Tuesday, February 26, 2008


As this year’s Oscar ceremony unfolded, the most striking aspect of the award bestowing was the absence of American actors. Not a single home-grown player took home a statuette. While the long-time hot favourites won both the men’s awards (Daniel Day-Lewis, the expat Brit who took up Irish citizenship, and Spaniard Javier Bardem), the women’s titles were snaffled in late surges by, respectively, Marion Cotillard from France and Tilda Swinton from England. The early favourites whom these women by-passed, Julie Christie and Cate Blanchett, are also non-Americans. Christie, who lives much of the year in California, is English, Blanchett (though she sounds it less and less; cf Nicole Kidman) is Australian.

This clean sweep for Europe is not unprecedented. In 1964, two unmistakeable Anglo-Saxons, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, won the top awards and two pan-Europeans, Peter Ustinov and Lila Kedrova, won the supporting equivalents. This was the only other year in which no American won an acting honour. Perhaps even more significantly, none of the ’64 winners was playing New World whereas, of the ’08 winners, only Cotillard is not passing for some kind of American (Bardem’s character is an unidentifiable resident of the melting-pot and even Christie was playing a Canadian).

The traffic is certainly two-way: Johnny Depp was nominated for the latest in his swelling repertoire of brilliantly accurate, British-accented characters and Viggo Mortensen was up too for his superb turn in Eastern Promises, the London-set thriller stuffed with Russian characters, not one of whom is played by a Russian. The Other Boleyn Girl, just released here, has American Boleyn girls to set alongside the Australian Henry VIII, father to Elizabeth I, whom Blanchett seems to have made her own. But American Equity could reasonably argue that, Edith Piaf aside, the other roles to win their players Oscars this year could (should?) have been cast from the local membership. The primary argument against that position would be that no one would wish to deny Day-Lewis, the pre-eminent movie actor of the day, any role he fancies taking. As fellow nominee George Clooney so graciously put it, before the result was known, he raises every actor’s game every time he appears.

Cotillard was the first actress to win not performing in English; the male precedent for this phenomenon was set by Roberto Benigni ten years ago. The Academy Awards have never made much pretence of representing world cinema and, though they have always willingly embraced mainstream British film-making, they have remained overwhelmingly Hollywood-orientated. What has always been true of Hollywood, however, as indeed of America at large, is that it is an ever-open refuge for foreigners and expatriates.

The very first Best Actor award in 1928 went to the great Emil Jannings, a recent recruit from Germany’s rich silent movie tradition and a Swiss by birth. For the first time, two years later, neither acting award went to an American (the supporting awards were not launched until 1936): they were the first Brit to win, George Arliss, who had been acting in the States for donkey’s years, and the first Canadian, Norma Shearer, who enjoyed the inestimable advantage of being married to the studio boss, Irving Thalberg. Charles Laughton was the next Englishman to conquer Hollywood and the first to do so in an entirely British vehicle, playing the aforementioned Henry VIII. But he too was established in the States by then, having broken through on Broadway two years earlier and then made several American movies. The Private Life of Henry VIII was, in fact, one of the rare occasions when he returned to Britain to work and, 17 years later, he took American citizenship.

The first European actress to win the top award was German-born Luise Rainer, also the first star to win two Oscars back-to-back (1936, 1937). The fabulous Rainer, once married to Clifford Odets, retired to London in the late 1940s where she still shines at 98. 1939 is often cited as Hollywood’s annus mirabilis when more great movies were made than in any other year, yet it was also the first time that both top acting awards went to Britons, Robert Donat and Vivien Leigh, the latter of course playing a quintessential American, Scarlett O’Hara. 1947 was the first year that Brits won both the awards for men: Ronald Colman and Edmund Gwenn. 1958 was the first time two Brits won for the same movie: David Niven and Wendy Hiller in Separate Tables.

In 1963, when Margaret Rutherford was best supporting actress for The VIPs, three of her four rivals were also Britons and all in Tom Jones (which won Best Film and Director but no acting honours; Albert Finney and Hugh Griffith were also nominated). Beginning in 1989, a run of three British men won the best actor award: Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins. Day-Lewis thus joins the select few actors to have been Best Actor twice; and he’s the first non-American. Several British women have won two awards.

