Thursday, December 30, 2010


Recently Google published its annual survey of search criteria, which survey it is pleased to call Zeitgeist. Hardly any of the names featured on the list means anything to me, so I am clearly well outside the zeitgeist. I suspect, though, that, unlike me, most of those who have sought the persons on the list never have cause to use the term zeitgeist in any other context (unless, of course, there is a pop combo, unknown to me, called Zeitgeist – which seems perfectly likely).

This blog, like many (most?) others, features a visitor counter to keep me (and indeed my readers) abreast of the rate of visits made to the site. It appears as a numeral framed off-centre in an elongated rectangle predominantly of yellow on the right side of the screen, below the archive list, the “about me” paragraph, the site search box and the roster of regular readers, stubbornly stuck at five (go on, register: it costs nothing). The counter, as it declares, is supplied by and it is a free service.

Blog Patrol gives me access to quite a lot of useful information about my visitors. Not their identities or their email addresses, you will be relieved to know, but their countries of origin (which always fascinates and thrills me as I imagine readers in circumstances, cultures and time zones far removed from my own) and the specific search criteria of those who have arrived by search engine. This last information is the most electrifying of all.

By a long stretch, the single search term that has brought more visitors than any other to this blog (and continues to do so) has been Elin Nordegren. I first mentioned her, rather in passing, when I wrote about her then husband, Tiger Woods, at the time that his life and golfing career first began to unravel (‘Go Get ’im, Tiger’ November 29th 2009). Because the photograph of her that I found through Google Images was so amusing – she looks, if she will forgive me, like the archetypal gentlemen’s club cocktail waitress that seems to be the type to which Woods is unfailingly drawn – I included the image in the posting. For a while, my visitor numbers went through the roof. Never slow to capitalise on a good thing, I attempt to repeat the trick here:

Here she is, boys, back by popular demand: Elin Nordegren

The other big draw – at least at the time – was William Hague and his bedroom-sharing escapade with his aide Chris Myers (‘Don’t Be Vague …’ August 28th 2010 and ‘Smear Studies’ September 5th 2010). This blog was almost the first to name Hague, way before the print and broadcast media did so, and that, I imagine, generated much of the traffic. Hague survived, Myers didn’t, which is the way round you would expect with Tories.

Somebody came several times to this blog with the search “HAGUE AND Myers sitting in a tree” (searcher’s use of upper case). I hope he found what he was looking for, but if it was a photographic image or a reported sighting, I never came across it myself.

A great many people got very exercised about the Hague/Myers matter. A man living within walking distance of us wrote to The Sunday Times complaining that it was a pretty poor show when two chaps couldn’t thriftily share a room without people making something of it. I wrote in reply, pointing out that this wasn’t a case of two teenaged backpackers on a budget cycling tour bunking down together, it was a millionaire Foreign Secretary and a man young enough to be his son whose entire career depended on the older man’s patronage, but the paper obviously thought this was too extreme to publish.

The Moet & Chandon room at the Hotel Du Vin in Birmingham where, staff confirm, William Hague entertained his young fellow spartan

Other search criteria have been considerably more perplexing. I have had visitors looking for references to eBay and to Michael Jackson. When I checked just now, there were approximately 215 million results of a Google search for the late Jacko and 425 million for the on-line trading site. I do not imagine – and do not imagine that I tested the theory – that the two mentions of Jackson in my blog index (there may be other unlinked references) appear in the first 214.5 million of those results or that the three mentions of eBay are ever again likely to be reached in a Google search. Whoever came to my blog on his (her? – no, surely his) quest for stuff on Jackson must have devoted hundreds of hours to that quest before getting to me and, on visiting Common Sense, been deeply disappointed. Not even a pic! Here’s one as consolation:

Jacko or at least a fair facsimile

Another search that must have required a multitude of stops before it arrived at this blog was the question: is ed miliband circumcised (searcher’s lower case and lack of question mark). As the Labour leader is Jewish, I think the answer is an unforeskinned conclusion, but why ask me?

Some devotee of James Lundie has sought him on this site, once accounting him “handsome” and once “fit”. The James Lundie who once appeared here is the partner of the former coalition cabinet minister David Laws. There also seems to have been a Scottish footballer of that name (not knowingly referred to by me before) but of course “fit”, in modern parlance, can mean, nicely defined as well as regularly exercising.

One search that made me smile was “Simon Longland leaves Harrods”. This evidently had not exactly been a headline across the international press. I put it into Google myself and was informed that there were no results if the line was placed in quotes. Without the quotes, there were 576 results, the first three of them pieces from The Financial Times about this Longland character who is – or was – fashion accessories general merchandise manager at Harrods’. This blog was listed eighth, on the strength of my referring to Sir Jack Longland, the late chairman of the wireless quiz My Word, linked up with a different reference on the site to “leaves” in the sense of foliage. It’s this kind of serendipity that makes using search engines a somewhat laborious business.

Another unfamiliar name that brought me a visitor was cited in the search “donna e carroll adultery”. Again searching for the phrase myself, I found this blog listed because I entitled one posting ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ (a piece about the Northern Irish political couple Peter and Iris Robinson). The Mrs Carroll sought appears to have been the subject of a trial in Wisconsin in 1990 at which archaic laws concerning adultery were invoked – it sounds quite diverting. That Google should list my blog under this search seems excessively tenuous.

