Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I am hugely enjoying the contortions through which the members of the commentariat are putting themselves to make any kind of comment on the recent opinion poll findings. Said pundits decided more than two years ago that Labour “couldn’t” win the next election, that David Cameron was a shoo-in, that the only hope Labour had was to ditch Gordon Brown in favour of David Miliband or Ed Miliband or Alan Johnson or indeed Harriet Harman but even then the party was destined to be out of office for a generation.

They were perfectly categorical about it. As recently as November 28th last year, the main headline on the front page of The Daily Telegraph was: “Tories head for landslide”. Don’t expect to see any paper risk that one again this side of the election. The new conventional wisdom, rapidly agreed in whatever are the modern equivalents of El Vino and The Cheshire Cheese, is that it’s “going to be” a hung parliament (again, the revised result is not in doubt), that the Tories may be the largest party but will fall short of an overall majority.

As JK Galbraith, who coined the term in the first place, once observed: “circumstances have been dealing the conventional wisdom a new series of heavy blows” [The Affluent Society 1958]. That is always the danger in embracing the conventional wisdom. Being conventional, the reading isn’t very imaginative or bold. It heavily depends on what your own waters tell you chiming with what their waters are telling others with whom you are anyway liable to agree. Before long, any other projection of a result that is still weeks away seems merely maverick. Well, for what little it is worth, I have always felt sure that Labour can (I put it no higher) win the election outright. But I’m not going to the wall for it. What would be the point? We will know the actual result soon enough.

And on what ground are these two successive and – their expounders conveniently forget – strikingly different consensuses constructed? Why, on the evidence of a few hundred people asked how they think they will vote, data that is then massaged (“weighted” in the jargon) allegedly to render the respondents more representative.

I have always argued that market research is a pseudo-science, a profoundly misleading exercise, much more likely to elicit the answers that the pollsters want to hear than anything truly accurate on which to build a theory about public opinion. The polling organisations themselves, who always trumpet their methods as if they are inviolate, do all sorts of things that – it seems common sense to me – must skew the findings. Some exclude those who “don’t know” and “wouldn’t say”, as if these two responses are the same and equally irrelevant. Some give more weight to those who say they’ll “definitely” vote, as if such people are more credible and more reliable in their habits than others who perhaps are more realistic.

Some polls ask if people are optimistic or pessimistic about their economic prospects and then translate that directly and most crudely into a judgment on the present government. But if you were a convinced Tory who felt sure that the Tories would win the election, wouldn’t you by definition feel optimistic about the economic prospects? If the main breadwinner in your household had just died, you might well feel pessimistic about the prospects, while not yet knowing how far state benefits might ease the situation. Stark beauty contests are held in these polling exercises: who would make the best prime minister, Brown, Cameron or Clegg? Well, you might think Clegg but vote for Cameron anyway because the Libs Dems don’t stand a chance in your closely-fought constituency. You might think that Michael Gove or Tessa Jowell would actually make the best prime minister and then have to calculate which answer is the one most likely to bring such an event about.

But what folly to parlay even a 16-point lead for the Tories in September into an immutable Tory electoral victory in May. Indeed, if Cameron has, say, a comfortable-looking five-point lead on the morning of the election, there can still be no certainty until the count is done. Furthermore, exit polls after the voting booths closed have proved misleading and even directly wrong in the past. You don’t have to be as old as me to remember the confounded projections of the British elections in 1992 and 2005 or of the US elections in 2000 and 2004. You perhaps do have to be as old as me to remember that neither the 1970 nor the first of the two elections in 1974 turned out quite as billed.

Why anyway is it deemed so necessary to anticipate news rather than reporting it? Why is it so important to all news-gathering organisations – from The Sun to The Independent, from the Today programme to ITV News – to get their unreliable prediction in first? That Polly Toynbee or Nick Robinson discounts the chances of a fourth Labour term in succession has no bearing upon whether such a result will come about, unless significant numbers of voters determine that they will vote to outface these pundits in greater numbers than those who feel they need to take their voting guidance from someone in the public eye.

What you can be sure of is that, following a sensational Brown victory, the media will not be eating humble pie and asking themselves how they could have got it so wrong. Rather, they will be finding new material for speculation and what they are pleased to call analysis: the newly discovered fact that the electorate is – who would have thought it? – unpredictable.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Yesterday, Stephen Sondheim turned 80. I’m sure he would agree that this makes him an old feller. Nevertheless, as he belongs to a profession not noted for longevity, it’s a good age. Jerry Ross only lived to be 29, George Gershwin just 38, Lorenz Hart 48, Kurt Weill 50, Frank Loesser 59, Jerome Kern 60, Sondheim’s beloved mentor Oscar Hammerstein II 65, Johnny Mercer 66, Dorothy Fields 68, Leonard Bernstein 72, Noël Coward, Cole Porter and Alec Wilder 73, Cy Coleman 75 and Richard Rodgers and Andy Razaf 77. But Harold Arlen got to 81, Yip Harburg 84, Ira Gershwin 86, Harry Warren and Adolph Green 87, Jule Styne 88, Betty Comden 89, Eubie Blake 96 and the grand old man of all, Irving Berlin, to 101 (not to forget the phenomenal George Abbott who was said to be playing golf every day until just before his death at 107; I saw the incredibly sprightly 1985 revival he directed at 98 in London of Rodgers & Hart’s On Your Toes, for which he wrote the original book in 1936). So there’s still something to aim for.