But is there some kind of crisis in American acting? I doubt it. Despite the perennial British domination of the Tony Awards for New York theatre, only Jennifer Ehle won last time round. In the Emmies, another grateful hunting ground for our side, Dame Helen Mirren and Ricky Gervais are current holders and the much-honoured Australian Judy Davis joins them; the rest are Americans. I suspect anyway that the years of international success for British television production are drawing to a close.

Europe and Australasia (with very occasional forays from elsewhere) will continue to breed Oscar-winning actors, not to mention directors and writers and, even more so, technicians. That the American cinematographer Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood beat the Englishman Roger Deakins for No Country for Old Men was not wholly a surprise and nowhere near a travesty: Deakins will come again. But that Freddie Francis was among the annual Oscar obituaries (the director Claude Whatham wasn’t) is a reminder of how highly English cinematographers (as he was described) are rated in Los Angeles, even though he was also a noted Hammer horror director. While the Yanks continue to imagine that we embody a nebulous quality that they would so dearly like to possess – “class” – I suspect that the Brits especially and foreigners in general will be welcome on the Hollywood shoots for many years yet.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I have a confession to make – or, as they say nowadays, I want to ’fess up. I was part of the conspiracy to kill the Princess of Wales. Yes, me. Little me. Shocked you, didn’t I. Of course, I wasn’t in it on my own. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a conspiracy. Jade Goody was in it too. And Britney Spears. And Michael Winner. And oh, Derek Conway, you know, the MP who put his ne’er-do-well sons on the parliamentary payroll. And Sir Elton John. And Wayne Sleep. And John Travolta. And Gianni Versace. And Diana Dors, Diana Ross, Dame Diana Rigg, Lady Diana Mosley, Lady Diana Cooper, Diana Vreeland, Diana Krall, Diana Wynyard, all of whom deeply resented the way the Princess annexed a name they had hitherto considered to indicate themselves. Resented enough to kill. Oh, and Guy Fawkes. And the Count of Monte Cristo. And Alice in Wonderland.

Of course, we all resent even more the failure of that wise and astute observer of the scene, Mohamed Al Fayed, to drop our names in court. After all, he dropped so many. I think he should have played it like Bette Midler did in her stage show at a time when many revelations were emerging about the late American president. She pointed melodramatically to herself: “Hey, guess what, I have a secret to impart. I slept with Jack Kennedy”. And then, raking the audience with both hands, she shrieked: “And you know what? They slept with Jack Kennedy”.

What I admired so much about Mr Al Fayed’s testimony was the forensic detail into which he went in his evidence of this truly astounding conspiracy. A lesser man would have taken advantage of the freedom that a law court permits to make accusations without fear of slander. Mr Al Fayed could so easily have taken that low road. Instead he went into astonishing detail.

For instance, his revelation that the Duke of Edinburgh is a German Nazi whose actual name is Frankenstein clearly changes our very conception of the Royal Family. We had always understood His Royal Highness to be of Greek nationality. Perhaps after all it is the Queen who is the Greek. Her consort probably hails from the Schwarzwald area of south-west Germany that borders Switzerland (Dr Victor Frankenstein was, after all, Swiss by birth; also of course – which may be news to Mr Al Fayed – he was fictional). I hope the Harrods boss will endeavour to confirm these origins, perhaps by means of his charming spokesman, the famously coiffed Michael Cole.

Where Mr Al Fayed rashly overplayed his hand was in speaking out on the street outside the high court. He told a journalist he was “an idiot” which is surely not likely to provoke legal action (the greater difficulty would be to ascertain that a journalist was not an idiot). But he further accused him of being “part of the conspiracy” before he was hustled away by his minders. It would be the worst of luck for the Harrods boss if he happened to fling this accusation at the one man in Britain who was not in fact in on the conspiracy, In that case, I hope the journalist is public-spirited enough to sue Mr Al Fayed for slander. Then the great conspiracy can finally be tested properly in court and Mr Al Fayed can at last have the opportunity of laying out his compelling evidence for the public to marvel at, an opportunity so grievously denied him by the terms of the inquest.

