Tuesday, July 26, 2011


More than a month after its first British television broadcast on BBC2, I finally took a deep breath and watched my recording of the movie version of Disgrace. Why the reluctance? Nothing to do with reviews, previous experience of any of the participants or the subject matter. Far from it. What reviews I have seen range from admiration for achievement to sympathy for gallantry.

The source of my misgiving was as old as cinema; indeed, older – as old as acting out, as performance. And therein lies the problem: how can a piece of prose, of storytelling, of the magic of words seeding responses in the brain (and not necessarily pictorial ones) be made to live to the same degree in the enactments of other people? In its simplest formulation: how can a dramatisation possibly do any sort of justice to fiction?

Well, you may counter: what’s a play written for the stage or radio or television or an original script written for the cinema or for a television film but a piece of enacted fiction? Of course, I respond, but the enactment – indeed the need of enactment – was imprinted in the work’s DNA. The playwright or screenwriter conceived the work and deployed its characteristics for the very purpose of being presented, spoken, clothed and fleshed by actors. The writer was never truly writing for a reader (as a novelist does) but for an actor. That’s why plays and scripts, even though they have their own dynamic and conventions that may well be interesting to examine, generally fail as literature or even as a wholly satisfactory read. Every English teacher will tell you that her class of pupils never really gets to grips with Shakespeare until they’ve made a visit to the RSC or the Bankside Globe. And the most exciting upshot of such a visit is the frequency with which pupils who were previously indifferent to the plays are now fired up and much more ready to be engaged by the printed texts.

That the writer is valued more highly in the theatre than in cinema or broadcasting speaks of the respective origins of these various forms. The stage grew up with the oral tradition of storytelling. Though no doubt there are thousands of lost theatre texts that drew on and paralleled spoken (rather than acted) narratives, a rich body of drama expressly intended for acting has survived from ancient times. Many of these plays, of course, draw on known narratives – histories of struggle and warfare, legends of heroes and divinities, folk tales and handed-down anecdotes. But they were more apt to be written out and preserved than (semi-)spoken narratives that did not exhibit the same degree of theatrical originality. And as dramatic form developed, so dramatists evolved theatrical conventions that distinguished the actor’s craft from that of the narrator.

John Michael Coetzee in South Africa

By the time recording devices of various kinds began to preserve performers’ work, there were centuries of accumulated theatre for the new mediums to draw upon. Recorded stage plays loomed far larger in the early years of film and broadcasting than they do today. Slowly the realisation dawned that ‘story’ rather than (necessarily) ‘drama’ was what most appealed to cinema and broadcasting audiences (as distinct from theatre audiences, no doubt because the live, present quality of theatre itself constitutes a drama that cannot be found in any kind of recording) and that there were many stories embedded in the culture that had not lent themselves (and perhaps could not lend themselves) to the theatre arts. But film, with its freedom to roam beyond the proscenium arch and, latterly, beyond what hitherto was physically impossible, and broadcasting with its unrivalled intimacy and its penetration into the consumer’s home each in its own way trumped the inevitable (and indeed hallowed) conventions of the stage. So nothing that a novelist could imagine was beyond the art of these mediums to realise, freed as they are (unlike the stage) from the limits of what can be done in the present in a defined space.

The dramatic arts are self-evidently expensive, especially in the employment of numbers, in a way that fiction on the page is not. Even a small-cast play is more costly to mount than a Jeffrey Archer is to publish, however well remunerated the author. So, in their constant search for thrift and profit, the dramatic arts are very apt to seek proven successes on which to risk their overheads. No more vivid evidence of this can be found than the modern demand for stage musicals to be taken from hit movies. I can trace little evidence that this practice was better than fitful following a small rash of them in the early 1950s: Make a Wish with a score by Hugh Martin (who died this spring) opened in 1951 and was based on Preston Sturges’ The Good Fairy, itself a movie version of a Molnar stage play; Hazel Flagg, Jule Styne and Bob Hilliard’s 1953 musicalisation of William A Wellman’s sour screwball comedy Nothing Sacred; and a show built upon Jacques Feyder’s adorable romp La kermesse héroïque, brought to Broadway by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke as Carnival in Flanders (also 1953).

John Malkovich as Lurie, Jessica Haines as Lucy

But I digress. The large point is that the truly original in movies and in broadcast drama is increasingly unusual. Hollywood now trades more in sequels and franchises than anything else and few of these are founded in original for-the-screen work. In its turn, teledrama is dominated by genre (including the present fad for celebrity biography) and by versions of work originating elsewhere. The industry term for taking material from non-dramatic sources is ‘adaptation’, a notion that craftily partakes of the source’s legend while keeping it at arm’s length. The official status of the term is enshrined in the distinction of Academy Award categories for original screenplay and adapted screenplay, a split introduced as long ago as 1931 when the Oscars were but four years old.