Mature Sondheim

It’s a curious coincidence that Sondheim shares his birthday with Andrew Lloyd Webber, now 62. In another part of the forest, those Titans of cinematic horror, Vincent Price and Sir Christopher Lee were both born on May 27th, the day after Peter Cushing, though obviously all in different years. Sondheim and Lloyd Webber may both have written many musical plays but within that field that have little in common. They did, however, once and very unexpectedly collaborate. It was for the spectacular charity benefit in honour of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Hey, Mr Producer!, given in London twelve years ago. In a dropped-in recorded sequence, the two men sat at the piano and performed a satirical pull-together of songs from their respective repertoires for which Sondheim had buffed the lyrics. I particularly enjoyed his reference to “the overwritten music of the night” which Lloyd Webber seemed to take with decent grace.

(Sondheim has a brilliant satirical gift for rewriting the lyrics of others. For Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday celebrations in 1988, he twitted his old friend with a version of the Ira Gershwin lyric, ‘The Saga of Jenny’, rewritten of course as ‘The Saga of Lenny’. Where Jenny “would make up her mind”, Sondheim’s Lenny wouldn’t, guying Bernstein’s notorious propensity to spread himself thin. What Sondheim kept in his listeners’ subconscious minds was Bernstein’s notorious sexual ambiguity, about which it would have been disobliging to be explicit, even had Lenny’s formidable nonagenarian mother not been present. Lauren Bacall performed the song with exactly the required insouciance, so that Bernstein was delighted even while deliciously embarrassed).

Sondheim by Hirschfeld

My regular readers will be aware that I have few words to bestow on Lord LW. But my admiration – love, even – for Sondheim’s work knows no bounds. I feel privileged that my life has overlapped with his so that I have been able to follow his development and witness so many of his works when they were new-minted and see again how they have matured. Sondheim’s contribution to American theatre and music is certainly the equal to that of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet, August Wilson, Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, Duke Ellington, Elliott Carter and the giants of musical theatre I listed above. He is a great American artist.

Where to begin when urging him upon those who have yet to appreciate fully this extraordinary œuvre? I recall that when I was covering for Time Out the imminent arrival of A Chorus Line in London, the line I was getting from the creators of that epochal show (all, apart from composer Marvin Hamlisch, now dead) was that, great as Sondheim was, they wanted to do something really emotional, which Sondheim’s stuff somehow wasn’t. In particular, Michael Bennett, the incredibly charismatic director and choreographer, who had created the dance numbers for Sondheim’s Company and Follies, told me how passionate he was to tap into emotion. But this was profoundly to confuse emotion with sentiment. I cannot watch any production of middle-period Sondheim (Follies through Sunday in the Park), however humdrum that revival, save through a mist of tears.

Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones in Broadway's current Little Night Music revival

That is not because my heartstrings are being urgently pulled; far from it. The emotional charge comes in quite unexpected places. Take the bracingly spirited number given to Petra the maid, a previously unregarded character, right at the end of A Little Night Music, when the “smiles of a summer night” have all frozen on the faces of the grand figures. Petra has enjoyed a tumble in the grass with a visiting butler, now asleep, and she confides to the audience her lofty yet practical plans: ‘I Shall Marry the Miller’s Son’. She has no doubts about it: “Friday nights, for a bit of fun,/We’ll go dancing”. But that’s for later: “Meanwhile …/It’s a wink and a wiggle/And a giggle in the grass/And I’ll trip the light Fandango./A pinch and a diddle/In the middle of what passes by”. And why not? Because “It’s a very short road/From the pinch and the punch/To the paunch and the pouch and the pension”. So “a girl ought to celebrate what passes by”.

You now know she’s got her head screwed on. Then she lets herself dream: “I shall marry the businessman./Five fat babies and lots of security./Friday nights, if we think we can,/We’ll go dancing”. But still she’s anchored in the present and catching her fun where she may: “It’s not much of a stretch/To the cribs and the croup/And the bosoms that droop and go dry”. And then she starts blissfully to fantasise: “I shall marry the Prince of Wales –/Pearls and servants and dressing for festivals./Friday nights with him all in tails,/We’ll have dancing”. But she’s quickly back in the triumphant present: “There are mouths to be kissed/Before mouths to be fed,/And there’s many a tryst/And there’s many a bed./There’s a lot I’ll have missed/But I’ll not have been dead when I die!/And a person should celebrate everything/Passing by”. And she ends with what, at the song’s outset, seemed hubris and now is seen as a proper, doable ambition: “And I shall marry the miller’s son”.

It’s a marvel of a lyric, driven ahead by the busy three-four rhythm – all the show’s numbers are in waltz tempo – and subtly developing its ideas. I adore the modulation from Petra and her miller’s son going dancing “for a bit of fun” to her and a businessman more cautiously going dancing “if we think we can” to the smart perception that powerful people will “have dancing”. In the first London production, Diane Langton, then in her splendid prime before she became a barrage balloon, sang it with such lusty conviction that you just had to cheer, the tears streaming down your cheeks. I cannot read the lyric now, let alone hear it well sung, without filling up.

Japanese actor Mako in the premiere of Pacific Overtures

Another song that packs an unlooked-for punch comes in Sondheim’s musical about Japan. I was lucky enough to catch Hal Prince’s original production of it on Broadway in 1976 and if I ever see anything on the stage to equal its beauty and enchantment, I’ll eat my hat … indeed, to pick up an idea from another Sondheim show, I’ll finish the hat. Pacific Overtures depicts Japanese society before and after its opening up by the arrival in 1835 of Commodore Matthew Perry and the US fleet. It makes brilliant use of kabuki techniques and, having seen authentic kabuki in Tokyo, I can attest to the skill and respect with which this is done. Sondheim’s score, growing organically out of John Weidman’s book, is dazzling, penetrating, witty, moving and original in equal measure. In the number ‘Please, Hello’, it even contrives pastiches of four other (non-Japanese) composing styles of the period.

