Saturday, September 29, 2007


The most interesting thing on television at present is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I’m sure the endgame of The Sopranos on E4 is really the high point of current British transmission but I wasn’t able to tape the first episode of the renewed screenings – it was bizarre of Channel 4 and its satellite channels to break the last series into two chunks – and when I tried to set Sky+ to catch the same-week repeat there was a mysterious block on recording that particular slot on the hard drive. So I let it go. I can wait; I’ll catch it on its C4 screening (in the spring perhaps) and that anyway will be without the disfiguring channel ID in the top left corner of the screen.

Aaron Sorkin’s successor to The West Wing shares that legend’s sensibility. It assumes an unusually literate, educated, liberally-minded and well-informed audience. There are far more allusions in the scripts than on any other programme, often to really quite abstruse matters and people, with a special concentration on British subjects, beginning with Gilbert and Sullivan in the pilot episode.

The milieu of the drama serial is a late-night satire show, televised live across the US from Los Angeles. I worked in and around British television for a quarter of a century, so this of course has a powerful interest for me. There isn’t really much reason to expect it to have wide appeal, however, insofar as viewers on both sides of the Atlantic have never been encouraged by television to take much interest in the background of the medium itself, whereas the behind-camera personalities, industry workings, history and techniques of cinema-making have been meat and drink to television for decades. Accordingly, Studio 60 never did well in the US ratings and seems not to have been inked in for a second series. It picked up five Emmy nominations, an impressive haul, but only won with John Goodman as guest actor.

Studio 60 is, I think, a failure but a most interesting one. Its failings are surprisingly large. By far the least convincing aspect of the show is the show-within-a-show. I know a lot of topical comedy doesn’t travel too well but the glimpses we get of the show that everyone is working on so earnestly are lame in the extreme. I suspect that the writing team – I mean Sorkin’s writing team, not the one depicted in Studio 60 – lacks any old pros from the television comedy game. The young drama-scripting turks, along with Sorkin himself, think they know how to mimic another genre but one of the things television drama gets most wrong is the true smell and feel of non-drama television, whether it’s news, chat shows, game shows or comedy. This is a pity and it undermines Studio 60’s credibility.

The next yawning hole in the show is the lack of a really persuasive or well-realised female character. Amanda Peet is impossibly glamorous and exquisitely clad as the station’s director of programmes. This is not the main reason why she doesn’t begin to convince as a big player in television but it doesn’t help. Sarah Poulson has to try to bring alive a gratingly flaky character as the still-smarting ex of the show’s co-resident genius. This latter is played by top-billed Matthew Perry, not my favourite actor. (One of the reasons I was never attracted to Friends was that, of the six leads, only Lisa Kudrow held any appeal for me).

Another problem is structural. Sorkin clearly made an early and surely a correct decision that he couldn’t have every episode constructed as a filleted week, climaxing with the weekend transmission of the satire show. But he hasn’t found a satisfactory substitute. The episode most recently broadcast here (#9, entitled ‘B-12’ after a virus, the role of which was not at all clear in the plot) suffered badly from what I took to be deliberate continuity shifts back and forth between different days. I say that I took them to be deliberate. More4, which shows Studio 60 here, managed after an ad break to rewind and play a second time several minutes of one segment the other week. It really is time More4 solved its problems in its presentation suite, not least the one that continually mangles its own transmitted sound. That wouldn’t matter if the linkpeople would shut up during the programmes but when they talk over the end credits the music always starts to break up because the sound is now being augmented by the permanent glitch in the presentation suite sound.

Much of Studio 60’s appeal lies in seeing how its inherent problems will be addressed in each episode. Snatches of music by guests, some of them as famous as Sting, seem a little desperate. On the other hand, a running discussion on product placement had me looking for the advertising deals that Sorkin himself has done and one just knew that the fruits of this were being flourished in a spirit of post-modern irony-and-realism mix. In a way, that is the main thing that floors Studio 60. It’s just too self-aware for its own good. Its gestures are there because they’re smart, rather than because they’re germane to story or character. That’s why in the end it’s not as successful as Ugly Betty or Desperate Housewives. But hey, like those invigorating imports, it beats anything home-grown that British television can offer since the end of Green Wing. Unless I am to except The IT Crowd. And I’m not quite sure that I am to …

Friday, September 28, 2007


Having admired her earlier book, Jack, I meant ages ago to buy the novel This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes but I neglected to do so. Then I picked up a copy in a branch of Waterstone’s, our local independent bookseller having run through his quota. The copy I bought had in its top right hand corner one of those “3 for the price of 2” stickers: they never have any influence whatsoever on my purchases but Waterstone’s use them to favour books that are already selling well – you’d think it would make more sense to use the ploy on underselling titles. When I got it home, I peeled off the sticker and found beneath it a circular promotion for something called “Richard & Judy”. This was not a sticker but an overprint on the cover.