Two queries about other public figures needlessly brought searchers to this blog: “sue lawley rumour” and “pj proby benefits fraud”. Google appears to carry no satisfaction for anyone wanting to spread a rumour about Ms Lawley and my only reference to her concerned her asking Gordon Brown on Desert Island Discs if he was gay. There was an evidently inconclusive story about the famously trousers-splitting ’60s pop star and a fraud inquiry some years ago but as there has (until now) been no reference to Proby on this blog, it is curious that Google should ever have directed anyone here.

Some of the criteria are just weird. The search itself is weird and any notion that I might provide satisfaction is even weirder. One seeker after truth had as his quarry “the song from movie here on earth where chris klein is drinking by himself in the %”. I’ve seen a few movies so I know who Chris Klein is and the search makes a bit more sense when you know that Here on Earth is a movie title. Klein was a coming man a decade ago but is so no longer and, my enquiries reveal, has, as it happens, been in and out of alcohol-related rehab. But this is his debut on my blog.

Here are some other searches that have disturbed this quiet corner of the net:
– chappie-shasta ohv 1990 Dedicated to Chappie
– como ter um bumbum como os dregs quij
– bruce1btrfancy wheel 60[1]
– 2010 GMTC steel &metals market research Bars rank
– youtube zonal restriction
– winking 101 in russia1 acter
– show iqra carner in min caster
– beaumondeau
– sweet words of pismotality
– the heights where is big coke is processed
Why any of these searches should bring their perpetrators to my blog is most mysterious. The last appeared in Cyrillic and I used some ingenuity to get all the letters reproduced but they have not been retained as I determined them in transferring to the blog.

However, these mysterious quests all add to the gaiety of nations and, as far as I am concerned, such visitors are all most welcome, no matter how eccentric their requirements. Come one, come all, I say.

For the sake of balance, here is a recent portrait of Miss Ann Widdecombe

Now, any idea what this is? –

“The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up north”.

Well, it’s the verse, usually omitted (certainly by Bing Crosby in his most famous version) of Irving Berlin’s imperishable seasonal standard ‘White Christmas’. And of course it goes some way to explaining the particular yearning quality of the song. People in California and other southern and western states, especially those who have moved there, are rather apt to envy those in the north and east of the US the more wintry weather that they often experience. If you want to hear the song complete with verse and not just with refrain, go to Phil Spector’s vintage album, A Christmas Gift for You (the first real collectable pop album, released in 1963), where Darlene Love sings it very nicely; or the first of Barbra Streisand’s two magnificent Yule collections, A Christmas Album of 1967 or Bette Midler’s Cool Yule CD of 2006.

White Christmas? Bah. Technically, a white Christmas is one on which snow is recorded as falling on the day. Various parts of Scotland had a white Christmas. But everyone else in Britain saw nothing but white for weeks and we were sick to the back teeth of it by Christmas Day. Yes, I know southern California and even Los Angeles actually had flooding (most bizarre) and that blizzards have brought the eastern seaboard to a standstill in the last few days, but these people are johnny-come-latelys. Since the third week of October, there have only been three days, at the start of this month, when there wasn't lying snow in the UK and since those three days it's been deep and crisp and even, turning to impacted, frozen and frankly dangerous. Over the last couple of days, a steady thaw has set in and suddenly there’s the unfamiliar view of grass and pavements and roofs. But there’s further snow in the forecast. The boffins are now saying that this has been the coldest December in Britain since 1890. I don't doubt it.

Anyway, our celebrations were put on metaphorical as well as actual ice. My partner and I were both ill for the duration, he much more than me (and he is the chef), and what’s more while he is a brilliant nurse and I an ideal patient, the reverse cannot be said to apply. So the seasonal fare all went into the freezer, the presents finally got opened on Wednesday night and still it is largely a house of sickness. I don’t somehow think there will be much wassailing at New Year’s here either. So bah. And humbug.

I blubbed my way through the concluding pair of episodes of Ugly Betty, shown back-to-back in Britain on E4 the other week. I’m sorry to see the show end, because it has certainly diverted me over its four-year run, but that wasn’t what got me blubbing. Nor was it the playing out of Betty’s own particular (peculiar) career path. No, it was the resolution of the treatment of Betty’s kid nephew that got to me. Justin’s subplot has traced the growth of a gay boy from 12 to 16, really without ever putting a foot wrong, a remarkable achievement in a mainstream US television comedy drama. Whether the Colombian show from which it derives, Yo soy Betty, la fea, is quite so enlightened, I cannot say.

Happy 2011 to all my readers.

Monday, December 20, 2010


A couple of postings ago (‘Messenger Shooting’ December 5th), I mentioned an unpublished letter that I had sent to The Guardian in response to David Hare’s “hymn of praise” (as I called it) for Simon Callow, who frequently reviews theatre-related books for the paper. Sir David’s review of – or rather disquisition upon – Callow’s collected occasional pieces along with a new biography of Sarah Bernhardt may be read here:

You may wonder, as I did, whether the world is truly short of books telling us how wonderful actors are. Sir David requires to keep actors as a breed rather sweeter than do the rest of us because they are the ones who bring the majority of his important words to us.

