Monday, May 31, 2010


Is there anything more purely enjoyable than a political scandal in a party that you don’t support? And who would have guessed that such a scandal would break this soon into the life of the Con-Dem coalition government? Brave face though he may put on it, the David Laws humiliation is a disaster for David Cameron. The grumbling on the Tory benches, already rising to a roar over Capital Gains Tax and Cameron’s ham-fisted attempt to neuter the fiercely independent backbench grouping, the 1922 Committee, is further provoked by this evidence of Liberal Democrat unreliability. Make no mistake: there can be no second major error by a Lib Dem member of the Cabinet. Such an eventuality would cause a mass revolt on the government benches. The party will say: “throw the buggers out. It’d be better to go it alone as a minority government”.

David Laws’ folly, sin and crime – all these things, really – was to claim a sum that grew to £40,000 as a legitimate parliamentary expense characterised by him as payment to his landlord for a room rented conveniently for Westminster. The problem here was that the landlord was not simply his landlord. He was also Laws’ lover and had been so since 2001, exactly as long as Laws had been an MP. The rules about second home allowances for members of parliament were crystalised in 2006: no such allowance could be paid to an MP’s spouse or partner.

La Laws, before the storm broke

When first confronted on Friday morning with the intention by The Daily Telegraph to expose his situation in the next day’s paper, Laws took the line that he had not hitherto revealed James Lundie as his partner because the pair desired to preserve their privacy; that they could not properly be considered “partners” insofar as, for instance, they maintained separate bank accounts; and that he had never intended to profit from his expenses claim. Unfortunately, had he wished to maintain Lundie as, in The Telegraph’s phrase, “his secret lover”, and had he indeed intended to profit from his expenses claim, the facts of the case would be no different. Besides, he’s a multi-millionaire (there are 18 such in the Con-Dem cabinet, so they’re not much troubled by the trumpeted government pay cut). Why the hell is he claiming expenses at all?

Laws has been touted by Lib Dems and Tories alike as one of the great talents of his generation. A Guardian columnist this morning even called him “a man of exceptional nobility”. Oh pur-leeze: exceptional stupidity, more like. If he’s so brilliant, how come he made such a bish?

Doubtless David Cameron and Nick Clegg, as well as David Laws himself, soon saw that his position was not tenable. Inevitably, before the end of business on Saturday, he had stepped down. Today he is said to be considering a wounded exit from politics altogether, while government spokespeople and their supporters in the press loudly hope that he may be rehabilitated and restored to office as soon as possible.

James Lundie, Laws' firm partner

Of course, every party blackguards the sinners among its rivals and characterises the fall of its own as “a tragedy” and considerably less culpable than would be the same sin committed by one of another party. In the circumstances, Labour people have demonstrated admirable tact and taste in saying very little. They know, mind you, that expenses-fiddling on their own side of the house has been even more epidemic than among the Tories and Liberal Democrats. Not that any party has been quite as holier-than-thou about it all as the Lib Dems. But there’s also, I detect, a reticence in Labour’s response that may be traced to the gay aspect of the scandal.

From Ian Harvey and his guardsman in St James’s Park in 1958, via Jeremy Thorpe and “bunnies can and will go to Paris” and the Norman Scott murder plot, through the racist right-winger Harvey Proctor and his conviction for gross indecency with minors, to the entrapment of Michael Brown with an under-age boy by a Sunday newspaper, to Ron Davies’ “moment of madness” in a west country cruising ground, the untimely ripping of gay MPs from the closet has always been a messy business.

Ian Harvey, scandalous MP half a century ago

Even MPs who come clean voluntarily don’t avoid a bumpy ride. Alan Duncan, a noted motormouth, is a lot lower on the Tory greasy pole now than he was five years ago. Duncan, always unmistakeably gay, didn’t actually come out until Iain Duncan Smith was Tory leader and I know exactly why. It’s because for some years he shared a flat with William Hague. Hague remained a bachelor until 36, the age at which he became leader of the Tory opposition and the sense that he was “advised” to marry Ffion Jenkins was palpable. Had Duncan come out during Hague’s accident-prone tenure, awkward questions would have been asked. Quite right too.

Hague’s great rival at the time was Michael Portillo. Some two-and-a-half years after the famed “Portillo moment” in the small hours of the day after the 1997 general election, when the Defence Secretary discovered he had been unexpectedly unseated from Enfield South by the out gay Labour man Stephen Twigg, Portillo spontaneously revealed that he himself nursed a gay past. As it happens, I used to know Nigel Hart, the older man (now dead) with whom the young Portillo conducted an affair, rather longer (by Nigel’s account) than Portillo ever vouchsafed.

When a student at Peterhouse, Cambridge, Portillo had fallen under the spell of the legendary Maurice Cowling, the dizzyingly high Tory who held court at that college for thirty years. Cowling’s acolytes included Roger Scruton, Oliver Letwin, Niall Ferguson, Charles Moore, Norman Stone, Edward Norman, Andrew Roberts and David Watkin. Reported Anne McElvoy: “Peterhouse had a gay and bisexual life, conducted through dining and drinking clubs, and Portillo was a popular figure in an atmosphere of studied eccentricity and ritual dissolution” [The Independent September 30th 2000]. “Peterhouse was a great institution,” Scruton reckoned, “but probably is no longer – it was gratuitously destroyed by the admission of women” [quoted in The Guardian September 10th 1999].

Maurice Cowling, the Sage of Peterhouse

Whether Maurice Cowling was the queen or just the high priest of this hive of Tory preening is hard to ascertain. That he married for the first time at the age of 70 could betoken a “monastic life” (see below) or one of ungovernable promiscuity in any one or more of several directions or merely an understandable desire, upon retirement, for quiet companionship with someone amenable after a long hothouse career. Perhaps I would have found out the truth, had I fulfilled my old English master’s wish for me to follow him as a Petrean (he was there before Cowling’s time). Sadly – or rather I think I mean thankfully – I fetched up at London University instead and was taught by such radical Socialists as Ted Honderich.

Certain commentators have protested that the revelation of David Laws’ sexual orientation is nothing to do with the case and hence should not attract comment. I disagree. A great deal is made of the notion that Laws was “only” trying to keep his arrangements private, that even his family did not know of them – so he claims, but he wouldn’t be the first gay person who had never come out to a family that knew perfectly well on which side of the street he walked. When, already knowing that he was fit and neat-looking (very cute when he was young), I read that he was unmarried and lived what was called “a monastic life”, I immediately knew that he was gay. As Ben Summerskill slyly noted in The Observer, “observers often speculated that he might well be gay … How many straight men have perfectly flat stomachs at 44?”

Looking further into it, I discovered that the reason why he refused to join the Tories – with whom he was as one on economic and other policy (being the chief begetter of the famous Orange Book of 2004 that proposed a return of the Lib Dems to favour the free market rather than the post-Beveridge social market) – was that he deeply disagreed with them on social policy, particularly over Section 28. This was the notorious measure included in Margaret Thatcher’s Local Government Act of 1988, outlawing the ”promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities, primarily in schools. Labour didn’t get around to repealing it until 2003.