Upon enquiry, I established that this mysterious couple are a daytime television programme. The presenters are clearly so famous that they don’t need surnames, like Bill and Ben. It (the programme) promotes various books that come its way and, it seems, a mention on the programme can have its effect on sales. This is a deplorable development. In the States, apparently, no book sells any copies at all unless it has been blessed by the Oprah Winfrey programme. At a time when corruption in television is a daily news story, the broadcasters will need to be especially vigilant that the money to be made out of such television exposure is not tempting publishers to attempt to influence the producers of the programme. There might well be a case for suggesting that the use of a book cover to promote Richard & Judy – a piece of reciprocal product placement, if you like – is itself a corrupt practice.

On three separate counts, I did not want to own a copy of this book defaced by this piece of cover advertising. First of all, I am a proper grown-up book reader. I don’t need to be told what to read by the presenters of some daytime television programme. They are not, I take it, professors of semiotics or critics from the intellectually reputable journals. As a rule, I only allow myself to be guided to a hitherto unfamiliar writer by reading a combination of reviews by critics with whose tastes I am already comfortable in the better newspapers and magazines.

Not even friends are necessarily reputable guides when it comes to books. Over many years, one particular friend has strongly recommended just two novels to me. I read one and thought it a piece of derivative twaddle. I have never read the other although it sits pristine on the bookshelves. Quite recently, my friend’s partner revealed that my old friend almost never reads fiction at all. It would be putting it too strongly to suggest that I felt a sort of betrayal on the part of my friend in perhaps only ever having read two novels and then presuming to recommend both of them to me; but I was sorely aggrieved. For myself, I can think of hardly any book that I would commend wholeheartedly to everybody. Just occasionally I will tell a friend about a particular book that I fancy might appeal to her. This is a gambit used very sparingly.

But I digress. My second objection to the publisher’s despoiling of the cover of Ms Homes’ novel concerns the slither down into the murky world of marketing that has been imposed upon literary fiction. These days it’s hard to find a paperback edition of a novel that is not festooned with promotion. Either there is a quote from some such goon as Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons or Stephen Fry on the cover, as if their approbation is any kind of commendation: after all, Fry will be revealing on a television programme tomorrow night that among his pleasures are Countdown, darts and Led Zeppelin. And I am meant to be encouraged by his sensibility? Otherwise we must be assured that the novel in question was “shortlisted for the Booker Prize” or even, dear god, “longlisted for the Booker Prize”. Any day now I expect to pick up a paperback that proclaims it was “overlooked for the Booker Prize”.

Writers who have yet to join Valhalla routinely have their Nobel laureateships emblazoned on the covers of their books: see Coetzee, Grass, Morrison, Saramago, Mahfouz and so on. Happily, the old masters who received the same recognition – Tagore, Kipling, Mann, Mauriac, Steinbeck, Shaw, O’Neill, Sartre and so on – are evidently sufficiently classified as “classics” for their Nobels to be omitted from the marketing.

Finally, I have an aesthetic objection to the promo on the cover of the Homes. Its paperback cover design is a symmetrical arrangement of six doughnuts, quite a cute image. The promo obliterates one of the doughnuts, ruining the look of the book. What is the point of a publisher paying good money for a jacket design if he’s then going to spoil it with trash?

I visited a great many bookshops in the dwindling hope that an overlooked copy of the Homes with an unsullied cover might lurk but bookshops are less musty and disorganised that they used to be, sadly for the customers. Evidently the publisher had recalled the pre-Richard & Judy copies and replaced them.