But the particularly moving number is ‘Someone in a Tree’, in which an old man remembers, as a boy, watching the signing of the treaty. His child self runs up a tree to recreate the scene – old and young self correct each other charmingly (“He was younger then” … “He was only ten”). The eye witness account is further edited by a guard who was stationed in the cellar of the treaty house and so was able to hear “everything … First I hear a creak and a thump./Now I hear a clink./Then they talk a bit”. These reports, while unreliable, have their own legitimacy: “I’m a fragment of the day./If I weren’t, who’s to say/Things would happen here the way/That they happened here?”

As none of the acres of newsprint expended on the subject got close to achieving, I find that this song from an American musical explicates the phenomenon of the public outpouring at the death of the Princess of Wales, the need for so many people to participate in the event of her death, at least through being part of the mourning: “It’s the fragment, not the day./It’s the pebble, not the stream./It’s the ripple, not the sea/That is happening./Not the building but the beam,/Not the garden but the stone,/Only cups of tea/And history/And someone in a tree!” Some may find Sondheim’s stuff cold but I cannot hear that lyric – or even type it out – without my eyes blurring.

An ancient Buster Keaton in the Funny Thing Happened movie

Another canard about Sondheim is that he’s a nifty lyricist but he can’t write a tune you’ll remember, a notion Sondheim himself guys niftily in the cruelly underrated Merrily We Roll Along when the show producer Joe sings: “That’s great. That’s swell./The other stuff as well./It isn’t every day/I hear a score this strong/But fellas, if I may./There’s only one thing wrong:/There’s not a tune you can hum./There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum” and he leaves humming a minor key version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.

Unlike R & H, Sondheim can’t look to a certain movie future to reinforce the familiarity of the songs. Musicals are too expensive for Hollywood these days unless it’s a sure-fire proposition: even Chicago had to be revived on Broadway and sustain a much longer second run before film funding could be found, 27 years after it first opened. The 1950s hit stage shows, West Side Story and Gypsy, for which others wrote the music to Sondheim lyrics, were successfully filmed, especially West Side, which, few remember now, only really became a legendary musical on the back of the movie’s success. Sondheim’s music-and-lyrics show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was made into a lively but not greatly profitable movie by the then trendy Dick Lester, who had the good sense to cast from the rich comic tradition of burlesque and stage comedy as well as silent movies. More recently, Tim Burton’s visually splendid version of Sweeney Todd missed the comedy but caught the grand guignol and preserved a generous proportion of the score. But Hal Prince’s movie of A Little Night Music is largely a dud.

Angela Lansbury, George Hearn in the premiere production of Sweeney Todd

And think on this: Sondheim’s organic scores don’t generate numbers that lift out for pre-opening promotion. They’re of a piece. When you sit down to see the show, you’re usually hearing all the music for the first time. It’s unfamiliar. It’s also relatively demanding. He studied composition with Milton Babbitt – Irving Berlin couldn’t even read music – and his composing is in a clear line of American classical work, through Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein yet also informed by a hugely eclectic taste in cultural input. But serious American music has always been cross-fertilised by popular as well as academic forms and the process is two-way. I always tell people that Ned Rorem’s angular art-songs are not at all difficult to grasp if you listen for the relationship to Sondheim numbers and, by association, the Broadway tradition.

Sondheim’s scores richly repay study. He may not write quite as many “tunes you can hum” right off the bat as, say, Jerry Herman but then Herman is apt to write three or four songs over and over again so that they seem familiar at the first hearing. But I could sing Sondheim songs all day, without repetition or consulting a printed score or a recording. His tunes are insidiously attractive, often using the old Noël Coward gambit of bitter-sweetness (a darkling notion set to a charming tune). And the Sondheim songbook is now as well-thumbed as any by the old Broadway masters.

The best performers love to sing his work

I was lucky enough to interview Sondheim 35 years ago when the fifth show for which he had written music as well as lyrics, A Little Night Music, opened in London. Needless to say, I found him charming and fascinating. He gave me a huge part of his afternoon, rehearsing history that I would have already known if I had done my research and making it vivid and vital. It is no surprise to learn how widely he is adored for his generosity and kindness and also for being a riveting teacher.

London played a crucial role in underwriting Sondheim’s claim to be taken seriously. A year after A Little Night Music opened at the Adelphi, David Kernan and Ned Sherrin put together the revue of Sondheim songs that became Side by Side by Sondheim, produced by Cameron Mackintosh. Joined by the great Millicent Martin and by long-time aficionado Julia McKenzie (whom Scott Meek described as having been born to sing Sondheim), they had a big hit that transferred, replete with original cast, to Broadway and has been revived and toured repeatedly ever since. The combination of small overheads and top-drawer material makes it a handy vehicle.

The young master at work

Sondheim’s place in Valhalla is now assured though it took longer than it should have done. His shows were never monster hits like Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables but performers and directors love to revive them and the fan base is big enough to make such revivals viable if not honey pots.

His youngest show, known variously as Wise Guys, Gold, Bounce and Road Show has been briefly seen in various manifestations in New York, Chicago and Washington over eleven years and its evolution is beginning to rival that of Bernstein’s Candide (to which Sondheim has made his own contribution as sometime lyricist). Like Assassins and Passion, the show’s appeal is more specialised and limited than that of, say, Into the Woods or A Funny Thing Happened. But perhaps like Follies, The Frogs and Sunday in the Park with George it will be more and more valued as it settles into the general consciousness and if it enjoys sympathetic revivals. I hope there will be more Sondheim shows yet. Happy birthday, Maestro!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

To the BOTTOM of the SEE

Today in Catholic churches throughout Ireland, extracts have been read out from a Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father. The letter, an unprecedented document, addresses the entire Catholic communion in Ireland, both severally and as an entity, on the matter of child abuse. That Ratzinger set himself to make this gesture will have cost him dear, I have no doubt. He will also have hoped to draw a definitive line under the matter, at least insofar as it pertains to Ireland, both the North and the Republic. As he knows, however, there is no Catholic mission anywhere in the world that is untouched by these revelations.