When I joined BBC Television’s long-since defunct Script Unit almost forty years ago, I was gravely informed by my mentor Betty Willingale that we did not say “adaptation” at the BBC, we said “dramatisation”. I completely understood and at once embraced the nicety of the distinction and, unlike the BBC itself, have resolutely cleaved to “dramatisation” ever since.

And it is Disgrace as a dramatisation that I propose to address. For JM Coetzee’s 1999 novel, which the 2007 movie dramatises is, to my mind, one of the very greatest works of fiction of last century and hence you may imagine the trepidation with which I approached the dramatisation. The book, Coetzee’s ninth novel, almost certainly clinched his Nobel Prize four years later and also, having been unwarrantedly controversial in his native South Africa, propelled him to emigrate to Australia. So it has been pivotal to his life as well as central in his canon.

Haines, Malkovich and intruders

The primary character of Disgrace is David Lurie, an English professor, native of and working in Cape Town. With a mixed-race student, he embarks upon an affair, about which he is in every sense casual. Accused of favouring her in exams, he acknowledges his guilt but declines to offer anything in mitigation. Duly rusticated, he motors to the remote farm of his daughter Lucy and learns that her woman lover has left some time before. An attack by youths leaves Lurie recovering from burns and Lucy pregnant by rape. Lurie is exasperated at Lucy’s fatalistic accommodation both with these events and with what land and power she accedes to her former employee. Lurie too has to learn how to accept the transfer of power. By the by, the Luries are white. The former employee and the rapists are black.

From these bare bones, it will be clear that the story resonates deeply with the shifting societal nature of post-apartheid South Africa, though perhaps less clear why the novel should have been accused on all sides of misrepresenting one interest or another. That it should have provoked such conflicting anger is testimony to the power of Coetzee’s prose, which is as spare and unsparing as most of his contemporaries’ work is indulgent and ingratiating. Little wonder that that louche child Martin Amis remarked of Coetzee’s novels: “I read one and I thought he’s got no talent”. Amis himself may have talent to burn (if you care for that sort of thing) but what he absolutely lacks is what Coetzee effortlessly deploys: art, judgment, economy of means and a profound understanding of the human condition.

Anna-Maria Monticelli

Coetzee’s work for me rules that part of the literary forest also stalked by Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy and Colm Tóibín. In the much more crowded and adulterated part, Philip Roth is justly king but many of the others (Amis is a fair example) lack their own monarch’s psychological acumen and beady detachment.

The dramatisation of Disgrace was undertaken by Anna-Maria Monticelli, an Australian sometime model and actress – not, one might be inclined to assume, the most suitable grounding from which to tackle such a project. She has been quoted as accounting for her coup in landing the rights by claiming that she “just worked harder than everyone else”. Coetzee retained script approval but elected to back Monticelli on the strength of an earlier screenplay of hers. And rather than use her good fortune as a Hollywood bargaining chip, Monticelli kept her own control by having her husband, Steve Jacobs, handle the direction.

Malkovich and friend

It’s hardly for me to pronounce on Coetzee’s wisdom (or otherwise) in entrusting the project to the Jacobses. The novelist may have had any number of motives for letting these people in. If what he most wanted was a dramatisation that served his novel faithfully, he could have done very much worse. Few movies follow their source material impeccably but this one does. Another that does – to its own and its novel source’s advantage, I think – is Joe Wright’s of Atonement, the screenplay for which, by Christopher Hampton, departs hardly at all from Ian McEwan’s novel.

Monticelli’s screenplay is fastidiously loyal to the book, save in one crucial particular. The ending is reordered so that Coetzee’s final scene – in which Lurie surrenders a stray dog, with which he has lightly bonded, to the inevitability of the vet’s needle – is switched with another – in which Lurie returns as a visitor to Lucy’s farm – and thereby creates an inaptly conclusive implication of reconciliation. I think this is a pity. Indeed, I think it does some delicate violence to Coetzee’s intentions.

Otherwise, the sense of this being the story of modern South Africa writ little comes through clearly enough in the way Monticelli orders the material and selects the dialogue. Jacobs’ contribution is more mixed. Though his camera placement is usually discreet and objective, his camera movement and his editing – creeping tracks and slow dissolves – are studied and overbearing. When the violence erupts, it lacks the subtextual inevitability that it carries in the book, where it achieves a kind of purging: “So it has come, the day of testing” [p 94, Vintage edition]. But, though it is handled with proper restraint and economy, not indulged, it must be shown to a degree in the movie. So it becomes an objective, not an imagined experience. Indeed, what Jacobs cannot help is that, while being able to present the bleak beauty of the Eastern Cape is an undoubted asset, making visible humanity of Coetzee’s severe – even parabolic – characterisations is not.