There was nothing for it but to contact the publisher direct. I emailed the Sales & Marketing Department of Granta. A gentleman called Julio Ferrandis replied, saying that he had “a hard copy of this book sitting on my desk (it’s a new copy!) for you”. Well of course I didn’t want a hardback copy. I could buy one of those at a bookshop and save the postage. What I wanted, as I had explained carefully, was a paperback without the Richard & Judy promo. Had they really pulped all the early editions? It seemed so wasteful. I wrote again, in self-deprecatory terms (“grateful for … your patience with what I am sure you will see as my unnecessary pickiness”). Sr Ferrandis wrote back saying they had no “pb copies without the sticker at the present. What I can send you however is a picture of the pb cover without the sticker! Hehe”. That “hehe” seems calculated to be offensive. I feel disinclined to believe Sr Ferrandis on the lack of copies but I shall not pursue the matter with Granta. I shall look for a decent copy of the book in a second-hand shop.

Even if I eventually find an acceptable copy of the Homes, I shall probably never get to read it. The American novelist Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, which I have read) once declared that he had calculated his life expectancy, reckoned up how many books he read in an average year and realized that he already, in his mid-30s, owned more books than he could possibly read. I too probably passed that point in my mid-30s but I continue to amass books at a rate that, by true bibliophile standards, is very modest. There is something blissful about the home none of whose internal walls can be seen for the mass covering of bookshelves. We do not go that far, we have pictures too. And a few empty spaces. Oh, and videotapes (thousands of those).

There is a quotation from Cicero on display in one of our guest rooms: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”. I think I might add a kitchen and a means of listening to music but I like his thrust. People sometimes find a display of books a bit overwhelming, especially perhaps if they never read a book from one month’s end to the next.

Occasionally, some visitor (usually a woman, perhaps because men are less likely to notice such things) will exclaim “Look at all your books!” and you rejoin, with a tiny touch of asperity, “oh, this is but the tip of the iceberg” while you wonder “did you never enter a cultivated home before?” And then comes the inevitable corollary, as predictable as it is dull: “have you read them all?” “And where,” you ask yourself pityingly, “would be the pleasure in that?” To have a myriad of masterpieces – and diversions too, let’s not be precious – from which to choose is to be alive and engaged.

I know that there are copies of books on our shelves that will remain virgin until after I am gone. There are, as a New York teeshirt often worn by my partner declares, “too many books, too little time”. But that is the condition of our short passage through this vale of tears. We can never see all the places, meet all the people, indulge all the joys, sample all the flavours. Rousseau complained that “the mountain of books is making us ignorant” and that was 250 years ago, even before Barbara Cartland added several small hills of books to the range. Maybe I can do without This Book Will Save Your Life altogether.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Lately I have been conducting a bracing debate with a fellow blogger, Panopticon, on his lively site at We have been considering politics or, more specifically, politicians. Panopticon is a hardened sceptic. I will not go so far as to say that he is a cynic. But he is convinced that anyone who chooses to seek a role in the political arena is, to some degree, a control freak wishing to interfere in people’s lives and arrangements. I summarize no further; it is not for me to (mis)represent his arguments; indeed, he is of course most welcome to restate them and develop them himself in this forum.

Inevitably, in the heat of a dialectical situation, I have occasionally been tempted to overstate my case, either for the sake of provocation or to (imagine that I) clinch an argument. I do not in reality support unstintingly the notion that professional politicians as a breed stand for probity and altruism in all things. Politics is clearly a subtle and treacherous mistress and those who pursue her favours may be easily persuaded to begin to forget about duties, principles, scruples, even old friendships.

Over the weekend, the death was announced of Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar. I doubt that I will ever find myself supporting the Conservative Party, however reactionary the advancing years encourage me to be, but thoughtful old school Tories – whether aristocratic, Eton-educated baronets like Sir Ian Gilmour (as we remember him) or more humbly-born toilers like John Biffen who died a few weeks before – kept the decent-cove tendency alive while Thatcher was busy turning it into “the nasty party”.

Politicians like Biffen and Gilmour clearly did see a political career as a life dedicated to public service. Indeed, both were surely held back from advancement by their refusal to say ‘yes’ when they thought ‘no’ and to trim their views for expediency, fashion or support from above or below that might otherwise be withheld. If Gilmour was the person most responsible for reconciling his leader to the rise to power of Robert Mugabe, he can hardly be blamed for failing to anticipate that the first president of Zimbabwe would metamorphose into an old-fashioned tyrant of the worst kind. Mugabe’s supporters at the turn of the 1980s were far more numerous on the left and they failed equally.