The Thoughts of Chairman Laws

Of course, I hesitated to name him as gay in my posting of May 12th because, even these days, accounting a heterosexual homosexual may be deemed libellous. No one remotely close to Laws’ solicitor is remotely likely ever to see this blog, but I don’t believe in offering hostages to fortune. The Telegraph says that it had no plans to “out” Laws in its lead story on Saturday and that it did so only because, in trying to pre-empt the scandal, Laws had publicly outed himself. This is somewhat fanciful: how could the paper have run the story at all without making clear that Laws was paying his partner? The paper already had long-lens shots (which it duly published) of Laws and Lundie separately leaving the house.

Before the scandal broke, Laws gave an interview to The Times to be published last Saturday, the text of which he substantially amended on Friday night. “When I grew up,” he then told the paper, “being gay was not accepted by most people including many of my friends. So I have kept this secret from everyone I know for every day of my life”. (This is according to an account in The Guardian; all trace of the text of the interview in The Times seems to have been removed from the paper’s online record).

Sexual acts between two adult males in strictly defined circumstances were decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. I was then twenty. David Laws was one. Once the gay liberation movement got under way in the early 1970s, I came out. David Laws was then still under ten. Even Ian McKellen, a late starter, came out as long ago as 1988, when Laws was 22. The idea that remaining in the closet is one’s right and in some way worthy and even perhaps admirable was difficult enough to sustain in the 1980s. Thirty years later, when out gay people routinely hold high office across the world, openly gay ambassadors represent the USA and Australia, gay mayors have been elected in Berlin, in Paris, in Providence, Rhode Island and Houston, Texas and transgender mayors elected in Cambridge, England and Silverton, Oregon and even the head the government in Iceland is a lesbian, Laws’ reticence looks like what it is: moral cowardice.

Another whiney bit of self-justification offered to The Times on Friday night was that Laws was brought up Catholic and that he had never told his white-haired old Catholic mother that he favoured the cassock over the surplice. Yes, here’s another example of a life blighted by religious bigotry and the lies of supernatural superstition. Because, if you hide your nature, you do eventually find yourself telling lies. In the first version of his Times interview, Laws was asked if he had a partner. His answer was “no”. Liar. He lied about his expenses too. And he evidently didn’t tell Clegg or Cameron that he had attempted to cover his tracks in his expenses claims, even though he was well aware that both leaders had made a big deal of fresh starts, clean sheets and full transparency. Exceptional nobility? Pah!

And before we all get terminally swept up in the “tragedy” of David Laws, let’s not forget that the reason he had come to be so highly regarded in the short time since the election was that he was thought to be nearly as good as a real Tory at fronting the Conservatives’ programme of slashing and burning benefits, jobs and front-line services.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Back in the day (as the fashionable phrase has it), I really craved a berth as a full-time critic on a national newspaper. During more than thirty years of journalism, I wrote quite a lot of reviews across what I reckoned were my three areas of expertise: theatre, film and television (I wrote about the odd book too). Most of these pieces appeared in magazines but now and again there’d be a one-off in a newspaper or a stint of holiday-relieving. As a proper first-stringer, I pictured myself diligently criss-crossing the country (indeed, the world), covering theatre in a scrupulously anti-London-centric manner; or rounding up wide swathes of televisual genres in regular packages, as I did when passing a happy year as reviewer for the trade mag Broadcast three decades ago; or constructing a new auteur theory of film out of the post-post-movie-brat generation of Hollywood directors and indeed of indie production companies, but always leading my movie columns on the state of the perpetually dying British industry and the ever changing picture in non-English language cinema.

I fancied myself pretty damned good at reviewing. At least, I had a clear and determined view of what was the critic’s function and of what constituted bad reviewing (of which there was always plenty and now there is little else). “Ok, clever-clogs”, I hear you cry, “so how come you didn’t get a proper reviewing gig?” There’s really not much mystery to it. You won’t be surprised to learn that reviewing jobs don’t get advertised (“Opera critic required by national Sunday newspaper: must be able to read a score and know some good jokes” – I don’t think so).

Nancy with the laughing face

The first most of us learn of a critical changing of the guard is the column that ends thus: “Well, that’s my final piece for this newspaper. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the last 28 years. Next week, Stuart Maconie will be reviewing dance in this slot. I wish him well”. And you think “Oh bugger, I’ve been waiting 28 years for that useless old bitch to move on and suddenly it’s all done and dusted and I never even got my cv in the post”.

In the old days, arts editors deliberated long and hard over which particular learned authority might be persuaded to stoop to contributing notices on a regular basis. That began to change in the 1960s: new critics tended to be appointed from among those artsy types who happened to be hovering near the arts editor’s desk looking winsome at the moment when the incumbent suddenly dropped dead, had a last and decisive hissy fit or got a more lucrative offer from The International Herald Tribune. Some time in the late ‘80s, that shifted again. Newspapers no longer wanted people who could write out of passion, discrimination, erudition and long absorption in the particular art to be reviewed. Instead they wanted some jackass who knew diddly-shit but who could be relied on to be funny. This is precisely how someone as empty-headed as Toby Young gets to be a theatre critic. The rumbles you hear are Ken Tynan and Harold Hobson stomping out of their graves before the houselights come up.

One reason why I fancied myself a worthwhile critic was precisely because I was interested in film and television and theatre. After all, if you were Richard Eyre or David Hare, Ralph or Ian or Miranda or Joely Richardson, you worked all these beats. Isn’t it appropriate for the critic of one to be versed in all? They’re not, though. Very few movie reviewers ever set foot in a theatre, almost no theatre critics get to watch mainstream evening television and television reviewers … well, they know nothing about anything.

It happens all the time that even the liveliest critics in one of those spheres reveal woeful ignorance of the allied arts. I remember the peerless Nancy Banks-Smith in the 1970s reviewing a Play for Today whose cast was led by Robert Lang and that led to her perplexed cry: “Where has this wonderful actor been all my life?” Well, Nancy, the answer is that he was leading Olivier’s National Theatre company at the Old Vic. If you’d been to almost any production there in the previous dozen years, you would have known that.

Billington, the fat owl of the stalls

Though he’s hardly what you’d call an inspired theatre critic, The Guardian’s veteran Michael Billington consistently writes with shrewd judgment and immense knowledge (I do wish he wouldn’t always expect plays to make “points”, though) and much of that authority derives from his history of reviewing film and television as well as theatre. He also – and this helps immensely – has occasionally taken a turn as a director.

During my time as a journalist, I alternated with jobs in television and I continued to submit projects (though rarely with any result) to theatres and movie production companies. I like to think that my reviewing was informed by a feel for how work was made and by a certain amount of objective (and I hope interesting) assessment of technique. If a play or musical or movie or programme works, there are usually discernible reasons why that should be the case; and often enough there are explicable flaws that militate against its success. A critic ought to be specialist enough to tease out these factors, or so it seems to me.

If there is one critic who changed all that, I submit that it was Clive James. James, who happens to be about five weeks older than Michael Billington, had a ten-year platform as designated television reviewer on The Observer. For a while, in the middle of that time, I shared a page with him as the paper’s television previewer. Demand for this latter function had grown in the national press, partly in response to the success of the television previewing on Time Out, from the executing of which I was duly recruited.