Coetzee in Australia

All the limitations of dramatising fiction are concentrated in Disgrace in the casting of David Lurie. John Malkovich is a relatively unusual American movie star in that his theatre background informs his work much more evidently than does his development as a screen actor. In that sense, he is more like a British movie performer. I first saw him in a PBS television production of Sam Shepard’s stage play True West. Two years after its San Francisco premiere in 1982, the chamber piece was mounted by the Steppenwolf Company in Chicago and then taken to Broadway, giving the company and the play’s leads – Malkovich and Gary Sinise (who also directed) – national attention. I also saw the pair as, respectively, Lennie and George in Sinise’s Steppenwolf version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which came to the National Theatre. In both plays, both actors were hugely compelling.

Malkovich’s screen acting generally is much more like that of, say, Ian McKellen or Ralph Fiennes than of George Clooney or Brad Pitt. In Disgrace, the work in his work is quite as evident as it is in Jacobs’ direction. Given his particular sort of intense, unaccommodating presence, the story doesn’t leave Malkovich many options beyond appearing terribly creepy. Lurie is not like that in the book, or at least it’s only one colour among many in his impact upon the reader. And surprisingly, despite Malkovich’s Methodish techniques, the least convincing shots in the whole film are the two in which he is overwhelmed by emotion.

This, I think, brings us to the greatest drawback of dramatisation. Concretising also reduces. It cuts out a whole range of possibilities. The director and the actor continually have to make film-making choices – this look, this gesture, this angle, this edit, not that. The reader, by contrast, may continuously juggle simultaneous responses. The concretising sets Lurie there and you have to come to him and take him as he is. On the page, you draw him to you and make a relationship between your own psyche and what you take from Coetzee’s prose, a much more fluid and complex engagement. In a nutshell, it tells why literature is high art and cinema popular culture.

Malkovich is appropriately seigneurial in taking for himself the girl student but the sequence where he swipes aside the attempts of the college authorities to give him a way back fails to afford the actor the chance to touch in all the contradictions and favours too much the monochrome expressions of the small-part actors set up to determine his fate. And his game but vain attempt at a cultured Afrikaans accent is a constant distraction.

The performance makes an intriguing contrast with that of Colin Firth as the English professor in Tom Ford’s movie version of the Christopher Isherwood novel, A Single Man. Paradoxically, Firth’s is a very American approach in the way that it interiorises so much of the character’s turmoil and hence makes the viewer intuit it rather than expecting to see it. Malkovich simply doesn’t do that.

Jim Sturgess, Anne Hathaway in One Day

Happily for Coetzee, his novel is secure enough to survive a movie dramatisation. Many novels are not and are eclipsed by the filmed versions so that the fact of the novel itself becomes forgotten. This is the greatest danger for a writer in selling the film rights. All book-writers should be as fortunate as Louis de Bernières. His fourth novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, became the carry-on-board reading of choice of 1995, the year it appeared in paperback. The much-sought movie rights were sold (no doubt for a king’s ransom) but the resultant movie – which changed the book a lot – was an utter flop. De Bernières perhaps lost nothing financially, source novelists not generally being granted a percentage. But the film is buried and the title remains in the public consciousness as that of a novel rather than of a film.

How different from Disgrace – and indeed from Captain Corelli and Atonement – will be One Day. Due for UK release on August 24th, this is the movie dramatisation of last year’s carry-on-board reading of choice. By chance, this book and Coetzee’s touch hands on one detail: tense. Disgrace is written in the present, a mannerist touch that would bother me in a lesser writer but it is Coetzee's habit in his fiction. One Day switches between present and past. If it does so with purpose, the purpose eludes me.

David Nicholls

David Nicholls’ picaresque rom-com is/was clearly written with the resultant movie constantly in mind. Indeed, I have never encountered a novel that more loudly screamed that ambition. Constructed in scenes – the title refers to the date on which the action is set over successive years – the novel is to all intents and purposes a screenplay, save that every scene is over-extended by around a third.

I am far too anal a person to raise any objection to a work having “a scheme”. Indeed Nicholls pulls a stroke close to the book’s end – in which one of the leading characters voyages back through the whole saga in reverse – that struck me as his best idea by a country mile. It will be interesting to see if that scene survives to the film. (What am I thinking of? It won’t be interesting or even ascertained because I certainly won’t be seeing the movie).