Parliamentary politics is a tough and unforgiving trade. If you insist, like that ever-recalcitrant Labour backbencher Bob Marshall-Andrews, on being as sceptical about your own party’s leadership as is Panopticon about all political leaders, you cannot expect ever to be valued or trusted by that leadership or indeed by most of your fellow MPs who understand, often to their own discomfort, that there are bullets that must be swallowed when you agree to belong to a particular grouping.

Marshall-Andrews sits on one of the tiniest of electoral majorities and he cannot be surprised if the party managers feel that they would rather lose his seat (temporarily) at the next election, whenever it comes, so that he may be replaced by a candidate more congenial to the party that he claims to represent. I would feel a lot more sympathetic to Marshall-Andrews’ stance if he were less like an earlier member unanswerably skewered by Churchill as “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity”, in other words a pompous windbag delighted by the sound of his own voice.

But I want to address here a different point. Most of us who reside – happily for us – beyond the narrow purview of the Westminster village have to study the daily doings of parliamentary politicians through the distorting glass of the media. Now nobody wants us to go back to the days when Leslie Mitchell, representing the BBC, could begin his 1951 pre-election interview with the shadow Foreign Secretary: “Well now, Mr Eden, with your very considerable experience of foreign affairs, it’s quite obvious that I should start by asking you something about the international situation today – or perhaps you would prefer to talk about home. Which is it to be?” (The entire interview had been rehearsed and Anthony Eden learned all his answers like an actor). Since at least the 1960s, when deference began its comprehensive retreat, the politicians and the reporters, commentators, leader-writers and pundits have struggled against each other, seeking to “set the agenda” for the political discussion of the moment.

The media puts great store by its assumed role as the people’s tribune but I cannot help believing that the agenda the media seeks to set – whether Newsnight and The Guardian on the one hand or The Daily Star and Planet Rock radio bulletins (if there are such things) on the other – is increasingly trivial, sensationalist and hence (if paradoxically) anti-political. Last week’s media coverage of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference was not just dominated by but positively overwhelmed by pointless, gratuitous speculation on whether Sir Menzies Campbell was going to survive as party leader. It didn’t matter how many times delegates at all levels of the party declared that it wasn’t an issue, the reporters and news scripters returned to it each day as if the airing it had received the previous day had never happened.

It is already proving to be a similar story this week at the Labour Conference where the only story in town, as far as the media is concerned, is whether the Prime Minister is going to call an early general election. Indeed, when Labour delegates reasonably reply, with increasing and understandable irritation, that they’re there to debate policy, the interviewers actually sneer (eg Martha Kearney on today’s World at One). Perhaps next week there will be a doubly narrow focus for the Tories to fend off – can David Cameron survive as party leader and does the party really want an early election? – or perhaps it will be the tired but still largely unresolved question of whether Cameron smoked/smokes dope.

Political sceptics will say that the politicians deserve it because of their use of “spin”. A little perspective needs to be applied to this argument. Tony Blair didn’t invent spin. Alastair Campbell didn’t invent spin. Politicians didn’t invent spin. The first human who spoke a coherent sentence invented spin: “I meant to bring a mammoth carcase home for dinner but the bloody thing got away”. (Translation: the hunter was too slow to catch it). Everybody uses spin on a daily basis. When Jonathan Dimbleby refers to “the Saturday edition” of Any Questions on Radio 4, what he really should call it is “the Saturday repeat” because it differs in no particular from the version that goes out live on Friday. That’s spin.

With the broadcast media’s reliance on sound-bites and the print media’s relegation of serious political analysis to page 94 (or the website), politicians are required not only to toe the party line but also to conform to what plays on telly and what is incapable of being misinterpreted when reproduced in print. Far from being control freaks, most of them are lucky if they get through a whole day without being pilloried and traduced. What’s worse, a growing proportion of us spends all the time between elections grousing about the government and then doesn’t even bother to use our democratic duty to cast a vote. As in so many of these matters of perception about the state of the world, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars (even our political stars) but in ourselves.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


In Oxford on Thursday, I happened to pass a branch of the Northern Rock bank and, do you know, there wasn’t a single person queuing outside. Nor would there be ordinarily but earlier this week they were doubtless queuing round the block there, as at other branches. Watching the news footage of the queues and listening to the customers’ comments, as hapless as they were arbitrary, I couldn’t help wondering whether any of those standing in line to withdraw their life savings, some of them as far ahead of opening time as 5.00am, ever thought to themselves: “Maybe by contributing to this run on the bank I am actually making the situation worse”.