My letter went like this:

“Dear Madam,

The paperback edition of Simon Callow’s Love is Where It Falls (Penguin 2000) was prominently adorned with a quotation from David Hare: ‘Exquisite … Perhaps the best theatrical memoir of our day’. As a theatrical memoir was precisely what the book wasn’t, one naturally fell to wondering whether Sir David had indeed troubled to open it.

The puffing of one’s friends, particularly in the books pages, is a harmless and timeless sport, save when it perpetrates an injustice. In further beatifying Mr Callow (Give actors a break, November 20), Sir David commits several of these, not least the rendering of Sir Antony Sher as hors de combat in his gathering of an imagined consensus around the notion that Callow is ‘the best writer-actor we have’.

Having been (I thought) woefully miscast as Mozart in the original stage production, Callow fared better in the much smaller role of Schikaneder in Milos Forman's movie of Amadeus

Finding himself in general agreement with Callow on individual actors reinforces Sir David’s admiration. They evidently concur that Paul Scofield was ‘the supreme actor’, in whom they detected ‘emotional wisdom’. The tired technicalities and career-spanning mannerisms of Scofield find a contemporary mirror in Sir Ian McKellen, whose wheels may be observed noisily turning in every performance. Hare does manage to name one player with a genuine gift for accuracy of reading and truth of effect in Penelope Wilton, for me the Celia Johnson of our generation – now there was an actress whose economy of means and unerring emotional authenticity was supreme, but her stage work is forgotten, far more so than that dear old ham o’ the halls, Sir Peter Ustinov [whom Hare had bogglingly described in his piece as ‘forgotten’].

As to the resentment that Hare detects towards actors among journalists, I merely observe that, as one of a multitude squeezed out of a journalistic career in recent years by the daily invasion into our trade of actors, comedians and, I dare say, playwrights, I will be pleased to slap down any actor who crosses my path, however fêted.

Yours faithfully,”

That Hare and Callow are old chums may not be doubted. In the index to Callow’s first book [Being an Actor 1984], there are more references to Hare than to anyone else save for Laurence Olivier, Callow’s hero.

When I first came to London in the mid-1960s, I immediately began to haunt the Old Vic. At this lovely old theatre, Olivier’s National Theatre Company were in residence and presenting a revolving repertoire of (mostly) classics with the occasional new play. I saw everything they mounted there. Though I retain no memory of his face, I remember that there was one noisy, chirpy, flirtatious chappie often on duty in the box office. It was only after I got to know him about a decade later that I was able to confirm that this was certainly Master Callow.

Never perform with children or animals

The first of Simon’s acting performances that I saw would have been his role in Martin Sherman’s Passing By, presented by Gay Sweatshop at the Almost Free Theatre off Shaftesbury Avenue. Gay Sweatshop – which came to be known to its familiars as Sweaties – was an attempt to establish a tradition of theatre that addressed homosexual issues of all kinds. It was set up by Roger Baker, Gerald Chapman, Drew Griffiths and Laurence Collinson – all of them now dead – and, after a perilous start, it attracted Arts Council funding and enjoyed a bumpily productive run for several years. The other actor in that inaugural season to catch my eye was a South African called Antony Sher.

I don’t recall the occasion upon or circumstances in which I first properly met Simon – it turned out that we had quite a few friends in common, as was apt to occur on the London gay scene (or, I dare say, on the gay scene anywhere) – but I was gravely informed by a mutual friend later that Simon found me “the most sexually exciting man” whom he had met all year. And, before you ask, we met in November. So I was predisposed to look upon him favourably. At what point we bumped into each other at Bang disco – the only place to be, in those days, on a Monday night – and found ourselves back at my place, I cannot now recall. But we passed a jolly night.

Thereafter, I followed his career with particular interest. And in those days, Simon Callow was beginning to be a name to drop. He was terrific in Mary Barnes, Epsom Downs and A Mad World, My Masters. The critics loved him and he caught the eye generally but he was yet very much a star of what was still a new movement in the theatre: the London fringe.

The birthplace of fringe theatre was the Edinburgh Festival, where indeed Callow had first trodden the boards. In August 1978, when I was a drama producer at BBC Birmingham, I went to the overlapping Edinburgh Television Festival, then in its infancy. Following a screening at Film House one afternoon, I sat down in the lounge area with various industry pals while we loudly discussed what we had just seen. Already at the table where we sat was a strikingly beautiful young man, whose eye I caught. As I carried on being dazzling with my chums, I found myself playing kneesie with this vision and, whenever I caught his eye again, he dissolved into smiles. As far as I could see, my colleagues (one of whom, bizarrely, was a woman with whom I had earlier been involved) were unaware of this private romantic comedy. Then we all got up to go, having a reception to attend and, thereafter, a party. I turned to my new friend and invited him to join us – which, to my delight, he readily did.

His name was Aziz Yehia. His late father had been what Aziz termed a pasha in Egypt – pasha is in fact a Turkish word – and the family had been driven out under Nasser’s rule. Aziz always described his mother as “a Turkish peasant”; she lived in Switzerland where Aziz had citizenship. He had divided his growing years between Zurich and Los Angeles. In both locations, the Yehias seem to have mixed with a movie crowd: the Gene Kellys, the William Holdens, Kay Kendall (who supposedly dropped the baby Aziz from her lap when drunk), Marlene Dietrich and so on. Sydney Guilaroff, a name familiar from thousands of Hollywood credits, did his mother’s hair.