The view I had developed was that reviews of all the other arts except for live concerts were read like television previews: in other words, you read the critique and got to see the show afterwards, as you did with a movie, book, ballet, exhibition and so on. So it was legitimate to write fully and critically about a programme yet to be transmitted because in practise the advantage you enjoyed over your readers was not significantly more than that of critics of the other arts. Evidently the arts editors were beginning to accept this philosophy.

The young(ish) Renaissance Man, James

I have no idea what James thought of my previewing: we had very little contact during my time at The Observer. Perhaps he sensed my hostility. At any rate, I thought he carried no torch for the medium whatsoever. He just used television as a vehicle via which to write about the world and/or whatever he wished. He had no feel for what programme-makers were trying to do. While I am sure he subscribed to the auteur theory of the movies – as we all did in those days – he was blithely uninterested in any notion of a hierarchy or a hall of fame of television programme-makers.

There was one episode – immensely enjoyable for me at least – when James loftily attacked the documentarist Angela Pope because, out of his ignorance of technique, he assumed that she could not have gathered the footage that appeared in her film without some degree of manipulation. She sued him. I recall him rampaging around the newspaper’s open-plan office, fulminating against this “cunt”; not that this was anything new, because I had already learned that James’s generic term for women was “cunts”. The paper duly withdrew his observation and apologized. I was a bit disappointed. I had been hoping that he would go to jail.

What I always suspected duly came to pass. James really wanted to be on television himself. I imagine his broadcasting career has been less glittering than he would have wanted or imagined. He’s probably pleased with it but it’s objectively the case that almost nothing memorable came out of it, especially the feeble LWT documentaries that he fronted.

But James’s column was very popular, even in some parts of the business. He made readers laugh. They thought the world of him at the paper. I even heard one of the executives claim that James accounted for a quarter of the paper’s sales. As one who felt that his own mission was to champion television, to make it “better” by chiding programme-makers when they weren’t stepping up to the mark and to make it more “readable” to viewers by writing about its tropes and techniques, I thought James was vulgar, down-market and self-regarding. But look around the critical landscape today and all you see are those who want to emulate James: writers like AA Gill, Charlie Brooker and Charles “theatrical viagra” Spencer.

Milton Agonistes

Plying my own trade in the ‘70s, I bore a suspicion that some of my seniors took a rather dim view of their readers. I remember covering an opening at the Greenwich Theatre, at the interval of which most of my fellow critics lolled in the stalls chewing the fat. Unremarked, I remained among them and listened in, hoping to learn something. Most vociferous on this occasion was Milton Shulman. This Canadian Jewish ex-pat was, for donkey’s years, chief theatre reviewer for The London Evening Standard, always wielding a straight bat on behalf of the unchanging values. No new play, unless it be written by William Douglas-Home, escaped the lash of Milton’s scorn. Your work had to be at least fifty years old before he would consider it worthy of revival.

On this occasion, everything Milton had to say was witty, wise and to the point. His fellows – Billington, Benedict Nightingale, John Elsom, Robert Cushman – had nothing remotely as perceptive to say. I looked forward eagerly to Milton’s notice the next day. And not a whit of this gossamer gold appeared in the paper. It was his habitual, curmudgeonly drone.

The Guardian is presently running its third annual competition for “young critics” and as the top age limit is 18 I guess I’ll have to rule myself out. In a feature earlier this week, various established critics reminisced about getting started and about the critics who inspired them, an unsurprisingly dispiriting exercise. One reviewer thus hailed as a heroine was notorious in her day for having her copy made coherent by her journalist boyfriend. Tragically, the couple suddenly broke up. “How will she cope?” we wondered, to which the noted wit John Lyttle replied: “She’ll soon be back in the social swim, looking for Mr Rewrite”.

Peter Bradshaw, far from my favourite movie reviewer, complained in his piece that his parents took The Daily Telegraph in the 1970s and “I would no more want to read their reviews than to read the lines of stock market prices in The Financial Times”. Certainly no one at that time would have made a decision about what to see in the theatre based on the opinions of “Colonel” John Barber, but The Telegraph did then have one of the most incisive and diligent television critics in the business in the form of Séan Day-Lewis.

Bradshaw offers as his critical hero – yes, you guessed – Clive James. “James more or less invented the critic-columnist trope of riffing, digressing, zooming off at a tangent” reckons Bradshaw, which pretty much encapsulates everything I deplore in reviewing.


Perhaps you clocked the hint of enquiry I offered about the sexuality of David Laws in the posting ‘Cabinet in the Sky’ on May 12th. If you want to keep abreast, just keep watching this space …

Friday, May 21, 2010


I had intended to entertain my readers with intelligence of the odds that William Hill are offering against a collapse of the Con-Dem coalition within six months but alas, the leading name in gambling both on and off line shows no interest in responding to my queries, either by email or by phone. I am no betting man myself but I imagined (perhaps over-stimulated by the musical Guys and Dolls) that those who live for a flutter would bet on absolutely anything. Perhaps like everyone else William Hill are pulling in their horns. Perhaps they’re confining themselves to bingo.

What odds would you take against Vince Cable being the first minister to walk? Six-to-four on, do you suppose? And when? Three-to-one against him going before the end of July, is that realistic? Not that I doubt the sturdiness of the coalition agreement revealed in all its glorious detail yesterday, you understand. I just beg to propose that the fixed smiles will start to hurt their teeth before too long.

Steve Bell's image of Vince Cable as the elephant in the room

Cable doesn’t strike me as someone who will submit to suffering fools gladly on a daily basis for more than a few weeks. And George Osborne looked like the epitome of the hollow man when Cable was opposing him in the general election battle and looks the same today. They make doubtful bedfellows, not so much Osborne & Little as Osborne & Little Patience. Then there’s the unfathomable David Laws, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who reportedly sent Osborne away with a flea in his ear when he, Osborne, attempted (clumsily, you picture) to recruit him to the Tory cause a year or two ago. Laws is nobody’s patsy, methinks.

Apologists for the new government are apt to trot out the bromide that the political parties are themselves coalitions. This is true, of course, up to a point. Harold Wilson described the Labour Party as “broad church”. Harold Wilson knew of what he spoke and intended the remarks he passed to be memorable. He was probably the last prime minister we will ever have to speak often with an eye to posterity. He is certainly the most recent to do so. Quotable lines from Blair – “I’m a pretty straight kind of guy”, “this is not a moment for sound bites, but …” – and Thatcher – “we are a grandmother” – are remembered more for their idiocy than for their resonance; Thatcher abandoned consciously speaking for the history books after her risible St Francis of Assisi moment and her clunky “the lady’s not for turning”, Ronald Millar-scripted speech.