Panic is a weird mechanism. No wonder the cliché adjective that goes with it is “blind”. No wonder Clive Dunn’s Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army always accompanied his cry of “don’t panic” with a well-drilled pantomime of running in several different directions simultaneously. Panic is not merely unthinking, it is also wholly self-serving. “Panic buying” is stocking up in bulk against imagined shortage. It doesn’t matter to the buyer that his cornering the market in, say, lavatory paper leaves everyone else short, even ahead of the expected drying up of supplies (I use the terms ‘leaves’, ‘short’ and ‘drying up’ with no thought to any relevance to the form or function of lavatory paper).

You might think that it ought to occur to the exampled panic buyer of lavatory paper that, once an actual shortage has set in, his neighbours are liable to start to whisper to each other that he seems to suffer no such shortage, that a deputation – even an unruly mob – could appear at his door, brandishing the unwiped bottoms of their small children and aged dependants and demanding that he yield his selfishly grabbed supply.

When there was a clean water shortage in the west country in the wake of the early summer floods, people were caught on news camera finagling more than their designated share of handed-out bottles and hotly (because embarrassed as well as self-righteous) they argued that they had family duties of some exceptional order. The fact is that panic brings out the worst in people, leading them to clamber over others in flight from the burning building or the stampeding crowd, to shoulder the weakest aside in order to grab the supplies airlifted in for the relief of famine.

A man (a Brit, happily for the news story) managed to tear open the emergency door of the burning plane wreck in Thailand, thereby allowing others to escape as well as himself and, to my surprise, he was hailed a hero when all he did was something natural and obvious. I suppose if you take Hemingway’s definition of courage as “grace under pressure”, the guy was being courageous. At least he didn’t panic.

On the other hand, the two police auxiliaries who declined to jump into a six feet deep lake to help a drowning boy who had himself jumped in to rescue his sister were robustly defended by their superior: they “weren’t trained” to save lives. Is that to suggest that trying to rescue him would have been the panicky thing to do, that phoning for the appropriate service to carry out that function was the correct response, even though the kid died? It’s not exactly a persuasive argument. I’ve never actually been trained to pay my taxes but I dare say the Inland Revenue will fail to sympathise if I try it on as a reason for getting my accounts in late this year, even if I say that I did contact the appropriate service (my accountant) and had to wait for her.

We all act in the heat of the moment and frequently regret it later. Queuing for hours is not exactly the heat of the moment and panic seems an inappropriate term for what went on at Northern Rock this week. But the self-protective instinct that panic betokens was certainly in play here. And it was just as destructive and blinkered as the panic of running about shrieking.

Meanwhile, you wonder how reflective and thoughtful was the BBC news reporter on business affairs, the fluffing, blustering Robert Preston, when he, as the BBC has been telling us all week, “broke the story”. He kept trying to justify it as important because it was “the first run on a British bank in 150 years” but of course the BBC’s coverage was the most influential ingredient in creating and spreading the panic that exacerbated the run. If the Bank of England and the Chancellor were tardy in their remedies for the situation, it was surely because they do not understand – as politicians and professionals for whom television is a marginal matter frequently do not – how influential television is on the inert portion of the population. The viewers may not believe everything they read in the papers but they still think “the camera never lies” and if it’s “on the box” it must be so. All I pray is that no latter-day Orson Welles – needless to say without a soupcon of Welles’ talent – is permitted to attempt a contemporary equivalent of the master’s wireless version of The War of the Worlds. We’ll all be killed in the ensuing hullabaloo.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


This month, as Channel 4 did in July, BBC4 has been marking the 40th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised sex acts between two consenting males in certain circumstances. I was in London when most of the BBC4 programmes went out and we have resumed playing host to a steady stream of summer houseguests since then, so I only now get to blogging the matter. If it all seems rather old hat to you, dear reader, well … tough.

BBC4 took the opportunity to repeat several profiles of famous gay people (though not its film that thought itself very bold by – yawn! – outing Nöel Coward), along with a decent little series called It’s Not Unusual. Its one new programme made a pair with one of C4’s, for each channel presented a film dramatising events that directly led to the drafting of the Act. A Very British Sex Scandal, made by Blast! Films for C4, covered the trial of Peter Wildeblood and Lord Montagu, the most high-profile airing of the law relating to homosexual regulations since that of Oscar Wilde more than fifty years before. This was a mixed-genre piece, intercutting narrated history, interviews with (mostly anonymous) veterans of the pre-Wolfenden gay male world, newsreel (including an unremarked glimpse of the notoriously gay MP Tom Driberg up to no good in Moscow) and acted sequences. Montagu appeared both as an acted character and, very gamely, in his present condition, profoundly reduced by old age.