The letter has already been minutely examined for text and subtext, for omission and spin, for hostage to fortune and refinement of doctrine. One phrase will certainly resound long after the dregs of today’s communion wine have dried on the chalice: “these sinful and criminal acts”. That begs the question as to whether the church will instigate criminal proceedings. Later, Ratzo advises the bishops to “continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence”, a form of words that suggests there is a limit to how welcome will be forthcoming visits by the Gardaí and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Wanted for Questioning

Most speculation will attach, no doubt, to the sequence of events, to how much the pontiff knew and how soon. Ratzinger has clearly been tainted by the intelligence that his elder brother Georg is implicated in the revelations about abuse of boy members of the celebrated choir of Regensburg Cathedral School. In a ritual response that has been weakened through overuse by the big cheeses of the church, Georg says he knew nothing of the abuse, indeed that he was “secretly relieved” when physical punishment was formally abandoned at the school thirty years ago. Perhaps he would have been better advised not to keep it secret. Georg Ratzinger was music director and chorus master for thirty years. It is unimaginable that any supposed disciplinary regime was administered without his knowledge.

Georg and Joe Ratzinger

Little brother Joe Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) says in his letter “I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light” and you do fall to wondering to which light he refers, whether it is the light of his own knowledge or the more tiresome light of public scrutiny. Does he pass his own test, as articulated at the close of his remarks addressed to his “brother bishops”: “only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church”? Is the Catholic community and the wider world getting “complete honesty and transparency” from Ratzinger?

Ad by Survivors Network of People Abused by Priests in Oregon

I ask because, elsewhere in the letter, he suggests that the Irish people only have themselves to blame: “In recent decades … the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society”. Well, we know what he’s getting at here. He means that sexual abuse is an invention of those bastard Proddies and infidels whose baleful influence has tainted the weaker bethren in the holy church. If only the Catholics had remained the most powerful force in Irish society, none of these little local difficulties would have arisen (or rather, more honestly, come to light).

And we begin to see how weak is Ratzo’s grasp of the essentials in this matter – or perhaps how very far from being candid he really is. Consider the ingredients in this mess to which Ratzo does not care to allude. It’s evident that he piles the blame on rogue priests, whom he refers to more than once as “our confreres”. That’s because he is only willing to acknowledge one kind of abuse, the one from which he can most easily recoil and which he can most easily castigate: sexual abuse.

But there are differing kinds and degrees of abuse that have traumatised and damaged countless children who have had the misfortune to fall into the clutches of the Catholic Church. There is sexual abuse, there is physical abuse (slappings, floggings, imposition of fasting, even degrees of torture) and there is mental and psychological abuse (threats, guilt trips, the hellfire and damnation promised to any who have the gall to ask a question). And in these orders of abuse, all orders of Catholic hierarchy are implicated: patriarchs, archbishops, cardinals, primates, metropolitans, diocesan bishops, apostolics, ordinaries, priests, deacons, pastors and vicars, not to forget abbots, seminarians, teachers in Catholic schools and indeed nuns: the Irish nun, after all, is the proverbial figure of a harridan or harpy.

The point here is that abuse of every kind is founded in a single appetite, the appetite for power. Abusers do it because they can. Their age and/or size and/or authority and/or the hierarchy that sustains them legitimises that abuse somewhere in their warped understanding. That is how abuse becomes institutionalised, almost a tradition, a convention of the institution. There has clearly been a culture of cruelty in the Roman church. That is what Ratzinger can never acknowledge because, as he must see, it strikes at the very core of his community’s belief.

"Anti-gay but sex abuse ok": US newspaper cartoon

Religions – all religions – depend upon a concept that the Roman church uniquely makes explicit, that of infallibility. That the tenets, the doctrine, the texts, the tradition of an organisation are inviolable hands extraordinary power to those who administer that organisation. That power renders their word law. It also implicitly endorses their every action, whatever misgiving may be felt by anyone who perforce must embark upon any query saddled with the crucial disadvantage of expressing apostasy. What hope is there then for the most junior of adherents, a child?

It is the abuse of power over others that expresses itself in all kinds of assault upon the powerless, whether of a choirboy by a sacristan or of a daughter by her father or of an army recruit by a sergeant instructor or of a starlet by a movie producer. “Power” Henry Kissinger observed rather gleefully “is a great aphrodisiac” but Dr K was thinking of consensual sex, not of rape. That power goes to both the head and the genitals is no great revelation in the modern world.

Protest at installation of Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island

Unfortunately for Pope Benedict and other leaders of the deluded, religion doesn’t work if you run it like a democracy or a liberal college or a hippie commune. It is intrinsic to belief that it doesn’t do doubt. That is why I set my face against the establishment of examples of that most contradictory of institutions, the “faith school”. No enterprise, however enlightened and fleet-footed, can bridge the gulf between the two opposed elements in this notion. A school is a home of education, which is a process whereby pupils have their eyes opened, their minds expanded and their well of knowledge deepened. A good teacher takes her pupils to the top of the mountain to point out, laid out below them, all the riches of the land. Faith is a single concept, a check box of answers to questions that the pupils are not encouraged to ask, a process of learning texts by heart and parroting ancient, unexamined responses to a changing world.