The Labour Party of Wilson’s time could comfortably straddle Ian Mikardo and Sir Frank Soskice, brought together under the notion of “pragmatism” (a Wilson watchword, one that I notice that Cameron has revived), but after the Callaghan government was defeated in 1979 the broad church was racked by schism. Michael Foot defeated Denis Healey for the leadership and thereafter Tony Benn came within one percent of Healey in the battle to be deputy leader. Then Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers (“The Gang of Four”) left Labour and set up the Social Democrat Party which, for a time after it merged pragmatically with the Liberals, threatened to replace Labour as the chief party of opposition to Margaret Thatcher. You think we live in interesting times now? You know nothing.

Party-goer Donnelly

There were always honourable members who found themselves out of sorts with the prevailing tenor of the times in the parties up to which they had signed. I recall a rum cove called Desmond Donnelly who, Wikipedia kindly reminds me, “moved between parties on five occasions” which might well be a world record, though only four moves are actually recorded (counting has ceased to be a skill in contemporary Britain). I became aware of him in 1968 when he and fellow Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt fell out with the party. Donnelly set up something called The Democratic Party which lasted for two years before, without warning, he defected to the Tory Party which, you figure, was his natural home all along.

Donnelly and Wyatt “crossed the floor”, in the parliamentary jargon. They left the governing party benches and sat across the aisle with the Tory opposition. Wyatt stayed there; his daughter Petronella famously had an affair with Boris Johnson. It is an oft-remarked tendency in people – especially men – to grow more conservative – and indeed Conservative – as they grow older and so there have always been Labour MPs who have drifted towards the Tories. Others have hardened in their Socialism. Well-known defectors from Labour include Ray Gunter, Dick Taverne, Chris Mayhew, John Stonehouse, Reg Prentice, Bryan Magee, Bob Mellish, Dave Nellist, Dennis Canavan, George Galloway and Ken Livingstone, the last of whom of course has been reconciled.

Sir Hartley Shawcross, the first post-war Attorney-General in the Attlee government and maker of the much quoted remark “we are the masters now”, was daily expected to defect, earning him the blithe nickname Sir Shortly Floorcross. Instead, he sat in the Lords as a crossbencher (i.e. with no party affiliation) and lived to the ripe age of 101.

Sir Shortly

But not all the traffic has been away from Labour. Alan Howarth, Shaun Woodward and Quentin Davies all quit the Tories and became Labour ministers. And many more have loudly walked out on the leadership of one or other party while in government without changing allegiance: George Brown (though he did eventually leave Labour), Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe, Robin Cook, Clare Short and quite a parade from Gordon Brown’s administration.

The Cameron-Clegg coalition may well have trouble from their own backbenchers. The Tory right has kept very quiet for the five years that Cameron has been leader and the making of the coalition has stretched their silence to the limit. What will snap their patience: Europe? Taxation? Parliamentary reform? The cabinet appointment of former leader Iain Duncan Smith is meant to placate the right but he has become something of a one-issue merchant and hence his acquiescence is rather a special case. Bar-room gossip suggests that the Lib Dems are haemorrhaging members appalled by alliance with the Tories. It will be fascinating to see what the delayed election in Thirsk and Malton throws up next week. Most likely, all the commentators will find themselves reading far too much into it, whatever the voting pattern.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


A few quick musings on the new cabinet. After having a really atrocious election, fluffing and blustering through interviews on subjects she did not grasp, Theresa May is the new Home Secretary, far higher up the ranks than she ever was in opposition. There’s only one explanation and that is Cameron’s dire shortage of women in his new team, even fewer than Gordon Brown had. Indeed, she, Caroline Spelman at Environment and Cheryl Gillan in the Welsh Office are the only women announced and May has to double up on policy for women and equality. Although Sayeeda Warsi will attend cabinet too, you can’t call hers a government post because she is there as party co-chairman under the age-old non-job title of Minister Without Portfolio. Her fellow co-chairman, Andrew Feldman, will not attend cabinet. The Lib Dems, even more poorly supplied with leading women, bring none to the cabinet, though Sarah Teather has often been touted as of ministerial potential.

Though he has found a position for Iain Duncan Smith to go with fellow ex-party leader William Hague, Cameron has given nothing to his erstwhile leadership rival David Davis. I wonder whether he offered and was refused or whether he has written Davis out of the history of his rise.

Meanwhile, the only gay member of Cameron’s shadow cabinet, Nick Herbert, is one of the casualties of coalition. No one outside his circle evidently knows whether the apparently monastic Lib Dem David Laws would be qualified to fill this breach. Talking of sexual chemistry (which I wasn’t), I learn that the new Foreign Secretary is flying to Washington as early as this Friday. You can bet your life, however, that Hillary Clinton will not go all giggly and moist over William Hague to quite the degree that she very publicly did over David Miliband. She will be fervently hoping that Miliband is indeed the shoo-in to be Labour leader that he clearly looks. It seems weird that, were the boyish Miliband to succeed, he would be the oldest leader among those of the three main parties, if only by fifteen months.

The Cameron/Clegg era has begun. One day – possibly one day quite soon – we shall look back on that first joint press conference and laugh. The instant commentaries were largely favourable, citing the relaxed demeanour, the assumed mutual respect, the body language. Even the fact of the session being in the Downing Street garden excited comment but hey, Tony Blair held key press conferences there and it’s also where John Major launched his put-up-or-shut-up fight back against the backbench critics of his government, after which John Redwood (remember him?) resigned from the cabinet to mount a challenge immortalized by The Sun as “REDWOOD v DEAD WOOD”.

Cameron said as much as he decently could and sought to make it all seem very natural and straightforward. Clegg’s prepared statement was awful, like something left over from the election campaign or a peroration he might have wished he’d used in one of the television debates. This was a callow miscalculation.

The press questioning harped dully on the arrangements, even unto a second administration – I would guess that little serious thought has yet been expended on how they will play the 2015 election, the date of which evidently will soon be determined by statute. But it reminded me of nothing so much as an in-coming US president, assuring us all that the vice president has a real and important job to do. That’s never how it turns out in practice, prompting Cactus Jack Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s VP, to remark that the post “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm shit” (history’s version: “a bucket of warm spit”).

Clegg and Cameron's first joint press call

One of the trajectories to plot under the new regime will be that of the growing disillusionment, resentment and sheer day-to-day boredom evinced by Deputy Prime Minister Clegg. There was a bit of banter about how “Nick” will take Prime Minister’s Questions when the PM himself is away and Cameron threw away a line about a lot of foreign travel – I can’t find the passage on the net – but that immediately reminds us that DPM Clegg won’t be going to Washington and Moscow and Jerusalem and Paris, he’ll be kicking his heels in Downing Street trying to reform parliament like some junior policy wonk. John Prescott took the odd PMQ for Blair and Harriet Harman for Brown and all it underlined was their relative irrelevance.

We’re told that as many as twenty Lib Dems will have jobs. I wonder where that leaves the other 37. Are they obliged to support the government? Presumably they will be whipped to do so. But if among their number are Simon Hughes, Norman Baker, Nick Harvey, Norman Lamb and the former leaders Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell, they may well prove to be – let’s say – an independent-minded group. And what will the party do at by-elections? Because of the death of the UKIP candidate during the general election campaign, the ballot in the constituency of Thirsk and Malton has been delayed and will be held a fortnight tomorrow. What those voters have to say will be quite as interesting as what the candidates have to say. The Lib Dem candidate there is called Howard Keal so I imagine he will say “My defences are down” or perhaps “Where is the life that once I led?”