Wildeblood himself, a true hero in the story of gay liberation, was decently and credibly characterised and his life as a 1950s journalist was well caught, the Daily Mail newsroom looking straight out of Michael Frayn’s novel Towards the End of the Morning. The level of self-important ignorance that informed society’s attitudes to how other people lived their lives was also cannily invoked. There was some well-used research: the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast provided a painfully ironic counterpoint to the tightening of the screws by the authorities on illegal sexual adventuring.

If this story was new to you, I’m sure the mix of disciplines would have helped to show what a compelling sequence of events it was. But if, like me, you knew this history, it was hard to feel that here was the best way to tell it. A better scripter than writer-director Patrick Reams would have relied solely on dramatisation and would have avoided the linguistic anachronisms that occurred much too often. It always infuriates me when directors and producers lavish resources on exact detail of period locations, costumes, decor, hair, props, vehicles and lighting and then let modern phrases go by without a thought. It costs nothing to get the language right, chaps.

Lion Productions made the film Consenting Adults for the BBC. This traced the story of the enquiry conducted by John Wolfenden into the efficacy or otherwise of the laws then constraining homosexual acts and also, by the by, prostitution. Sir John, as he became, had been portrayed in the C4 film, played by Nicholas Le Prevost. He’s a fine actor but he never got close to giving a whiff of what Wolfenden was like. William Chubb, who played a chief constable in the C4 film, would have made a better match. In Consenting Adults, Wolfenden was acted by Charles Dance, a far less accomplished performer but better cast – indeed I’ve never thought him more sure-footed than in this role. Julian Mitchell, a proper writer, provided the script, though, while finding much enjoyable period flavour, he too couldn’t avoid the odd anachronism: “I have to tell you” and I’m sure we didn’t use “straight” in the current sense back in the ’50s.

The scenes between Wolfenden and his louche gay son were clearly intended to form the heart of the piece and they bore Mitchell’s most thoughtful writing and the most attentive direction (by Richard Curson Smith). But I couldn’t help wondering whether Wolfenden Jr can have cut quite such an Andy Warhol-ish figure avant l’événement – it seemed a bit drama-neat rather than actuality-rough.

There was a fictional subplot concerning a family baker and his male piece-on-the-side that was never going to pull its weight, as diluting of the main matter as were the interviews in the C4 film. Rather, playing real or representative people gave several of the performers scope to have some fun: Hayden Gwynne as a feisty committee member, Mel Smith as blustering Home Secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe, Mark Gatiss as a supercilious chief constable, David Bamber as an enquiry witness, an unrepentant but pain-wracked ‘invert’, as homosexuals of that generation were often termed.

In many ways this was an honourable summary of the way the world differed in the 1950s, without too much Shavian personification of attitudes. And it reminded us that it took another decade after Wolfenden’s report before the law was changed.

C4’s most substantial contribution to the anniversary was a new fictional drama, Clapham Junction, written by Kevin Elyot and directed by Adrian Shergold, both former actors. Elyot’s work has always foregrounded gay issues – his widest-known play is probably My Night with Reg, which began at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs and transferred to the West End and television (David Bamber was its heart-breaking lead actor). I won’t attempt a substantial review of it here because Kevin is a friend but I will write of it as it relates to the discussion programme that I now discuss.

40 Years On presented an evolving debate with an evolving cast, chaired by David Aaronovitch. It began with Clapham Junction, which Aaronovitch described as “a drama that showed gay men in 2007 enjoying vigorous cottaging, depicted them at constant risk of sudden and terrible violence and believing that precariousness and danger are part of the pleasures of modern gayness. But is this what it’s really like to be homosexual in 2007?” This wholly reductive summary asked all the wrong questions. Elyot’s script never claimed to demonstrate what it is “really like” to be gay. It was much more about the philosophy and practice of living dangerously, something that some gay men (and some straight men) get off on doing. But to parlay that into a comprehensive statement of gay life is as absurd as proposing that, say, Coronation Street is a definitive depiction of life in the north of England. Late on in the programme, Simon Fanshawe took the opportunity to refute this reductiveness: “‘gay men’ is not a very coherent concept”.