Aziz was then a student at the National Film School in Beaconsfield. He was wholly a movie brat, but very much in a glossy, romantic tradition, the sort of fare that he would have seen constantly while growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. He fancied himself as Audrey Hepburn, in whose elfin image he was certainly cast by nature. He liked to tease me with Audrey’s most charming lines: “Do you know what’s wrong with you? Nothing”.

But he was also damaged goods, as indeed seemed to be everyone with whom I discovered a mutual attraction. He was clearly what we now call bipolar. When in one of what he called his “black lagoons”, there was no reaching him. Even when he was up, he drank suicidally strong coffee first thing and later Carlsberg Special Brew, the tipple of serious drunks.

Callow, always a colourful character

All that aside, he and I had a delightful relationship that extended through the better part of a year. We went to a lot of theatre and cinema together and one riveting occasion was a revival of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the tiny Half Moon Theatre in Aldgate. The lead was taken by Simon Callow. The night we saw it, he had an explosive, streaming cold. In the role, he wore a clownish false nose on an elasticated string. His cold poured out around this nose. At his fittest, Simon is an exudative performer, perspiring and spitting and generally leaving a trail of mucus, snot, sputum and sweat. On this night, the audience was drenched in bodily fluids.

In the pub afterwards, I introduced Simon to the highly excited Aziz. We lathered the star with praise. Looking back, I think this was probably his finest piece of work. Another evening, Aziz and I had dinner with friends I had made through my fan-like attachment to Sweaties: Peter Whitman and Alan Pope. Also present were Simon and his then boyfriend, the actor Robin Hooper. After dinner, we were prevailed upon to play a sort of variation of the television game Mr & Mrs, rather against my better judgment. Alan and Peter, the longest established couple, won this easily. I found I did not much enjoy Aziz and I being asked searching questions about our relationship, especially when I gave answers that I thought tactful and kind and then Aziz contradicted me.

I doubt that this was any kind of augury of the end of our relationship. Nor do I think that Aziz began to see Simon before we broke up. A decent interval passed after we agreed to go our separate ways before I heard that Simon and Aziz were an item. Not everyone thought them well suited. I recall one member of Simon's circle saying that he thought Aziz played the “beauty and the beast” card a little too obviously.

At some point in their relationship, Aziz lost his right to stay in Britain. He returned to Switzerland from whence I occasionally heard from him. His depressions not surprisingly deepened. In 1982, my then flat-mate Phil Taft took his own life. Aziz, who had known and rather scorned Phil’s skittishness and youth (he was ten years younger than me, seven younger than Aziz), was electrified by this event. Two years later, he followed suit.

When Callow published the aforementioned Love is Where It Falls, I decided not to rush to read it, having swiftly learned that Aziz figured in it as well as its second lead (after Simon himself), Peggy Ramsay. But I inadvertently blundered into the author reading from the book late at night on the BBC World Service and then could not switch off. The first thing that struck me was that Callow pronounced his late lover’s name as As-is. He had introduced himself to me – and I had always known him as – As-ease. This was strange.

What Simon writes of Aziz in the book only occasionally chimes with what I knew and/or would have written. His characterization of the boy as some kind of intellectual is perfectly absurd, the kind of exorbitance that, pace David Hare, only an actor would reach for. My sole appearance in the account is this: “[Aziz] and I had met some two and a half years before. He had then been involved with a mutual friend, but in the fullness of time, this involvement had come to an end, and I had seized my moment” [p 22]. “A mutual friend” is a curiously inapt phrase but, along with the variations on the notion of being “involved”, it seems to argue from Simon’s perspective that my relationship with Aziz was to be discounted in the light of his own grand passion. He doesn’t mention, also, that I acted (brilliantly, I can confidently add) in one of the short films made by Aziz at Beaconsfield, to which Simon alludes. I can’t help remembering, too, that a resonant backdrop to all this is Callow’s earlier feeling declared about me.

The unbridled account of Simon’s mourning after Aziz’ death is hard for a non-theatrical to take. One part, coming after the lovingly detailed description of his first expressions of emotion, particularly sticks in my craw: “the days were filled with telling his friends and mine what had happened. They already knew, of course; such news seems to pass around almost before it’s happened, but they needed to hear it from me, and I needed to tell it to them” [p 125]. All, that is, except the “mutual friend”, whom Simon didn’t think to call until Aziz had been dead over a week. And I didn’t already know because all our other mutual friends assumed that Simon would have told me. That left a bitter taste that has yet to go away.

Simon describes a week he spent on Capri “howling like an animal, till my throat was sore” [p 129] yet is in love with someone else within eight pages, like any actor ringing down the curtain on one role and rushing off to the next read-through. Is it any wonder if I find actors a shallow breed?

Apart from a passing encounter in the auditorium before one of the last shows at the lamented Mermaid Theatre, I have not seen Simon Callow to speak to in many years. In 1998, I left a message on his answering machine because I wanted to pick his brains about the control of emotion when one is reading to an audience – I was going to recite a Shakespearean sonnet at my father’s funeral and I once heard Simon read the entire sonnet-sequence, stumbling only over the most famous (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) – but he never returned my call.

In truth, Simon Callow is one of the most personally generous people I have ever known. The generosity of his laughter is known to anyone who has ever sat in the same audience as him. He is, in all things, profligate and no one is ever in want when he is near.