Should the case go against him, Mr Al Fayed may of course refuse to pay the substantial compensation to the reporter that the court would certainly levy. And then he would be liable to go to jail. Mr Al Fayed might then take the route of Mr Pickwick and elect to be incarcerated as a matter of principle. This might prove to be a mistake. Notoriously, Mr Al Fayed is not a British citizen. Indeed, there is a widely but doubtless scurrilously held view that Mr Al Fayed’s conspiracy theories all stem from the persistent refusal of the British authorities to award him citizenship. I wonder if Mr Al Fayed is sufficiently familiar with the regimes commonly pursued in the jails of Egypt to wish to serve his sentence in one of them.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of this whole fantastical episode is Mr Al Fayed’s announcement that he will accept the findings of the inquest. We would do well to remember that this is one Mohamed who is not a prophet.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


My regular reader may perhaps be surprised to have found no comment here yet on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s outrage. (For the record, he tentatively advanced the notion that certain disputes in the Muslim community in Britain might be settled by specially convened courts operating under Islamic Sharia law). It seems an obvious one for me to write about, he or she would hazard (and not be far off the mark). I confess I have not “privileged” (as they say) my own blog on this matter. Upon listening to His Grace’s interview on The World at One (which preceded the formal address in which he formally unveiled his thinking on Sharia law), I did something that I have never done before which was to email a comment to the programme. For a few hours, I believed that my comment had been sucked into cyberspace. There were apparently no comments at all posted within three hours of the programme – all were timed later – and many of them were trivial and even rude. I wrote to the website asking why I should have bothered to email. Impressively, I received a prompt reply from no less a personage than the deputy editor of The World at One (who certainly must have more pressing duties to which to attend) and was able quickly to verify his assurance that my comment was after all there in all its glory. (Needless to say, I sent him a grateful and admiring response). The BBC had by then received upwards of 17,000 emails. Just processing them must require a dedicated team.

I was also an early joiner of the thread that inevitably spun out to inordinate length on the Richard Dawkins website. On-line newspapers and every other kind of forum have been humming with this matter. Cantab has unleashed a vast hornets’ nest and very, very few of those roused are buzzing in his support. The (pretty feeble) consensus among his few apologists appears to be that his view has been misunderstood, misinterpreted or taken out of context. It is true that there is a large amount of personal abuse in the reaction, not least in the tabloids. I tried to give Dr Williams some credit in my postings. He is, after all, about as liberal a leader as the Anglican church can boast in my lifetime (since Michael Ramsey, anyway) and, if this storm ensures that his successor is a flint-faced fundamentalist, the church and wider public life in Britain will be the poorer for it.

The argument that I put forward in my postings which I have yet to see in any others is this: I rather suspect that Rowan Williams is fundamentally a decent and caring man (and far from stupid) but he doesn't appear to comprehend the aspiration of Islam to control the whole planet. Here's a refinement of his proposal that would leave him with less egg in his beard and, at the same time, would demonstrate vividly where Islam stands. Let the Archbishop propose that all Islamic nations reciprocate and allow non-Muslims and (especially perhaps) apostates to bend to arrangements other than those prescribed by Sharia. I have no expectation that any Islamic nation would subscribe to such an arrangement but, if I were wrong, it would constitute a major breakthrough.

Further, I made this point on the Dawkins site: I remember lodging for a while in the 1960s in the Bourneville area of Birmingham (England). There wasn't a pub to be found for miles because the Cadburys were religious teetotallers of some stripe (quakers?) and their writ ran throughout the area. Maybe it still does. By itself, this is of no great moment (unless you're a lush) but it is really only a small step from that to the Bishop of Rochester's “no-go areas” and then on to a situation where Sharia is more powerful than the law of the land in the ghettoes that we always said we didn't want.

Another poster asked “How will it affect you if you're not Muslim?” Not to put too fine a point on it, I repeat that Islam is set on world domination. Today Southall, tomorrow south London, next week the home counties. If I live in a society or a world where being an infidel (which is to say, not a Muslim) is a capital offence, I think I will justifiably feel that the rise of Sharia has affected me more than somewhat.