John Kelly, US coordinator of Survivors of Child Abuse, with part of his commission's five-volume report

It is the desperate fear that this on-going scandal will fatally erode the Catholic hegemony that unmistakeably peeps through the Pope’s encyclical. To the victims of abuse, he says “I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ”. Well, if you cleave to supernatural delusions you can satisfy them all by yourself, without the mediation of an organisation. Ratzo of course is mindful that many will leave the church without losing the faith and he wants to stem the tide. It’s an unfortunate way of putting it, though. What those victims are most likely to remember is that it was in the communion of the Church that they encountered the person of the devil, the serpent, the Herod, the Pilate, the Judas and the man who passed by on the other side.

One who evidently passed by on the other side big time is now the Primate of All Ireland. As a priest in 1975, Seán Brady was party to the covering up of abuse of boys by the late Father Brendan Smyth, now considered the most prolific known abuser of children in modern Catholic history. One of the boys obliged by Brady and others to sign oaths not to reveal the abuse is suing Brady for compensation. The Cardinal has so far resisted the pressure on him to step down. It fell to him this weekend to read from the letter to his flock at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. The Pope said of the victims, “you have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry”. Brady read it out as “grieviously”. If he’s a functional illiterate, he certainly shouldn’t be the Primate of All Ireland.

Cardinal Seán Brady

This letter will not be the last of it. Anger in North and South America and Australasia has now been bolstered in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel actually spoke out in the matter. The doughty campaigners in the States, where the Tea Party and other radical movements have fired up civil disobedience among hitherto law-abiding Republican ranks, number among them many Catholics. The Catholic Church across the States has grown used to placards and shouting whenever it steps a stately toe onto the street. Ratzo has his work cut out. In his letter, he cites “one of the contributing factors” to the present unrest as “a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal”. But while the likes of Cardinal Brady remain in denial and cannot bring themselves to take responsibility for their own actions and while Benedict himself does not insist on resignations and retribution and an end to all granting of sanctuary to abusers, this boil is not going to get lanced.

Amusingly, the clearest and fullest version of the Pope’s letter I have found is on the Aljazeera in English site. Here is the link:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Lord knows I have persevered with Glee. I have watched all eleven episodes of series one that have been shown on British satellite television, several of them twice. There will be two more episodes before the first series hiatus necessitated by US network television’s present policy of commissioning half a series at a time: the remaining nine parts resume on CBS next month, so a time-lag for British viewers is assured.

I certainly would not be viewing so diligently or troubling my readers with the matter, had the show not proved to be such a smash. Its opening half-season won the Best Television Series (Musical or Comedy) at the Golden Globes, over 30 Rock, Entourage, Modern Family and The Office (US version). Of its rivals, 30 Rock won the same award last season, Entourage has been nominated in each of its six years of existence but has never won, The Office (which won in 2003 for its original British manifestation) has been nominated for three of its four seasons without winning and the gloriously funny Modern Family – though in truth nothing like as ground-breaking as its ’70s grandparent Soap – is new like Glee.

More influential on my viewing habits was a phone conversation with a friend whom I shall call Robert. This was early in the run of Glee when I was about to give up on it. Robert is a gay, Jewish, expatriate American who has forgotten more about stage and screen musicals than most people would think it possible to know. He is also pretty damned waspish in his judgments, so when Glee came up in our chat I was braced to be the one who was rather shamefacedly defending it against an onslaught. But the shoe was on the other foot. I found myself the one reaching increasingly for withering scorn and Robert being placatory and forgiving to the show.

Ryan Murphy

In a second conversation on the matter, Robert staggered me by citing two friends whom he had successfully alerted to Glee and snapping at me: “so you’re out of step”. For Pete’s sake. Kinda liking Glee – and I don’t think I make a travesty of Robert’s position if I put his feelings no stronger than that – is not a matter of political correctness. I was instantly reminded of a parallel exchange of emails a few years back with another gay, Jewish, expatriate American of my acquaintance. This was on the subject of the then new Shameless, another drama serial screened on Channel 4 and its satellites, though this one is a British production. Bernard, as I will call him, was unexpectedly antagonistic towards Shameless – “don’t get me wrong,” he protested, “I like Paul Abbott” (he too is in the biz) – and he came out with a putdown of my argument quite as gob-smacking as Robert’s: “well, no one in London likes it”. Sure, Bernard. That’ll be how come the eighth series is shooting as I write, all 22 episodes of it.

But to Glee. The brain behind it is Ryan Murphy whose previous hit show was the most unpleasant thing presently on American television, Nip/Tuck. His new one tells of a high school glee club. These institutions date back some 250 years and have their roots in England where the tradition died out, supplanted by more organised bodies such as municipal choral societies. The American education system has retained the term and some of the form, though not – at any rate in the television version – the habit of singing a cappella. In the serial (and probably in reality too) there is also a significant shot of the “let’s-put-on-a-show-right-here-in-the-barn” side of American showbiz that was crystalised in the 1940s Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney screen musicals.

As that touch of back story suggests, Glee does not exactly turn up new tilth. Essentially, it makes barely any advance on June Allyson and Peter Lawford in Good News in 1947, itself a remake of a 1930 movie that brought a 1927 stage show to the screen. Since then there have been endless variations on the showbiz kids theme, not least the movie, remake and television spin-off of Fame, a short-lived British television serial Britannia High and the Disney Channel franchise High School Musical. Ryan Murphy claims not to have seen the Disneys but someone should tell him that the resemblances are legion. So the form is, you might have thought, bled dry.

Glee has quite a few plot issues to surmount. Apart from the week when the glee club leader’s nemesis figure was absent, every episode’s storyline has hinged on the question of whether the Ohio school’s glee club will survive. Given that the first series runs to 22 episodes and Murphy is negotiating to raise the second to 25, there’s not a lot of tension in these plotlines.