I once wrote a stage play of which I felt rather proud. I had hugely enjoyed Tony Harrison’s rhyming-couplets translation of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, with which the National Theatre had a huge hit, starring Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg. Under its influence, I wrote a comedy in rhyming couplets called The Secretive Agent, wherein a London literary agent was comprehensively embarrassed by a sudden visit from his parents, whose dull suburbanism he wished to keep from his circle and from whom he wished to keep his own homosexuality. I don’t suppose for a moment that the satire was either very penetrating or very correct but I believed that I had handled the discipline of the verse with considerable niftiness.

Simon read the play and was kindly about it. He was more than kindly; he offered to arrange a reading of it at his flat. He and I between us recruited a stellar cast (Miriam Margoles, Pam St Clement, Drew Griffiths). He supplied the food and drink and the paper and printing machine upon which I ran off enough copies for the cast to read. He was enormously supportive but the reading taught me that the play really didn’t work.

With (right) Sir Antony Sher and (centre) Gregory Doran (Lady Sher)

But he also did something odd. On another occasion I had told him that I wanted to write a play for him, entitled The Private Life of Charles Laughton. I knew of his obsession with this extraordinary actor – he later wrote a book about him and played (excitingly) Perelli in the gangster saga On the Spot and (not too well) Brecht’s Galileo, two of Laughton’s signature roles – and I thought he could embody Laughton, whose life as a self-hating, closeted gay man was certainly powerful. I told him that I thought Zoë Wanamaker would be wonderful as Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife (then still alive).

Some time later, I ran into him at a watering hole where he was holding court – in those days, Simon frequently had a claque about him – and he suddenly started talking about the notion of a play about Laughton, claiming it and the casting of Wanamaker as his own idea. I was astonished and resolved that instead I should write the play for the up-coming Simon Russell Beale who anyway was already the better actor. I never wrote it, needless to add.

But it is the failure of Callow’s promise as an actor that is the most distressing aspect of his career. In the ’70s, he was marked for leading the profession. Dusty Hughes, then the theatre editor at Time Out, remarked that he would be the first knighted actor of our generation. But he wasn’t. That honour fell to Tony Sher. I don’t know whether Callow and Sher were great rivals or whether such rivalry is something I imagine. For a long time, their lives and careers ran in parallel, even to the point that when Simon was stepping out with Robin Hooper, Sher’s boyfriend was Robin’s actor brother Jim.

But a chasm opened up because Tony started to scale all the peaks of the classical stage and Simon never did. The only Shakespeare roles he has taken are a rather unlikely Orlando in As You Like It at the National, in which he was the first ever Orlando who was clearly never in danger of losing the wrestling match, and Titus Andronicus at the Bristol Old Vic (which I didn’t see). He played Falstaff at Chichester, but in Orson Welles’ restructuring of Henry IV parts 1 & 2 as The Chimes at Midnight (Welles is an even greater Callow obsession than Laughton). That was his only performance that I ever got to review and I said that he would grow into it but in truth it was terrible.

All his vanity projects have been disastrous. There was the only movie he has directed, a rendering of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café, which was a doggedly comprehensive hommage to the only film that Laughton ever directed, itself an hommage to DW Griffith, The Night of the Hunter. The gulf between them is that the Laughton was gradually recognised as a knockdown masterpiece whereas the Callow is, and I confidently predict will remain, forgotten. Then there was his stage version of Marcel Carné’s rapturous movie Les enfants du paradis, which we knew long before we saw it lose the RSC a huge fortune to be a truly wretched idea.

Callow’s trouble – not uncommon among thespians or among outgoing, ebullient, generous-hearted non-thespians – is that he finds it impossible to say no to anything or anyone. Tony Sher has chosen wisely and discriminatingly and planned the arc of his career with imagination and wonderful timing. He’s also much the better writer, of fiction and drama as well as books about acting. He has not enjoyed the success that Simon has had in movies but the Callow filmography is all over the place and the clear successes have not depended on his participation. His turn in Four Weddings and a Funeral is charming and touching, largely because he is pretty much playing himself, but the most affecting thing about it is the reciting of Auden’s verse by John Hannah as his bereaved lover at his funeral and the most haunting thing about that – which, to my amazement, I have never seen remarked in print – is Hannah’s facial resemblance to Aziz Yehia.

But for every Room with a View or No Man’s Land, there is an Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls or a Thunderpants. And Simon’s willingness, nay eagerness to fling off his clothes at every opportunity – to the point where, at one time, we thought the requirement must be a clause in his standard contract – is no longer sought by producers or front of house.

If there are two classes of person the young Callow excoriates in Being an Actor, they are directors and critics. Needless to say, he went on to practice both professions. I remember going to see him in Restoration, a revisionist restoration comedy at the Royal Court. I “went round” afterwards – a theatrical ritual that I loathe and only ever did regularly for Simon (and once for Tony Sher) – and he had no topic of conversation but the iniquity of Edward Bond who had not attended the press performance the night before, which sin Simon could almost forgive in him as the writer but not at all as the director. Nothing, he declared, should keep a director from seeing the cast through the first night. Not so very long after that, I heard him interviewed on the radio about his direction of a play out of town, whose first night, he mentioned en passant, he would not be able to attend.