Naturally everyone who isn't a Labour MP is putting a hopeful smile on it all. But I still bet that, for all the determined talk of strong, stable government, this arrangement will not last much beyond eighteen months. Why? The remark that legend has credited to Harold Macmillan is the answer: “Events, dear boy. Events”.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Yesterday on The World at One, Martha Kearney interviewed the new Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay. She said his name was Stephen Gilbert. I object, your honour. Nobody is permitted to pass himself off as me. On Wikipedia, I find that this person calls himself Steve Gilbert. He has traded in both of these brands for 29 years fewer than have I. And the concluding paragraph of his entry reads in its entirety: “He is openly gay”.

How dare this man confuse the public in this manner. Looking further into the outrage, I discover that there is another “openly gay” Liberal Democrat, the returned member for Bristol West. And his name is Stephen Williams. My own first name is William. The whole business is an absolute scandal. You’ll be telling me next that there are “openly gay” Tory and Labour MPs called, respectively, Gilbert Stephens, William Gilbert and William Stephens. I shall go raving mad. Especially as one of David Cameron’s most trusted kitchen-cabinet, behind-the-scenes guys is called Stephen Gilbert. He’s described as “Michael Ashcroft’s right hand man” so he won’t be short of a bob or two.

The Lib Dem chap and the Cameron crony

There have been other Stephen Gilberts. The Irish writer Gilbert Ralston, perhaps most widely known for the movie version of his creepy yarn Willard (his only work of fiction), was born in the same year as my father and took the name Stephen Gilbert as his nom de plume. The Scottish-born English painter and sculptor Stephen Gilbert was far from a household name but highly regarded. I remember coming across one of his sculptures in Kenwood when I was first in London as a student. He died at a splendid age, three days shy of 97, in 2007.

The founding co-director of the New Zealand Institute of Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery is called Stephen Gilbert. All I can say is, he has some face. Another making use of the moniker is the chief executive of the Printers’ Charitable Corporation of Great Britain. I bet he’s a font of wisdom. There’s another one who markets himself as Interim Solutions but he won’t last the course. Yet another is a valedictorian senior at Shiloh High School, California and we say to him “piss off, sonny”. Then there’s the faculty lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University. He’s making me paranoid. Still another has a website called Common Sense Internal Communications. I should sue.

Logoman + US boy with table design

Clearly, my only recourse is to ensure that I am the first up on Google when someone puts the name in a search engine. I have some way to go and this is easier said than done. But if you feel an appropriate degree of compassion for me, you’ll need vast reservoirs for my partner. His name is David James.

Monday, May 10, 2010


The fabulous Lena

Lena Horne was a really fabulous star. Forthright and fearless in her statements and views – she was blacklisted for a time – as well as in her delivery of a number, she was the equal of any of the great twentieth-century purveyors of what is sometimes called the standard repertoire. She could croon a smoochy ballad or suffer through a torch song with the best of them, but she was at her finest, to my mind, in one of those driving numbers that brought out the tigress in her. If you want to thrill to an example of pure dynamism, you can hardly do better than to seek our her cha-cha version of Barton Lane and Yip Harburg’s ‘Old Devil Moon’, a sometime ballad that she tears into as though her life depended on it. I have around a dozen versions of this number in my collection, including by such superb interpreters as Margaret Whiting, Barbara Cook and Carmen McRae, but Lena has them all beat, even the divine Judy Garland.

Her performance as the good witch Glinda in the movie version of the all-black musical The Wiz, based on The Wizard of Oz, is an astonishing mixture of vamp and camp. It suggests that she didn’t think much of the show and did it merely as a favour to its director, Sidney Lumet, who was her son-in-law. But there was a fine line between her detached disdain of material and her playing with mannerisms. She could always turn a glittering phrase: hear what she does to “Chanel no 5” in a not very distinguished song by Duke Ellington and John Latouche, ‘Tomorrow Mountain’; or the way she bites off the words that end in consonants in Noël Coward’s ‘Mad About the Boy’, one of its most haunting renditions.

She could be really outrageous, could Lena. When she won a Tony award in 1981 for her one-woman show on Broadway, she caressed the phallic statuette with mock lasciviousness on network television, delighting women about town and her substantial gay following while no doubt prompting a slew of white supremacists to declare that, like her numbers in movies of the 1940s, her appearances should again be censored (though of course the films of her youth were butchered simply because she was of mixed race).

David and I saw her at the Palladium in the early 1980s. We sat in the front row and we were glad we did because, once she’d spotted us, she played the rest of her set straight to us. At one point, when in reminiscent mode, she waved an elegant fingernail towards us, gave us a piercing look and drawled “ask your grandma”. What a classy dame she was. Bless her.


Can’t get enough of the present domestic political shenanigans. Of course a lot of guff gets aired. Now that Brown’s time is formally limited, Tories and others start to manufacture outrage that a Lib-Lab coalition, were that to be the upshot, would be led by a second successive PM who “hasn’t been elected”. But we don’t have a presidential system, despite appearances to the contrary. Prime ministers aren’t elected, governments are. And whereas Brown was immediately attacked for “clinging on”, the Tories will now attack him for standing down and therefore making their own chances of getting into government more remote. Damned if he do and damned if he don’t.

Clegg: "it's really doing my head in, man"

Moreover it would be “a coalition of the losers”, they say; but nobody won, that’s why we’re in this situation. Then politicians are apt to talk about “the message that the electorate sent to us” and the notion that the nation voted for a hung parliament. No one voted for a hung parliament; that option wasn’t on the ballot paper. There is no doubt that most of us voted for the party we thought best represented us. Some voted according to notions of tactics. But nobody voted for stalemate.

Of course, there are Tories, especially in the press, who believe that Cameron should be crowned at once as Emperor Bokassa but he wouldn’t survive as absolute monarch, or even as leader of a so-called confidence-and-supply administration, if he couldn’t command a majority for his programme in the Commons. Indeed, everyone talks about the need for “stable government”, but I can’t see how, on the arithmetic of the election result, any arrangement in parliament can possibly expect to last for four or more years. There will be another election, if not this year, certainly before the end of next. It will be conducted with a different leader of the Labour Party. All the commentators thought they knew the result of the 2010 election as long as two-and-a-half years ago. But nobody can begin to guess what the result of the next election will be, nor when it will be held and certainly not what the background mood music will be at the time.

Clegg, it begins to seem, may have played a really brilliant game, much of it out of the sight of the media and without the knowledge of Cameron’s negotiating team. Already he has screwed much more out of the Tories than Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive offer”. The Tories have conceded a referendum on proportional representation without any guarantee that the party will put up with it, now or when such a referendum comes. Labour has now offered immediate legislation to change the electoral system. Many more of Clegg’s party incline to go with Labour than with the Tories and the biggest stumbling black for Clegg himself – Brown – has fallen on his sword. Cameron will have to make a better offer yet, just to keep in the bridge game. I can’t wait for the next rubber.