Inevitably there needs to be plenty of soap-opera-ish traffic in the stories but, as many of the inchoate characters are still in their teens, there is a limit to what is available. This would matter less if a consistency of tone and approach were maintained, particularly in the level of realism. For instance, most of the numbers grow from rehearsal, trying out of songs and more-or-less work-in-progress performances. Insofar as these numbers break out of the strict conventions of pseudo-documentary coverage of work (adding orchestration and segueing into finished moves and routines), it’s a perfectly acceptable convention – though it would have been much more interesting (and triumphant if brought off) to go into much more realistic problems of learning and rehearsing and trying-out. The calling up of Hollywood levels of professionalism supposedly to convey the talent of amateur, untrained performers is a convention as old as Hollywood and it’s a missed opportunity that it wasn’t subverted this time.

Matthew Morrison as Will

But beyond that the show goes in for non-naturalistic breaking into song – the car-wash routine in episode three, for instance – which doesn’t occur regularly enough to justify its place. It reads like a loose hand on the tiller, making production decisions based on the moment rather than the big picture. Worse, a show looks undisciplined when it suddenly resorts to conventions that weren’t there from the get-go, such as (here) shifting plot in voice-over. Glee club leader Will and his nemesis Sue are suddenly arguing in v-o and Will then flips the convention further by being made to say “We’re even fighting in our voice-overs”. A programme has to earn the right to throw the rulebook in the air and you don’t achieve that being doggedly conventional up to that point. I’m reminded that Murphy told The New York Daily News last May that “we’re going to keep everything pretty reality-based”. Clearly one man’s reality is another’s intrinsically disordered perception.

Soap opera storylines are historically associated with female characters, of whom Glee has a full complement. Here too, though, the plotting doesn’t maintain a consistent reality. Glee offers simultaneously a secret pregnancy and a fake pregnancy, both expected by the women bearing them to go full term without anyone finding out. The fake pregnancy is indulged by Will’s wife Terri, who manifests a range of pretty much certifiable neuroses yet who seems intended to be – and is certainly played as – a comic character. Terri is clearly not meant to be seen as sympathetic because her erratic and selfish behaviour is a torment to Will, the male lead. The serial keeps signalling that we root for Will to get together with Emma, the school guidance counsellor, herself prey to (no doubt highly amusing) neuroses.

Aside from Emma, who is so flaky, all the adult women and most of the girls in the show are more or less of a nightmare. Four of the adult women so far introduced have suffered a drinking problem, which suggests Murphy has a fixation that he should look at. All in all, this is certainly not a show that does women any favours.

Lea Michele, Cory Monteith as Rachel, Finn

The treatment of “minorities” is yet worse. The founding members of the glee club include Mercedes who is black, Kurt who is gay, Artie who is in a wheelchair and Tina who is oriental. But these are all peripheral characters. The teen storylines concern primarily Rachel, whose immediately clear role is that of a demanding, striving Barbra Streisand, a resemblance given voice to more than once in dialogue, Finn the big sports lunk who is reluctantly shoe-horned into glee and whose steady is Quinn, the cheerleaders’ leader. Quinn’s is the (initially) secret pregnancy – of course, because she’s “president of the celibacy club” – and Finn is the (wrongly) designated father. Finn and Quinn and their daughter … um … Winn? It’s like Maurice and Doris Norris and their son Boris.

But back to the supernumeraries, who might be more interesting if given a hearing. Take Artie: in the pilot, he initially leads a rendition of Frank Loesser’s ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ and the self-congratulation emanating from the script meeting is deafening. From then on, it becomes crystal clear that Artie is never going to be more than a token figure but it’s actually worse than that because all the physical business with him is quite demeaning, usually effectively rolling him out of the way. And the script keeps reinforcing the unchallenged notion from “bad” characters that disadvantaged people are “losers”.

It’s episode nine before Artie has anything more than two lines and gets (part of) a solo: ‘I’m Dancin’ with Myself’ (think poignant). To get them to understand Artie’s situation better, Will makes the other kids spend a few scenes (only when convenient to the plot) in wheelchairs, so the emphasis on the matter in this episode in practice excludes Artie himself. Nice. But perhaps the worst thing about the figure of Artie is that the actor who plays him is a perfectly able-bodied dancer. How completely shabby.

In episode eleven, the glee gang encounter rival school clubs. One is a sink school, so of course its students and teachers are all black or Hispanic. The other is a deaf school whose teacher seems not to know that he himself is deaf. Yeah, right. Fun-ny. When the deaf choir begin ‘Imagine’, in sign language and brave sprechgesang that they can’t hear, it’s genuinely moving (because genuine) but Murphy can’t bring himself to let it play so the regular principals join in, take over and soon overwhelm it.


It’s odd how bad art contrives to throw up lines that betray its own lack of awareness and Glee is typical. “The minority students don’t feel they’re being heard” comes up in episode seven, and how true this is of the show itself. At the end of episode eleven, Will promises “no false theatricals” but, oh Will, the damage was done long ago. In a group discussion about celibacy (episode two), the comic relief is ugly, bespectacled and Jewish. “You know?” cries Rachel. “This is a joke”. Yup. Later, this particular “loser” tries to blackmail Rachel into flashing her bra. As we know, ugly people in glasses are so sexually frustrated that they don’t know how to behave.

Another supernumerary is introduced for Will to tell the story in flashback – another non-established convention – of a student who had a crush on him. That she is a conveniently passing character and ugly to boot – she wears glasses! – seems to make it all right for Will to treat her in a way that is callous, cruel, insensitive and stupid, just what a teacher should be doing. Will’s behaviour is offered as acceptable because the girl is “a loser”.