I find him useless as a critic because he is a wholly uncritical enthusiast. He mostly reviews books about practitioners of theatre and/or film and he loves them all. Simon is one of those people – perhaps the leading one – who positively invites the properly despised term “luvvie” because he embodies every trait that that term seeks to parody. He talks and writes about actors as though they are pioneers, heroic and creative. They are not. They are gypsies and vagabonds, hired to flesh the imaginations of truly creative artists. It makes my blood boil to see actors described as having “created” a role. The playwright created the fucking role, you morons. And don’t start trying to bring things to the script. Try finding things in it instead.

Simon Callow is not the only person I have known who went on to be famous. He shares with the others the fact that I am no longer in their address books. Fame removes you from real friendships and delivers you into a world of celebrity in which you know all the other members to say hi to and know them like friends barely at all. Since his affair with Aziz, Callow has become very famous and has failed, or so I read, to find a lasting relationship. I only wish him well. I hope he can find someone who values him for himself and not for his fame. And I hope that he can turn down crap projects, refuse a few of his unnecessary reviewing offers and apply himself really self-critically to the senior years of his acting career. He could be a great Lear or a great Krapp if he truly wants to be. He could still be the fine actor he once promised to be, but he doesn’t have a lot of time.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


My own university studies, taken up in the late 1960s, were not wholly a gift from the nation. My generation received student grants but these were means-tested and my father, being relatively comfortable, was obliged to contribute financially to the cost of my further education. Bless him, he never troubled me with knowing at what level he continued to subsidise me even as, for a while, it ominously appeared that I might be turning into what was known as “an eternal student”.

Another tag that attached itself to our generation was that we were “the children of Robbins”. The 1963 report delivered to the government by the committee chaired by Lord Robbins recommended an extensive expansion of higher education and enunciated the principal that university places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment”. The then government embraced the Robbins Report in its entirety. This was, incidentally, a Tory government; Sir Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister just a week before the incumbent Education Secretary, whose services Home had retained, accepted Robbins. He was Sir Edward Boyle, by a wide margin the most liberal education minister the Tories have ever fielded.

Lionel Robbins: our Daddy

Another quotation evokes the climate in which my baby boomer generation grew up, a most delicate and fastidious line that appeared frequently on notices in shops: “Please do not ask for credit as a refusal often offends”. There were no credit cards in those days and only the most disreputable elements in society asked for anything “on terms” or, in the vernacular, “on tick”. To buy furniture and other large items by hire purchase – in other words, on an instalment plan – was thought to betray a low class mentality. Respectable people “paid their way”.

Sir Edward Boyle, more liberal than Vince Cable

The arrival of the Diners’ Club card, then American Express, then Visa and Access and Mastercard transformed all that. Nowadays you’re thought a fool to pay in cash, chequebooks are being phased out and people think nothing of causing a queue to build up at the checkout because they’re waiting for the PIN to go through to pay for a carton of milk on credit.

The mindset that believes that the only way higher education can be financed is on tick and that students should be happy to graduate with substantial burdens of debt built into their futures – futures in which the housing ladder will anyway be out of reach for decades and no pension schemes will take care of them before they are at least 80 – is utterly alien to my generation. “Live now, pay later” was a dreadful warning for us when we were young. “Study now, pay later” is an obligation to any present school pupil hoping to pursue her studies.

You might imagine that the political generation who have lived with the recession that began in 2008 – which originated, you recall, in the sub-prime mortgage fiasco that caused the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the States – would be scrupulously cautious about resorting to credit as a tool of governmental policy. As always, lessons are only learnt when it suits. Universities are expensive and need to be paid for. What better way than to load the cost onto those who, in the crudest terms, benefit most? This is not a party political question. Labour introduced tuition fees. Politicians of all colours are mired in this mess.

The point is made that, for the sake of argument, a welder should not be obliged to stump up for some middle class kiddie sitting on his arse for three years pretending to read media studies. Put like that – in that highly reductive manner – it sounds like a bloody outrage. But we all pay for stuff that does not obviously benefit us. I have no children but I finance general education from nursery to present graduation level. I don’t drive a car, but I pay for roads and – you could say that roads benefit me, though a non-driver, in myriad ways, but you’d be hard put to argue that I derive much benefit from this provision – parking lots. I don’t support – indeed I vehemently oppose – the UK breaching the sovereignty of other nations, but I am still obliged to finance the Afghan War, as I was to pay for the invasion of Iraq. I don’t especially relish funding bankers’ bonuses, Trident, the Olympics, Trooping the Colour or Strictly Come Dancing, but I am not invited to vote on specific disbursements of public funds.

Nick Clegg in his subsidised Ziggy Stardust phase

Moreover, it is extremely narrow to propose that degrees in objective and scientific disciplines are the only ones to bring benefit to the whole of society. I am as disdainful as you are about some of the modern study areas that seem – on the face of it and without our troubling to go into it – indulgent and unprofitable. But whichever way you cut it, the more educated the populace – the electorate – the better.

In broad terms, an extension of general educational attainment benefits the whole of society. To fix such educational attainment in public philosophy as a privilege that must be paid for far into the future by its agents is a destructive and reductive argument. You want your doctor, your solicitor, your children’s teacher, your accountant, your chief constable, your MP, your poet, your philosopher and the maker of your television programmes to be competent and to deliver the goods. So you benefit if they are fully educated. That’s not a bad investment for society to make on your behalf.