Friday, May 07, 2010


Given the bad odour into which politics and politicians have fallen over recent months, inducing among swathes of the public a feeling of “a plague on all your houses”, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that the general election results should disappoint everyone. Everyone, that is, except Naomi Long of the Alliance Party in Belfast East whose 23 percent swing kicked out of Westminster the Stormont First Minister, Peter Robinson (see my earlier posting The Woman Taken in Adultery); and except Caroline Lucas who won the first ever British parliamentary seat (Brighton Pavilion) for the party she leads, the Greens; and except Labour’s Margaret Hodge who had genuine reason to fear the challenge of the BNP leader Nick Griffin in her London East End seat of Barking but who, in the event, beat him four-to-one, kept him in third place and even reduced the vote share achieved by his predecessor by two percent.

By the same percentage, there was a swing in Barking from the Tories to Labour, on a night when the average swing from Labour to Conservative was five percent. Indeed, if Labour had done as well nationally as it did in both London and Scotland, Gordon Brown would now be handing out portfolios in a fourth successive Labour administration.

But Labour didn’t do anything like as well as that. No Cabinet ministers were unseated but two former Home Secretaries were. Few tears will be shed in Downing Street or anywhere else for Charles Clarke, a relentless critic of Brown after he wasn’t kept in the government. Jacqui Smith, somewhat unfairly over-tarnished by the parliamentary expenses scandal, was never going to hold Redditch, perilously retained in the 2005 election, but the nine percent swing away from her looked as though it contained a punitive element. Some good second-rank ministers lost – Vera Baird, Mike O’Brien, Chris Mole, Shahid Malik, Bill Rammell, Jim Knight, Angela Smith and others, including Gordon’s parliamentary private secretary Anne Snelgrove in Swindon South, the woman who said that she hugged him every day.

After all the supposed “Cleggmania”, the Lib Dems proved to be the dog that didn’t bark, increasing their vote only by one percent and taking a net loss of five seats, among them the really excellent medical specialist Evan Harris in Oxford West and that colourful character Lembit Opik on a staggering swing of thirteen percent to the Tories in Montgomeryshire. But the Liberals did take by a majority of exactly 800 the West Country seat of Wells, held since 1983 by David Heathcoat-Amory, old Etonian member of a well-known political family and tainted (literally) by manure in the expenses scandal.

Nick Clegg has announced that he believes David Cameron should be allowed the opportunity to attempt to form a government, seeing as the Tories are the largest party. Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister by convention and has graciously acknowledged that everyone should wait until Cameron and Clegg have done negotiating. Naturally enough, however, Brown has indicated why Clegg ought to throw in his lot with Labour after going through the motions with the Conservatives.

For his part, Cameron has made what he calls “a big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems. He may, however, have thrust a broom handle through the wheels by ruling out of any negotiation the questions of Europe, defence, immigration amnesty and voting reform, offering on this last matter only “an all-party committee of enquiry”, which is to say nothing. This may be the clinching issue. Brown has proposed a referendum on the voting system and that must be more attractive to the Liberal Democrat party.

Were I Brown, I would go further. In return for a guarantee of support – which I suppose means in practice a coalition – I would offer Clegg another general election within twelve months, conducted under proportional representation. That ought to be an irresistible carrot for the Lib Dems. It gives Brown and Darling a chance to deliver what they believe they can deliver: an economic recovery this year without the cuts that the Tories intend to implement. It defines the arrangement as finite, allowing the possibility of Brown perhaps stepping aside early next year. It also seems to allow the Tories to believe that their inheritance is only postponed for a year. Twelve months is simultaneously an aeon and the bat of an eyelid. Making such an apparently tight timetable would give purpose to an exhausted Labour administration. And it would allow the opportunity for a little of the shine to rub off Clegg while he tries to make a parliamentary pact work in his party’s favour. I suggest that it is a creative, workable suggestion that has one huge advantage: everybody wins except the Tories.

A postscript about the BBC coverage: David Dimbleby’s problem with uninformative shots of cars might profitably be sorted out in the editorial office rather than on air. I had much more trouble with the continual truncating of interviews, frequently for what turned out to be no discernable reason. I also found Jeremy Paxman’s default position of vexed hectoring accompanied by a look of Martita Hunt imperiousness rather wearing. His not being able to understand that Lembit Opik might actually be quite upset about his defeat made him seem like the class bully. And he is surely experienced enough to know that politicians do not answer hypothetical questions if they can possibly help it. Putting an outrageous point does not necessarily provoke an outrageous response. In the end, I doubt that any of Paxman’s interviews furnished any memorable observations. Though I dislike him intensely and thought a lot of his interviewees were a waste of space, I found that Andrew Neill drew out many more intriguing answers. And a final suggestion for the BBC: the word "extraordinary" should be banned for five years, especially from the mouth of Fiona Bruce.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


We did our civic duty at around 11.30 this morning. For the occasion, I wore the cap brought back from China for me many years ago by an old documentary-maker friend, a proper party cap in navy blue with a red star pinned to it. The only remark it drew was from our neighbour to whom I offered my prepared answer that I was going to vote for the local Maoist candidate. He said that was why he was wearing his red shirt today. As a retired bank manager, however, he would be far more likely to have voted Conservative, I reckon (probably at two minutes past seven).

I showed my voting card to the tellers sat outside the local scouts’ hall and remembered doing telling duty myself as a teenager for the Tories whom, since I grew old enough to vote, I have never supported. The tellers are party volunteers armed with copies of the constituency residents’ poll numbers. When you’ve flashed your card, you are crossed off the list, thereby ensuring that they don’t bother you later in the day in last-minute attempts to get the vote out. Some voters refuse to show their cards in the mistaken belief that this somehow compromises the secrecy of their vote. It doesn’t. Incidentally, I have never seen a Labour teller at a national election in our constituency and today was no different. “Labour can’t win here” is one of the Liberal Democrat slogans and it’s surely true.

Nevertheless, I gave my vote to the Labour candidate. I had intended to vote tactically for the Lib Dem (as I have done in previous national elections here) but the candidate’s most recent mail shot contained a claim about the Tory candidate that I decided to follow up. I went to the Conservative website and, after rather a search, found the passage that the Lib Dem had quoted or, rather, distorted. It was not an opinion expressed by the Tory candidate himself but by a local businessman adding to the comment thread. It was a perfectly reasonable observation too. No doubt the Lib Dem candidate was piqued by some mildly disobliging remarks aimed at him in the same posting. Thinking about the whole episode, the disobliging remarks seemed pretty damned convincing. I decided that I didn’t want to support such a snide person, even if by voting Labour I might be helping to let in the Tory (who, as far as I am aware, has conducted a campaign of utter probity).

I didn’t even know the name of the Labour candidate but happily the ballot paper indicates the party (or indeed non-party) that each candidate represents. It’s not many elections ago that the ballot paper only allowed the candidates’ names. An awful lot of random voting must have gone on and, on a paper that listed the candidates alphabetically by surname, those who happened to come near the top must have been favoured. It’s perhaps surprising that Harold Wilson ever got into parliament.

