the innocent man at Stockwell underground station are allowed to stand as unresolved but generalized stains on, respectively, the army and the Met with no individuals called to account, either so that the bereaved are given satisfaction or so that the services themselves can close the matters, there can be no public confidence in these powerful institutions. Why then should they have greater powers? We need much greater transparency in the workings of all these forces – yes, including the security services. Who can doubt that MI5 and MI6 are peopled by individuals with political viewpoints of their own and with a strong institutional ethic that discounts any outside view? Let’s not forget that members of MI5 attempted to destabilize the democratically elected government of Harold Wilson and that other individual politicians – Leon Brittan when Home Secretary, for instance – have been the victims of campaigns to undermine them by intelligence officers operating (no doubt) individually but with the full protection afforded by such useful devices as unaccountability and the Official Secrets Act.

It does need to be said once again that, whatever the threat on the streets of Britain, the terrorists have won if, by over-reaction, we let ourselves be turned into any kind of a police state.

Sunday, July 01, 2007