The government argues that the deficit requires all to make sacrifices. It’s a seductive but also a reductive argument. Government is a process of choice. Economic policy is not shaped by what is affordable but by what is chosen. I would argue that foreign wars are not affordable. I maintain that everyone knows that the Taliban will take over in Afghanistan within six months at the most of NATO’s withdrawal and therefore that every day further spent in a country that, as history shows, will not yield to foreign invasion is a day – and the lives sacrificed on that day – wasted. But this government, like its predecessors, professes to imagine that building up resentment against ourselves across the Muslim world somehow guarantees the safety of our own streets. So the government chooses to spend money on waging futile war rather than on college provision or any other pressing matter at home. As I put it, they prefer to destroy livelihoods at home so that they can continue to destroy lives abroad.

Vince Cable as a student Macbeth: "Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,/Loyal and neutral in a moment? No man"

And then there is the Lib Dem dilemma. The argument is advanced that the Liberal Democrats have to be "realistic" over tuition fees because they are partaking in a coalition government. I would rather propose that, in making their solemn pledge over tuition fees during the election campaign, the Lib Dems were then being far from realistic. In what circumstance did they anticipate forming a government other than within a coalition? How far – if at all – did they plan for an accommodation in practice with either Labour or the Tories? They sprinkled undertakings like confetti because they did not imagine that they would ever be called upon them. Now, in the harsh glare of administration, the chickens have begun to come home to roost.

So I suggest that the cynicism demonstrated by Nick Clegg and his team resides not so much in the stance on tuition fees that they have taken in government but in the stance that they adopted in opposition. There is a warning here for Ed Miliband and he has shown some realism in resisting the temptation to pledge that a Labour government will repeal the government's measures. It probably won’t do him any immediate electoral good because people are, even now, susceptible to the promises of politicians. But it’s a shrewd move.

Nick Clegg well cast as a supremely arrogant student

There can be little doubt that the Lib Dems will, in the fullness of time, be punished at the ballot box for their antics on this issue. By a quirk of governmental dispensation, it fell to Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, to execute the government’s policy on tuition fees. Cable’s own humming and hahing this last week about how he might vote has made him look a fool. Nick Clegg as deputy PM and Lib Dem leader has been the lightning rod for the students’ righteous anger. Both of them have been badly wounded by this episode. It’s hard to find much sympathy. We all recall Cable’s lethal thrust, when acting Lib Dem leader, against Gordon Brown at PMQ’s when he noted “the remarkable transformation of the Prime Minister from Stalin to Mr Bean”. This is not yet the moment, but I have readied a letter to The Guardian noting the remarkable transformation of the Business Secretary – whom David Cameron introduced to his new department as “an absolute star” – “from absolute star-turn to Mr Has-Been”.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


On Friday, that nicely assorted pair Jean-Luc Godard and Andy Williams both turned 80. In these straitened times, do you think they combined their celebrations?

On the BBC1 10 o’Clock News on Thursday, the sports editor David Bond posed, by my reckoning, five “big questions” concerning the failed bid to bring the football World Cup to England in 2018. There’s only one question around this matter, in my view, and it’s hardly “big”: why do grown men take this piffling stuff seriously?

Everybody in England seems to believe that FIFA, the governing body of international football, is corrupt from top to toe and that its individual members may be bought for – oh – a designer handbag or some other such trinket. On the other hand, many grumble that some supposed exposé of FIFA corruption, aired on Panorama last Monday (I didn’t see it), hobbled the English bid, even going so far as to accuse the BBC of being “unpatriotic”.

What drivel. If FIFA is corrupt, it should be exposed. Indeed, the FA (the governing body in England) should refuse to have any dealings with it. But they should refuse before World Cup hosting duties are dispensed, not after. After looks like the sour grapes that it undoubtedly is. Had Sepp Blatter and co given the nod to England, we should now be hearing how wise and farsighted FIFA is.

And what possible sense would it make for Panorama to hold over its report until the World Cup was not news? Don’t football people grasp the role of topicality in news and current affairs? They don’t report on matches several weeks afterwards, do they? Putting the programme out later would certainly have smacked of sour grapes.

The assigning of the World Cup 2018 to Russia (and in 2022 to Qatar) was met with various disobligingly racist remarks among vox pops gathered and lovingly transmitted by the BBC. For my taste, anyone involved in professional football, either as player, manager, administrator or commentator, is a Neanderthal twonk, whether they are Russian, Argentinian, Thai, Kenyan, English or Qatari. But I don’t think I’d tell that to a BBC news researcher on camera.

Various suits were dragged onto the news bulletins to essay how many kersquillions of pounds “losing” the World Cup 2018 will have set back the English game. I doubt it. Everyone knows that the bloody Olympics in 2012 are going to leave this country even more poverty-stricken than it is now, save those in a position successfully to leech off such five-ring circuses.

As to whether Vladimir Putin “played a blinder” by staying away from Zurich, I cannot guess. Certainly the embarrassing platitudes being peddled by David Cameron, David Beckham and – if imaginable, even worse – by Prince William cannot have done an iota of good for the supposed “cause”. The idea that the English “love” their football more than any other nationality is plainly false. And keenly wanting something has never been a major qualification for actually receiving it, unless you happen to be a child with a doting parent and your birthday or Yule imminent.