I noticed that all the candidates gave their home addresses except those for the BNP and the English Democrats who simply stated that they live in the constituency. Is this a lie or do they fear unwelcome visitors? I wonder what the rules are concerning this matter.

The last opinion polls of the campaign contain a slight suggestion of a last-minute return to Labour by a measurable amount of the (apparently numerous) undecided. In my observation of elections down the years, it seems to me that late movement in the opinion polls has been significant because the polls are clearly a bit behind the curve on such movement. But I am probably clutching at straws this time. If, as seems likely, the Lib Dems would have done best if the election had been held a week ago and Labour would do best if the election were this time next week, the Tories will benefit most from the election falling today. As with most things in life, I am hoping for the best but braced for the worst.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


On a recent trip to London, I caught up with some friends, some movies and some theatre. What dictated the timing of the visit was the very short run at Sadler’s Wells of the remounting of the Rufus Wainwright opera, Prima Donna. A fellow Rufus fan and I booked for it, having agreed that we were not influenced by the bad reviews the show had received at its world premiere in Manchester last summer, nor by the fact that the Met had turned it down, pleading the handy rationale that they didn’t want to do an opera in French (not an objection that prevents them mounting works by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Debussy or Gounod). Wainwright has been mocked for choosing to have his libretto in French, as if this is somehow pretentious. But he’s Canadian. Everybody in Canada knows French.

We figured that, even were it very bad indeed, it still must be an interesting flop. When it comes to the work of an artist whom you greatly respect, you simply can’t take someone else’s word for it. I’ve adored Rufus since his first album was released in 1998. I knew instinctively from the reviews I read that this would be one for me and so it proved. I’ve bought all his albums since and saw him on tour four or five years ago. My pal – whom I hate – saw both his Judy-Garland-at-Carnegie-Hall concerts in London, the hottest ticket of that year. I think he’s a true original and, at the same time, an authentic, old-fashioned Star of the kind that Garland herself would recognize.

Rufus Wainwright

Cynics scoff, of course, and dismiss a mere “pop star” writing an opera as a vanity project. Far from it. Wainwright knows about opera, knows how it works and has written a proper one, one that in part attracts the level of criticism that it has precisely because no one feels the need to make allowances for it, as they do, say, when Paul McCartney sicks up an oratorio or Sting makes an album of lute music (Sting: The String Album! or vice versa).

Well, my dear, there’s an awful lot wrong with Prima Donna. “Old-fashioned” doesn’t begin to do it justice. John Adams and Harrison Birtwistle need feel no threat; Korngold would not have needed to fear the competition. It’s no less Puccini-esque than the more self-important musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, though in the last scene it takes an unexpected dive into the territory of Charles Ives’ marching bands approaching each other playing diverse music (here, La Marseillaise against a Rufus tune). Generally, the orchestra has way too much to do underneath the relatively straightforward singing line, like an over-orchestrated movie score by Alfred Ralston (eg Oh! What a Lovely War).

Rufus cultivates his Verdi look

The story is piffle and the libretto worse – my pal says that Rufus met the woman who wrote it in a bar – but name me an opera about which you may say more and I’ll point to either a very rare or a very misconceived piece of work. There are really only two elements of any consequence in an opera: the music and the singing of it. Here, in the latter capacity, Janis Kelly was sumptuously splendid as the eponym and, of the rest, I was especially drawn to Rebecca Bottone as a character who, in the opera that Rufus might have written, would be Eve Harrington. Much of the music was simply gorgeous and we were both delighted to be in the theatre while it was being sung and played.

Seeing Prima Donna on the Saturday allowed me to stay over until Tuesday and whiz down to the National to get day seats for The Habit of Art on the Monday, always the least pressed night for a scarce ticket (no sentient being wants to take a train out of London on a Friday, Sunday or Monday). I found myself in a very jolly day-seats queue, many of the queuers stranded in London by the Icelandic volcanic ash and making the best of their unplanned nights. Happily, all the people I was so taken by in the queue got themselves tickets.

Alan Bennett’s latest play imagines a reunion-ish meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in 1972, itself brokered by a further imagining of a bridge between them built by Humphrey Carpenter, biographer of them both, and further yet by a rehearsal of a play about this meeting by a fictional playwright (which is to say, not Bennett himself) written for this very NT wherein we are watching the result. Russian dolls, Chinese boxes, a whispering gallery of perceptions, misperceptions and degrees of withdrawal: I loved it.

Alan Bennett takes a nice picture

I vividly remember a BBC2 sketch show in the early black-and-white days of that channel, written by Bennett and performed by him and others (“what do you think …” Bennett’s chairman asked decisively in a spoof of the Home Service programme The Critics before swivelling to someone who was palpably an actress and continuing: “Kingsley Amis?”). It was called On the Margin. The tapes of all the episodes have been wiped so, unless there are scripts and (better yet) samizdat recordings, the only leavings of this series when Bennett dies will be in the memories of viewers like me (assuming, of course, that Bennett doesn’t outlast us all).

Anyway, a propos On the Margin, Bennett told an interviewer that the jokes he enjoyed best were the ones – there were plenty like this in On the Margin – that were “got” by a very small proportion of the audience. As thirsty-for-intellectual-brownie-points VIth-formers, I and my chum became Bennett’s life-long slaves when he elegantly dropped a name as rare as Ortega Y Gasset in something as demotic as a television comedy show. We knew (we thought we knew) about Ortega Y Gasset. Anyway, we loved the name before – the critical point – Bennett dropped it.

The visitor to The Habit of Art would certainly benefit from a comprehensive grounding in the musico-literary culture of middle-class England over the past eighty years (as indeed she or he would have done when seeing Bennett’s very first stage play, Forty Years On). There are many jokes in it that take no hostages. Withal, however, there is a geniality and a democratic instinct in Bennett ensuring that anyone kind enough to attend will have a good time. I felt privileged that, by virtue of some shared cultural history, I was granted access to some of Bennett’s more mischievous and roguish notions. (Indeed, I have my own history with Humphrey Carpenter but that will have to be aired on another occasion).

Gambon replaced by Griffiths in The Habit of Art

There is a lot going on in The Habit of Art. Vestigial traces testify that the Auden role was written for Sir Michael Gambon who, perhaps, dropped out of playing it because, like the actor Fitz who plays Auden in the play-within-the-play, he can no longer retain complicated lines. There are traces of left-over business from the last collaboration between Bennett, director Sir Nick Hytner and some of the cast: The History Boys. The new play is probably too rarefied to follow its predecessor before the movie cameras. Happily, though, the NT is giving it a healthy, long run and almost all those who would deeply relish it – which is to say, anyone with wit, taste, inquisitiveness, a sense of humour and an ounce of susceptibility to thoughtful writing – have (or should make) the opportunity to catch it.

Alex Jennings as Britten, Richard Griffiths as Auden

The other theatre I saw paled in comparison. David Hare’s The Power of Yes, also at the National, purported to be an investigation into the economic crisis, a perfectly laudable quest. Sir David bristles at the suggestion that this and others of his recent works are “mere journalism” but if he doesn’t want them thought to be such he shouldn’t write them like that. Of this vein in his work, I didn’t see The Permanent Way, which opinion that I value deems to be the best of them. I certainly preferred Stuff Happens, which treats of the invasion of Iraq and, because it depicts real people whom we know in imagined dialogues, has a brio that seduces. The Power of Yes, by contrast, draws on opinions collected from many expert and less-expert sources and, because we are not familiar with their individual styles and argot, they don’t especially hold us. The play plays like the homework of a particularly eager exam-swotter.