But the whole serial is stiff with examples of grotesquely unprofessional behaviour, usually under gratuitous and convenient coercion: a gynaecologist falsifying his findings, a headmaster buckling to the fear that a ridiculous viral of his appearance on a commercial will be seen by the pupils, a school nurse appointed with no qualifications because Terri fancies doing the job (like you do) so that she can keep an eye on Will. How fortunate that she must have cleared the checks for sexual offences against children.

In the first episode, the stall is set out by Will planting dope on Finn as a means of pressuring him into the club, an act that passes muster on no test of any kind. But if Will’s occasional action is unacceptable in anyone, let alone a teacher, the behaviour of Sue, his sworn enemy, is beyond the bounds throughout. The very opening line of the pilot has her berating her cheerleaders: “You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded, that’s hard”. Later, she cries: “I’m living with hepatitis, that’s hard” and she advises Will “you do with your depressing little group of kids what I did with my wealthy, elderly mother: euthanise them”. Does CBS really think all this is appropriate? Why not have her say: “Try being sued by Dan Rather, that’s hard”?

Jane Lynch plays Sue

Sue gets taken on as a pundit by the local television station. She tells her viewers: “You know, I’m tired of hearing people complain – ‘I’m riddled with disease’ or ‘I was in that tsunami’. To them I say ‘shake it up a bit, get out of your box, even if that box happens to be where you’re living'." Ohio should rise up against this travesty of what it would accept. The line between making fun out of political incorrectness and being gratuitously insensitive is a fine one. In episode six, Emma says of Sue: “I can’t believe she’s allowed to teach at this school”. Indeed. Neither can I.

Jane Lynch who plays Sue is one of the vanishingly few lesbian thespians in Hollywood and the aforementioned Robert seems to think this vests Glee with some special credibility. Well, Ryan Murphy is out gay too but any chance that I might have given the show the benefit of the doubt is stymied by its clumping treatment of gay stuff. The moment you know for sure that Murphy has no sense of what his responsibility is to his own or any other community is that moment in episode eight when you note that all the black boys on the school football team are the homophobic ones. Nice, from every point of view.

Kurt, the gay character, makes his bow singing ‘Mr Cellophone’. We’re asked to believe, by the way, that this son of a car mechanic can afford what he claims is an Alexander McQueen sweater, if you please. Like no showbiz boy since A Chorus Line, he seems to have gender issues alongside his closet issues. When I complained that Kurt was as marginalised as all the other “non-regular” characters, Robert had watched episode four as I had not. “You’ll see” he promised. In that episode, Kurt pretends to his dad that he is interested in football and then – goodness gracious! – is discovered to be a brilliant natural kicker of the ball, is promptly signed to the team on the strength of one four-square kick and goes on to win the next match single-handed. Remarkably, this transformation of his status at the school is never alluded to again.

How depressingly regressive that the only way a gay boy can be accepted in a school in the 21st century is as a closeted jock. Anyway, Kurt turns out in episode eleven to be selfish and treacherous, a point needed in the plotting of relations between Finn and Rachel. Marginal characters only ever have to be consistently sympathetic if they are due to die long before the end. It’s a Hollywood rule.

Chris Colfer plays Kurt

Kurt has a secret crush on Finn. “I don’t know why I find his stupidity charming” he says and nor do we. Finn is pretty damned stupid and not (as played) especially charming. Cory Monteith, cast as Finn, is just an inexpressive dope and, rather crucially, a really terrible mover. It’s bewildering how this boy got the part. Hollywood needs a big, sweet chucklehead every so often but they don’t go on to have useful careers unless they have discernible talent (remember Chris Klein?). Matthew Morrison as glee club teacher Will is a bozo too. Teri Hatcher’s Susan is a bozo but in Desperate Housewives it doesn’t matter because the other three leading women are magnificent, rounded, original creations and they carry Susan with good grace. There’s no one to carry Will so his weakness as both character and performance is cruelly exposed. We’re asked – twice in quick succession – to buy him as a rapper in episode eight. Oh please.

In fact whether the cast can sing is hard to say because the miming gives no unmistakeable sense that each voice we hear is coming from the actor’s mouth. That voice might be an unseen singer, like Marni Nixon or the cruelly treated little girl at the Beijing Olympics. At least with Garland and Rooney and indeed Lawford (painful!) and Allyson there’s no doubt it’s them singing.

That’s the central flavour of Glee for me. It never tastes organic. The plot contrivances are to get us through a problem of filling the commercial hour rather than of building the kind of big, colourful marching parade that a long-running American serial needs to be. So we get the one-episode woodshop teacher who has severed his own thumbs in a dumb accident, evidently present solely to make up the numbers of a short-lived sideline singing group. Then there is the character who dominates episode five, ‘The Rhodes Not Taken’. There was me thinking this was going to be a smart gag about Rhodes Scholarships, the kind you’re used to from my posting titles. But no, the featured guest was one April Rhodes, a washed-up former member of an earlier glee club. No doubt she got her name because CBS owns the Rhodes Electric Piano Company.

Jayma Mays plays Emma

Glee arrives in a strong era of continuing drama on American television. When it invites direct comparison with its seniors, it withers: the episode four scene where Will’s sister-in-law freaks Terri with an unforgivingly frank account of childbirth went up against a similar but far superior scene in Desperate Housewives that week; meanwhile, Emma is the Bernadette Peters role in Glee but Ugly Betty trumps it completely – in the Bernadette Peters role, it has Bernadette Peters.

Mysteriously, the Gleeful Robert doesn’t watch either Ugly Betty or Desperate Housewives (let alone True Blood). Perhaps I need to take a deep breath, brave his certain indignation and inform him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


On GMTV yesterday morning, Denise Fergus gave a live studio interview. Given the press interest in the continuing crime drama in which the woman played a leading role, this must be considered quite a coup for GMTV. In practice, the interview was something of a nightmare because Fergus is not living in the real world.