Clapham Junction’s producer Elinor Day was put up to field on its behalf, not an ideal advocate in that she appeared to concede that some exaggeration had crept into the film. (No it hadn’t). Matthew Parris reckoned that, insofar as the film depicted male gay life, it was twenty years out of date, just about the length of time that Parris himself has been well enough known not to be able to cruise Clapham Common anonymously. The rapper known as Q Boy, much younger, was much more supportive of the film’s credibility. Mark Simpson, a widely recognised commentator on gay politics, offered a highly confused response, from which I extract the preposterous suggestion that the film represented “a desperate attempt to make gayness seem perhaps more interesting or more dramatic anyway than it perhaps is now”. Fancy a dramatist writing drama!

Later, Simpson spoke up for the right of people to express distaste for homosexuals, a curious concession that would hardly pass the test of substituting non-whites or the disabled in the argument. This occurred in a diffuse discussion about how far gayness is “still an issue”. The fact that Aaronovitch felt it necessary to indicate twice that he was among, in his patronising phrase, “the tedious old heterosexuals” provides the answer.

Male promiscuity was briefly but usefully discussed and Paul Sinha, a comedian-cum-GP, made the challenging point that “there is no reason for us to believe that the whole world is our sexual playground”. Julie Bindel, pressed into representing the otherwise missing lesbian view (“we didn’t need to be decriminalised because we were under the social control of men”) was listened to in eerily respectful silence by the fellers. On civil partnerships, the sceptical Mark Simpson missed the whole point: taking these vows is not done to ape heterosexuals but to avail ourselves of the tax breaks that go with them.

Simon Callow repeated the Simpson line on civil partnerships in a new documentary on C4 called How Gay Sex Changed the World. This was a superficial gallop through gay history since before the Act, touching all the bases but doing no more than touch, with a lot of sweeping generalisations and easy phrase-making in the script (“the uptight, sexually-conflicted straight world”). Simpson turned up again in this. If he’s an expert on gay matters, he really ought to know that horizontal stripes put fat on you.

Mark Turnbull’s film for October Films demonstrated all the shortcomings of contemporary documentary-making: snatches of interview taken out of context; unchallenged inaccuracies; wild assertions; the notion that a viewpoint is more important and indeed more true if spoken by a celebrity. The fact is that all these witnesses are immensely privileged, even if they weren’t necessarily so when they were growing up, and that disqualifies them from representing ordinary gay experience.

We got to see actual ordinary men in another C4 docko called Queer As Old Folk, except that these mature chaps were … I don’t want to say extreme cases but they were certainly quite extraordinary. There was the camp old couple doing the civil partnership thing on Tenerife after 43 years together – but the kiss at the ceremony was their first and, says the one who never allowed kissing, “I’ve never had sex with a man with my penis, ever in my life … there are other things that you can do sexually”. There was the 57 year-old who’s gone gay only recently and who runs around like a teenager with a permanent hard-on (“in the last two weeks I’ve had sex about a hundred times with at least seventy different people”), who weeps over the liberality of his wife and whose 17 year-old son has the shrewdest take on this new life. And there was the former deputy head teacher who’s 'married' to a former student almost forty years his junior and who manages his strapping young partner’s career as a male stripper. There’s no soap opera anywhere on the box that could do justice to these inordinate stories.

Had Kevin Elyot put such characters in a fictional film, David Aaronovitch would have asked if what they were all doing was “really” what it is like to be homosexual in 2007. I think Andy Wells’ film (for Transparent Television), like Elyot’s own, simply showed that the gay world is just as rich and varied as any other. There was one odd little thread through all the programmes except Queer As Old Folk, however. This could have been called the Richard Lintern Season because that actor, not exactly a household name, turned up in all three of the acted films and was even glimpsed in a Bronski Beat promo that was excerpted in C4’s gay history programme. I hope it helped his career and hasn’t fatally type-cast him.

Monday, September 03, 2007


In a typically busy week for the celebrity class, Lord Attenborough (Richard to movie credit compilers, Dickie to the press) excelled himself as a guest of honour at the unveiling of the Nelson Mandela statue in Parliament Square, at the memorial service marking ten years since the death of the Princess of Wales and, I shouldn’t wonder, at the switching on of the Blackpool illuminations by the actor currently cast as Doctor Who. In another part of the forest, I was rather surprised by her family’s revelation of the crack cocaine habit suffered by Mrs Mary Whitehouse. I don’t think I shall risk booking for her next tour.