This week is General Synod. Someone from high in the Anglican church must be monitoring the Dawkins site, it being always one's duty to keep an informed eye on the enemy (serious lefties take The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal). That spy, I suggested, should encourage Synod to tell Cantab that he ought to resign unless he can satisfactorily answer the largest question that his musings raise: whether anyone whose convictions run against the law of the land might expect to be heard before a court more sympathetic to his own stance.

In another part of the forest, the American primaries game (much relished by me if evidently not by everybody) has moved nearer to a resolution. In my earlier entry Five Days Are a Long Time in Politics (January 9th), I counselled that the respective party conventions were months away. Time enough for much to occur.

Events over the last month have refined my analysis and eliminated a number of the players. It seems to me now that the next president is most likely to be Barack Obama. He has astutely handled the obvious negatives that hang about him – his inexperience, his race – without offering other hostages to fortune. He has remained unknowable while yet firing up millions of voters. Who, even among the American chattering classes, could list five of his policy positions? What he offers is freshness, charisma, his mantra of change, the promise (probably undeliverable) of politics very much not as usual. Will he cope with his first crisis as president? Well, he will have shrewd advisors to head him away from the rocks.

Why him rather than Clinton or McCain? Because I think neither Clinton nor McCain has smothered the negatives so well. Every advance by Obama hurts Clinton double because it makes her look less and less the inevitable and the unbeatable candidate. Obama can cast himself as the underdog all the way to November. Clinton looks less and less likely to be able to maintain her image as the heir apparent. What is more, Bill Clinton has unexpectedly begun to seem more of a hindrance than a help. When he shines, he dims her light and people fear that he would interfere in her administration. When he attacks, he makes her seem simultaneously mean and weak. Meanwhile, McCain is no nearer being loved by his own party. The Republican electorate sent him a stark message in the votes yesterday. Mike Huckabee cannot hope to catch McCain in the delegate count but he certainly can hurt him.

No candidate is a sure thing. There may be more racism hidden in the anonymity of the November ballot than anyone has yet bargained for. Clinton would be just as hurt by unspoken misogyny and indeed McCain will be deprived of the votes of deep-dyed conservatives who might even switch to “punish” him. But I feel sure that the Democrats will begin crucially to realize that Obama can beat McCain more surely than Clinton can. Obama offers a sense of the positive that neither McCain nor Clinton can match. His presence underlines the doubts that the electorate have about two candidates who are both seen as machine politicians and yet who are both seen as divisive. To a degree, I think this a pity and that the Democrats may be missing a trick. I argued before for a Clinton/Obama ticket that could look forward to holding the White House for 16 years. But Hillary sure as hell won’t agree to be Barack’s running mate. When Obama wins the nomination, she and Bill will decide to retire to the semi-showbiz world in which Bill now operates.

In The Sunday Times today, Andrew Sullivan argues that the catastrophe (not his word) of the Bush presidency is the ingredient that will most determine the outcome of the state primaries and the national vote. There is something in his argument as presented, though to hazard that Bush has “crafted” (Sullivan’s word) the election is absurd. Had America enjoyed two terms of President Al Gore (whose Vice-President Joe Lieberman – perhaps not his only VP – would hardly be running now as a Democratic contender; what he is actually doing now is backing John McCain), the contenders would probably be the ones we have and the situation would probably be just as poised.

Few retiring presidents are able to bequeath a satisfied nation to an anointed successor as Ronald Reagan did (or could have done, had he taken the remotest interest in the identity of his successor). As president, Al Gore would surely have found a more cultivated response to 9/11 than the attack on Iraq. He would certainly have ratified the Kyoto Agreement and the US might now be in the vanguard of tackling climate change. But I bet Gore’s popularity would have suffered accordingly, especially insofar as his measures required personal sacrifice. So it’s just as likely that the 2008 candidates would have been distancing themselves from a Gore presidency (as indeed Gore himself did in 2004 from the Clinton administration of which he was part).

Most political careers, as Enoch Powell sagely observed, end in failure. Even President Obama’s may do that. And of course archbishops may also make a conclusive bish of it.