Fergus was previously called Denise Bulger and it was her two year-old son James who was bludgeoned to death by two ten year-old boys in February 1993. That the perpetrators were so young marked out the case and made it especially notorious. Moreover, there was plenty of material for the media to work on, beginning with the haunting CCTV image of the child being led by the boys from the shopping centre where they had spotted him wandering unsupervised out of a shop doorway. Once they were found guilty, the trial judge allowed the identities of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables to be revealed. Their police mug shots were also released. These photographs underlined the shocking youth of the boys, the youngest convicted murderers of the century in Britain.

Venables and Thompson: the mug shots

They were sentenced to a minimum of eight years in custody, quickly increased to ten by the Lord Chief Justice. Sections of the press then began a campaign to have the sentences increased further. The Home Secretary of the day, Michael Howard, took it upon himself unilaterally to raise the minimum tariff to fifteen years. The increased term was overturned in the Lords, where the Home Secretary was roundly accused of “playing to the gallery”. The two were released on life licences in 2001 and given new identities. The terms of their licences put strict conditions on their future behaviour, including that they not return to their native city.

That city was one more significant aspect of the case. The protagonists were all Liverpudlians. Consequently, the drama was more pronounced than it would have been had it taken place in any other British community. The people of Liverpool do nothing by halves, nor do they go in for subtleties, even-handedness or doubt. It has to be said that an element of vigilantism, vengefulness and justice-by-the-mob is not unheard of in that city. Once released, the killers would have reason to fear for their lives, if ever exposed.

James Bulger's grave

The headstone erected over the grave by Denise and Ralph Bulger would have seemed a little overstated had it marked the final resting-place of a head of state, even one hailing from Croxteth. For a child of two, it is – let’s not mince words here – ridiculous. Moreover, it is decorated with a legend that sets out to sound like verse but does not sustain the effort. The opening couplet reads: “There is not a day that goes by/That we think of you and cry”. You might agree with me in considering that a stonemason with a modicum of sensitivity (and, I imagine, a pretty hefty invoice) would take a deep breath and point out the egregious error there perpetrated to resound down the ages.

Fergus sat on the GMTV sofa with her present husband. He only got a word in at the end when invited to contribute by co-presenter Phillip Scofield. Fergus is an archetypically forthright Liverpool woman. She doesn’t go in for understatement, nor is she evidently bothered if her argument hangs together or not. She was there because Jon Venables (as was), now aged 27, has been taken into custody. “I’ve had sleepless nights” she declared, “I’m not eating again. I’ve had to pull my kids out of school. It’s just one massive rollercoaster for me and I can’t believe that they’re putting me through this” – this latter reference, I believe, is to “the authorities”.

Immediately, Fergus reveals herself as someone who has worked herself into a lather. A dispassionate viewer – me, for instance – is quickly given to wonder what the present situation has to do with Fergus at all, why she is being invited to play any part in the re-detention of someone against whom she had satisfaction 17 years ago.

The answer is that, during those years, Fergus has not let the matter rest. Two years before Thompson and Venables secured their release, their lawyers went to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that they had not received a fair trial. The Court upheld this appeal in part and also ruled that the action by Michael Howard had prejudiced any future appeal hearing in the case.

Meanwhile, Denise and Ralph Bulger had also gone to the European Court to try to establish a right for victims of crime – or, in this case, relatives of victims – to be permitted to exercise influence on sentencing policy, a gambit that was thankfully rebuffed. Until their release, the victim’s mother ran a campaign called Justice for James, the aim of which was to have the killers’ sentences extended.

Fergus believes she still has a grievance. “It’s about time now I started getting answers” she told GMTV. “I’m just fed up with them closing doors in my face. It’s about time they started telling me what I think I should know. As James’s mother, I have a right to know”. It was never entirely clear what it is that she thinks she isn’t being told, aside from a complete account of the charges being brought against the newly detained Venables. But whatever she thinks she has a right to know, she in fact has no rights whatsoever in the matter.

Denise Fergus campaigning

Fergus also says that “whoever’s been protecting and looking after Venables over these nine years of his release, I’m calling that they should be sacked”. By this I take it she means those responsible for monitoring his observation of the terms of his licence. Her judgment here depends on taking at face value all the speculation about the licence breach that has appeared in the press.

Scofield, who generally steered Fergus very competently and quite subtly explored the contradictions in her position, asked whether the killer should now be given a further new identity. “No, certainly not” she replied. “Why should we spend more money on him? There’s millions been spent on him already. I’d sooner give the money to kids that need it … There are more and more kids now killing other kids because of Thompson and Venables’ release, because they’re being rewarded for what they’ve done rather than punished. They’ve been given the best of everything. They’ve been treated and still are treated like stars”. Every part of this outburst strikes me as not far from being unhinged.

The difficulty for the “authorities” including Jack Straw, the Justice Minister (who gamely met the Ferguses later yesterday) is that it would take very little to allow Venables’ lawyer to argue that he cannot receive a fair trial on whatever turns out to be the new charge. The press has been typically irresponsible in its speculation about the circumstances in which Venables finds himself in detention. Fergus is clearly not someone whom Straw could entrust with any confidence about the case, even if he thought she deserved to know anything. But the woman is a loose cannon. She thinks she has entitlements that simply do not enter the equation. And I rather suspect, in fact, that it is she who is being treated – and expecting to be treated – like a star.

If Venables has committed some serious crime – as the media evidently believes – or even some minor breach of his licence, he should be subject to the same exacting standards of justice as anybody else. The trouble is that, in their thirst for ammunition with which to attack him, both the press and Denise Fergus are making it less and less likely that Venables will ever end up in jail.