But much the most compelling story for those seeking to find names to drop was that carried by the BBC news website of the New Zealand baby whose parents wished to name him 4Real. This grave decision, they solemnly explained, was reached because it was only upon first seeing an ultrasound image of the foetus that they “realised” that he was “for real”. Biology has clearly been neglected in the school curriculums of the former colonies. I blame the Victorians. What the parents – themselves rejoicing in the names of Pat and Sheena Wheaton – do not seem to have considered is the alternative of an American expression that perfectly describes their grasp of parental duty: “for shit”.

Their noble quest has been sadly thwarted by an unimaginative bunch referred to rather loosely by the BBC website as “the authorities in New Zealand”, later revealed to be personified in the figure of the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. This hapless official goes unnamed – perhaps he is called Getalife Tosser – but he rejected their choice of name on the surprisingly narrow ground that it is not permitted to begin a name with a numeral. The Wheatons argued that if someone can be called, for instance, John Williams III, then 4Real ought to be equally acceptable. Sophistry and casuistry clearly go as unrecognised as biology in the Antipodes.

Crushed by the cruel weight of New Zealand regulation, the Wheatons have put up an alternative name for the innocent object of this titanic tug-of-war, one yet more splendid than the first. For 4Real Wheaton, now read Superman Wheaton. The BBC website adds (and my reader will be so relieved at the news) that the Wheatons “have said they will refer to him as 4Real”.

I think the inevitable shortening that kids do to first names produces a happier result in the first instance – Forey has a certain mellifluous quality – than it would with the rather watery Supe. The BBC website implies that the Wheatons, seeking to throw off the chaff, may not be out of the woods, if I may mix the metaphor. “The law also advises parents to avoid names that could cause their child to be teased or made fun of” it says, surely not quoting the relevant statute verbatim. I think it unlikely that any nation’s law takes it upon itself to offer (frankly somewhat patronising) advice and to offer it in such imprecise terms. If parents are not free to make their children’s lives miserable, what is the point of them?

A word of caution against any old-country smugness on this matter: the BBC states rather darkly that “the UK’s rules on baby names are among the most liberal in the world”. Hence the emergence in London of Fifi Trixibelle Geldof, Apple Martin, Brooklyn Beckham, Zowie Bowie and the rest of the celeb kids of the last few decades. In California, Frank Zappa’s children were named, successively, Moon Unit; Dweezil; Ahmet Emuukha Rodan; and Diva Thin Muffin. (My partner, who spent part of his youth in Derby, says that “thin muffin” is a solecism and such a bakery item is properly called a pikelet in the Peak District; I think Diva Pikelet Zappa has a certain ring).

The Zappas were baulked – and then temporarily – only in the naming of their second child, to whose handle the hospital where he was born raised objection. When the seven year-old child discovered that the name Dweezil, the only one he knew, was not on his birth certificate, his distress prompted his parents to fight and win a court case to have the certificate changed [Zappa info courtesy of Wikipedia].

I’m glad the Zappas prevailed. Dweezil, who turns 38 this Wednesday, has clung to his given name in adulthood, following the family trade as a rock musician. Of course, it’s easier to live with such a name in the inordinate worlds of music, movie and sport superstardom than it is down the pub or in an ordinary neighbourhood school. Superman Wheaton, though still known to his doting, drooling parents as 4Real, will be constantly pilloried in the humdrum world and will probably rename himself Zak or Kody or whatever the fashionable boys’ name is in five or six years’ time. When they voyage out into the world, it is almost a universal desire among children to conform or at least to find an accommodation with the prevailing conventions. Being conspicuous because of your name – particularly one that proves difficult to live up to – soon becomes a cross to bear. You could argue that this is good and character-building. It probably depends on each individual’s case.

Meanwhile, if parents want to hand their kids a stick with which to beat them in later life, so be it. After all, 36 children, both boys and girls, have been registered in Britain under the name of Arsenal. There are two British boys who were indeed christened Superman. Idiocy has its place. So does whimsy and I hope it is in a whimsical spirit that the Wheatons alighted on their boy’s name. As King Lear didn’t quite cry, let leprechaunication thrive!