Monday, February 04, 2008


“A secret overhearer might have followed, by these occasional exclamatory utterances, the course of a devouring trouble prowling up and down through his thought” Scribners Monthly July 1880, cited in the OED.

Britain is more burdened under the yoke of mass surveillance than any nation since the heyday of state Communism in the Soviet Union. Under successive Home Secretaries and Prime Ministers – and rather more of them of a Labour than a Tory stripe – citizens’ rights have been eroded and compromised at an alarming rate. To account Britain a police state would be to overstate the case. To protest that the powers arrogated daily by the state are excessive and inappropriate is a stance any thoughtful citizen can take with an easeful conscience.

This past weekend, some details of the electronic bugging of a constituent’s confidential conversation with his MP have come to light. That the constituent was being held in a jail awaiting possible extradition to the United States on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities is neither here nor there. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously observed that “hard cases make bad law”. We have a government that has abandoned any pretence that there may be means not justified by the ends. If the extreme measures that are claimed necessary in order to “fight terrorism” are assimilated into the system without let or hindrance, those extreme measures will make state oppression, dictatorship and the suspension of the democratic process a relatively straightforward matter for any so-minded regime that takes power here in the future.

I once had described to me, by one of those involved, the early days of the setting up of premises in Derbyshire by the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s. The WRP was one of the more prominent Trotskyite groupings at a time when left politics were much espoused by people in education, the media, the public services and the trades unions. The Red House – the name, I think, may have fortuitously predated its new owners – was to become infamous through a barrage of propagandist coverage by the right wing press but, before that happened, the WRP members set to work to make the building secure.

A member skilled in surveillance techniques soon turned up a system of routine bugging devices embedded in the walls of the house. The less experienced members applauded his initiative but he counselled patience. “These” he declared “are the bugs they want us to find”. It took many days of dedicated investigation before he finally turned up the devices he was not expected to locate. Given the press campaign that subsequently grew against The Red House, it remains always possible that a third level of surveillance devices, still less discernible even to an experienced sweeper, did indeed escape his attention.

Surveillance is permitted under licence in special circumstances. I wonder what is the legal status of anyone under such surveillance who discovers and disables the devices; or indeed of anyone who, suspecting surveillance, knowingly gives false intelligence in the form of overheard dialogue. There is something disturbing about the “special powers” allowed at the perimeters of intelligence-gathering. It is as if the rules of engagement have been relaxed in certain circumstances for one side. You feel as if that side would bitterly complain to the ref if its sanctioned special powers were discovered and neutralised by its quarry, as though the enemy had also relaxed the rules or, as they might say, “moved the goalposts”.

Strictly, the bugging of an MP is not against English law, always provided that the necessary licence has been acquired. But it does offend against the famous Wilson Doctrine, dating from the premiership of Harold Wilson, whereby MPs were considered off limits or “not fair game” for state surveillance. The MP whose confidential conversations were tapped in this case, Sadiq Khan, might think there is an interesting case here to be tested before the European Court of Human Rights or in some other forum of international law. This is a far more important matter than a backbencher remunerating his idle sons from the public purse.

For myself, having substantial reason to believe that I will have caught the attention of the intelligence services in the past, I maintain that the right of the citizen to consult certain professionals in terms of strictest confidence – his MP, his doctor, his lawyer, his accountant, his bank manager, his teacher, his spiritual advisor, his manager, his agent, his personal trainer, his dietician, his hygienist, his plastic surgeon – is sacrosanct and at least as worthy to be strictly upheld as his right to be protected from the – in reality, rather remote – threat of suicide bombers and urban terrorists.

Recent cases have shown government agencies to be remarkably cavalier with confidential data pertaining to vast numbers of the public. We have no basis for any assurance that surveillance records are any more secure in the hands of government agencies than are bank account, credit card, benefit and other kinds of record. I think I am entitled to expect that my file from the STD clinic that I frequently visited in my youth will not turn up to general merriment on YouTube. Similarly, an MP ought to be able to feel that she can speak openly in conditions of mutually assured confidentiality without being overheard by some bored jobsworth from MI6, in just the same way that she shouldn’t fear to have her private conversation transcribed in The News of the World or led on by Rory Bremner posing as her interlocutor.