What seems most likely is that Blatter determined that Russia would have the tournament from the very outset of the exercise and that his fellow judges were happy to be guided by him. Russia has never hosted the World Cup before, which cuts off at the knees English bleats about the “long wait” since 1966. Neither has Qatar. The sense of outraged entitlement emanating from the English camp – “there’s never been a World Cup in England in my lifetime” wept Cameron, born three months too late – sits ill beside all those nations that have never been preferred. His predecessor in Downing Street, fifteen years Cameron’s senior, could say the same about his country and his lifetime, because Scotland has never been accorded the privilege. “Sour grapes are coming home” seems to be the main message of this shaming spectacle.

Also getting the English bleat going lately has been that perennial favourite, the weather. I don’t doubt that being stuck for ten hours overnight on a train in Kent is an ordeal one would not seek, but I also think that rather a lot is put on the transport operatives, the local councils and others who are expected to wave some magic wand over deep snow and black ice. The first casualty of such conditions is mobility; lack of mobility is the element that causes the greatest difficulty for the services trying to relieve those stuck or stranded. It’s impossible to grit a road if that road is blocked by jack-knifed juggernauts.

The point has been well made that most countries experiencing the grip of severe weather do so on a regular and predictable basis. But Britain’s weather – especially England’s (there’s a lot less fuss being made in Scotland, where they don’t talk airily and ignorantly of “Arctic conditions”) – is as variable as any in the world. We have not had such severe conditions as early as November – still autumn, after all – for as long as most of us can remember. Now it is predicted to linger into next year: the phrase “cold snap” ought to have been retired from reporters’ language long since.

To have the various services on permanent stand-by all year round against the possibility of extreme conditions – deep snow, excess cold, flash floods, droughts, forest fires – would entail more expense than either governments or voters will stand. Indeed, most of the effort to get the country moving again after a “weather event” is carried out by public sector workers and in winters to come there will be significantly fewer of them available to do that work because of the government cuts.

Meanwhile, the sky has fallen upon the head of Julian Assange, the Australian creator of the WikiLeaks site that has given internet accessibility to hitherto classified material of a wide-ranging kind since 2006. The major disclosure of American and other diplomatic cables over these last few days has provoked a storm of vengeful fury from government and diplomatic spokespeople, some of it clearly designed to put Assange in fear of his liberty if not his life.

Needless to say, a great blast of sanctimonious hot air has blown over this matter. That large tracts of the material was available to as many as three million individuals before it was put into a more obviously public domain has rather reduced the grounds for official complaint. Moreover, there is no evidence that any disclosure by WikiLeaks in the current crop or among its earlier documentation has put a single individual in heightened danger, save for Assange himself. WikiLeaks has invited the American government to cite instances of individuals being put at risk by the disclosures but, not too surprisingly, the State Department refused to play.

I find myself a little divided on this issue. Naturally one laughs when highly touted and expensive security systems are readily shown to be worthless. In practice, the greatest disadvantage the US authorities seem to have suffered can be put no higher than acute embarrassment. The candid opinions of foreign dignitaries held by US ambassadors and others have been aired when they were certainly not intended for conveyance to those thus belittled.

But I can’t help feeling that no human activity can be successfully pursued if one can never feel that one can speak candidly and in confidence in the hearing of those and only those of one’s choosing. I had rather expected that such a feeling might be shared by others at the time of Gordon Brown’s exasperated remarks about the Labour voter Gillian Duffy that were picked up and broadcast by Sky News. But by then there was so little compassion for the hapless Brown anywhere in the media or the political community that he was universally condemned for the remarks and, it seemed, held uniquely responsible for their dissemination because he happened to be wearing the Sky mic. This was most unjust, as I said at the time in my blog and in an unpublished letter to The Guardian. But nobody then wanted to consider that the whistleblower had some responsibility for the impact of the whistle.

The poetic way for those who have “suffered” at the hands of WikiLeaks to get their own back would be to publish all the private stuff they can find on Assange, especially such that he might find personally embarrassing – his school reports, his adolescent love letters, his clap clinic record. I should not wish to peruse them myself but then life is also too short to bother reading what the US ambassador to St James’s thinks about Mervyn King.

On the subject of letters spurned by The Guardian, that paper ran a three-page tribute to Leslie Nielsen last week. I wrote thus:

Dear Sir,

I enjoyed Leslie Nielsen's performances as much as anyone else did, but I don't rate him as some kind of comic genius. He was an actor who could do a particular kind of traditional comic delivery, deadpan with deadly accuracy. It was the writers who actually created that comedy, but you can bet your boots that, when they go in their turn, they won't be accorded a spread in G2 (November 30) and a selection of their – and I do mean their – "best" lines.

Celebrity culture exactly mirrors the state of western capitalism. We have come to value service industries way above manufacturing. Isn't that putting the cart before the horse?

Yours faithfully,

The paper published a letter from someone else making the narrower point about the specific writers who wrote screenplays that Nielsen spoke. But I liked my parallel between celebrity culture and capitalism and I shall reframe it in a letter on a further subject before too long.

A week or two earlier, The Guardian also passed on my letter in response to a hymn of praise to Simon Callow by Sir David Hare. The paper just doesn’t care for critical letters – and it has championed Callow as a reviewer. Perhaps I shall return to this matter in my next posting, if nothing more compelling presents itself betweentimes.