At a Saturday matinee at the Royal Court, I saw Laura Wade’s Posh. I wonder if the theatre would have mounted it had the coincidence of an imminent election not arisen. Wade’s bilious comedy depicts (under a pseudonym) the infamous Bullingdon Club to which David Cameron and Boris Johnson belonged while at Oxford. As far as it goes, the depiction is fair enough but I wanted it to go rather further in one direction or another. What Wade gave us was somewhat pat and formally not very interesting. From where I sat at least, it was hard to tell the young blades apart and I think that was a lack in the writing, not merely that they were all wearing the semi-Ruritanian uniforms of the club. In plays like this, you know it will turn ugly and so you’re braced for that in a state of more or less dread. That puts a lot of weight on the denouement but here it was simply not strong enough.

At the Almeida, I saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined by Lynn Nottage. This was absorbing and instructive insofar as it dealt with a subject that I – and I suspect most of us – know little about, namely the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, it depicts the lives of (mostly) women under warfare in a pretty generalised way so in practice I learned precious little about that conflict or that country. Nottage evidently took Brecht’s Mother Courage as her starting point – indeed, she told The Observer that Judi Dench’s assumption of that role was the best theatre performance she had ever seen. I wouldn’t even agree that Dench’s was the best Courage I had ever seen but we’ll give her that.

It was bracing to see a play in which just about everyone on stage was black and there were black people in the audience too, just a few though that’s more than at any other theatre I attended. But Ruined was like so much else that comes from the American theatre: it was a very well-made, character-driven play but it wasn’t remotely bold or imaginative in any theatrical sense. That I thought was a great pity and rather a condemnation of the Pulitzer jury.

Colin Firth, Nicholas Hoult in A Single Man

At the pictures, I saw A Single Man, Tom Ford’s realization of the Christopher Isherwood novel of 1964. As Hollywood dramatizations go, this is remarkably faithful to the book, given that the latter is so internalized and reflective. Ford finds a filmic equivalent to it in tone and pace and makes a shrewd choice in casting as the ex-pat English professor Colin Firth, who rewards him by turning in the performance of his career. I haven’t seen the Jeff Bridges hooey that pipped Firth to the best actor Oscar but BAFTA loyally preferred Firth.

Ford’s background in the arty end of fashion shoots provided an irresistible stick with which knee-jerk commentators duly beat him but in truth the movie is much better than that. Indeed, Ford gets just right those things that proper movie directors get right, rather than pouring all his judgment into the look of the thing. The casting is pitch perfect so that Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult, each playing a character from the side of the Atlantic opposite to their own, are both absolutely accurate, in the way they move and hold themselves and look at Firth’s George as well as in the technical business of getting the accents true.

Two scenes caught my eye as being pure auteur work: a subtly teasing sequence in which George, who has determined to kill himself, is waylaid but not ultimately detained by a handsome Spanish hustler in a parking lot (a superb exercise in control of dynamics through camera placement and editing) and a little encounter nearby in which George, who has lost his pet dogs as well as his lover in an accident (though one of the dogs is unaccounted for), leans through a woman’s automobile window and, for the longest time, draws deeply through his nose the familiar scent of the dog’s head before observing that such terriers all “smell like buttered toast”. The woman plays her moment of gently swelling concern with exquisite understatement: we shall surely see more of her.

Ewan McGregor, Jim Carrey in I Love You, Phillip Morris

Another gay story – and a rum do altogether – was I Love You, Phillip Morris. Having been given bum information by the cinema box office, I missed the start of this movie and was struggling with what I should make of it when it popped into my head that I had read somewhere that it was a true story (doubtless declared at the movie’s outset), at which point it began to fall into place. A conman tale even more left-field and extravagant than Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, it takes its time to reach the central plot line which concerns the myriad ways in which our conman tries to keep himself and his lover simultaneously out of jail. A Single Man only got made because Tom Ford could afford to bankroll it himself and this one clearly got made only because Jim Carrey wanted to do it. As it’s never got distribution in the States, he clearly won’t “make that mistake” again, which is a pity and doesn't augur well for other gay-themed projects. I find Carrey’s gurning pretty unwatchable at the best of times, but this movie keeps a lot of that in check and Ewan McGregor’s gentle eponym is a balancing flavour. But it’s a curiosity. Incidentally, a friend observed that Carrey, being the star, always had to be "a top" in the sex scenes but I'm not sure that that has any other than sociological interest ...

I also caught Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – as with Up, I stopped noticing that it was in 3D almost immediately. It’s suitably Burtonish but, because the casting of Johnny Depp requires the Mad Hatter’s role to be greatly expanded, the movie becomes unbalanced and a bit aimless. I wouldn’t have seen Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, but that it was the only thing I could find that fitted the space I had left in my day. I wasn’t sure if you were even allowed to buy a ticket if you hadn’t already seen the first McPhee film but it seemed not to matter. Set in an England nearly as fantastical as that of the Hollywood live-action version of 101 Dalmatians, it passes the time amiably enough and, with Emma Thompson scripting as well as playing the nanny, it manages to be tolerably literate and witty. My heart almost stopped to see Maggie Smith gamely making bricks without straw as a mad old woman. (I must have missed or snoozed through the opening credits). Later on, her husband is played by Sam Kelly, rather younger but one of the very few actors who could hold his own in comedy opposite Dame Mags. I spent most of the movie wondering who was the charming and highly accomplished English actress cast as the mother before suddenly twigging that it was the American Maggie Gyllenhaal getting English impeccably right. How small these modern young performers make the world seem.

Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti in Io sono l'amore

But the most entrancing movie I saw was I Am Love. It’s a ghastly title but the original Italian, Io sono l’amore, is actually no better. Never mind. Set in Milan, around Sanremo and, rather unexpectedly, in London, it examines a vastly wealthy couturier family plunging into changing times. I remembered reading of an imminent movie that was fictionalising the Zegna dynasty and was interested to look out for it, Ermenegildo Zegna being my favourite designer of shirts. This has to be that movie. When I first visited Milan aged seventeen, I thought it the dullest, ugliest place, inferior even to somewhere like Walsall. But here, its wealthy quarter first seen under snow, the heady quality of what will unfold is quickly established.

Tilda Swinton, who was instrumental in the picture getting made, plays the wife of the man who becomes head of the family during the course of the story. She is Russian rather than Italian and, paradoxically, about the only main character not required to speak English in the course of things. The story concerns relations with her children and the rough diamond friend of her son. The developments and, even more, the atmosphere within which they take place are intoxicatingly compelling. It’s soap of course, but Castile soap. I loved it. And it connected up nicely with the other movie I liked best, A Single Man, because of course the House of Zegna designed for Tom Ford’s Madison Avenue store. Yes, a small world indeed.