One Day: the movie poster

One Day has been the most grossly overpraised British novel since Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and indeed overpraised by the likes of Tony Parsons, Nick Hornby, Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan, the kind of people whose opinions I spurn. Apart from a tenor so ingratiating it makes your teeth hurt, it is stiff with illiterate irritants: “alright”, “’til” and an inability to inflect the verb ‘to lie’ which emerges in such forms as “laying down again and nuzzling her neck” [p 217, Hodder edition] and “she lay her back down once again” [p 87] and on the next page “she lay her book down” [p 88] which rather suggests that it should have been “book” the first time and then, ye gods, there’s a desultory discussion on whether “lying” or “laying” is correct [p 89]: well, in all these “lay” and “laying” are incorrect. It’s a given to expect a professional writer to write proper English and, where that is beyond the writer’s powers, an editor to make sure that such abominations do not pass the proofing stage.

No doubt this particular matter will not have troubled the makers of the movie, for which the novel has evidently been Americanised. And that degree of dramatisation is a whole other ballgame.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Last night, at least one life in Britain was transformed. The capped EuroMillions jackpot of more than £161.5 million was won by a single ticket purchased in these islands. The ticket may have been bought by a syndicate but even if, say, ten individuals share the spoils, the world is different for each of them now.

As I write, no one has yet approached Camelot to claim the money. Hence Camelot has released no information about the winner(s) though it will have access to a certain amount of data, in particular precisely where the ticket was purchased. The winner(s) may decide on anonymity, in which case Camelot is obliged to remain shtum. If I were a winner, I would insist upon it.

Number of Chrome browser users worldwide

Obviously such sudden wealth solves any number of one’s problems – not all of them perhaps, but the option of throwing money at a problem can be a big help. But coming into big bucks, especially by such arbitrary means, poses large problems of its own. Everybody – by whom I mean the media – wants to know “how you’re going to spend the money” but that is the least pressing of the new multimillionaire’s concerns. Much more important and urgent is the immediate response. This is very tricky, especially because it has to be considered in a state of high excitement, but how the transformation is handled in the first minutes and hours will have defining and far-reaching consequences.

A year ago, when its world was simpler, BSkyB paid £160m for Virgin Media

The first necessity is an absolutely cool head. It’s easy for me to advocate dispassionately that anonymity is the answer but I go further. My immediate advice would be simple: tell no one. My circumstances would make this a relatively straightforward gambit for me. I have a partner in whom I have total and absolute trust who happily shares with me utterly the conviction that secrecy is of the essence. There is no one else in the household. I have almost no family left and our friends are scattered and in contact much more often by phone, email, letter or social network than face-to-face. Circumstances would permit us to control the pace of events very readily.

Living in a family and in a highly socialised community would make discretion very much harder. Nonetheless, the dangers of the news spreading are huge and dangerous. Once anyone who cannot keep a secret knows the identity of the winner, everyone will. The website of The Mirror, for instance, is currently asking its readers: “Do you know the winner? Call us”. No doubt there’s money in it for anyone ready to betray a confidence.

The Twilight Saga "eclipses 160 million USA" last July

Why not tell everyone? Think about it. Multimillionaires don’t live in the community at large. They have privacy, space, security and the support and comradeship of their wealthy peers. They live in inaccessible mansions within enclaves of discretion, they travel everywhere by chauffeured car and helicopter or private jet, they stay in impossibly exclusive hotels or at private retreats and they eat out at places you’ve never heard of. You’ve got a lot of adjusting to do in order to join them.

The new multimillionaire – let’s say it’s a middle-aged widow called Mabel – does not live like that. Her suburban semi has a double lock on the front door but no professional burglar would need more than a couple of minutes to gain access. If he took her beloved Yorkshire terrier and demanded a £10 million ransom, she’d be devastated.

In February, government slasher-in-chief Eric Pickles cancelled an enterprise resource planning contract worth £160m

With astonishing speed, Mabel would be overwhelmed in every sense by begging letters. “How did they get my address?” she wonders, forgetting that the accounts of her life that appeared with her agreement in the papers made it easy enough for people to trace her. And since the dozens of sweaty reporters have stopped knocking at her door, there has been a steady stream of rather alarming men in bad suits who have been trying to get her to put her money into various “sure-fire schemes” as they call them. Mabel should be glad she does not own a computer. Her mailbox would be full of emails begging, wheedling and proposing. And talking of proposing, the recently divorced dentist who has never given her the time of day before has suddenly decided that he likes her and has been wanting to take her out for a meal. He gives her the creeps.

Mabel, who has led a fairly solitary life since her husband died, finds she has unimagined friends on every street corner. People whisper about her in the street and stand outside her house pointing. Friends and relatives have made it pretty clear that they think she could afford to pass on to them some of her wealth – which, one or two of them have said outright, is “undeserved”. It has occurred to her that she could give a million to each of several old friends and deserving causes but she also realises that the number who seem to feel a certain entitlement to be included in such a scheme already exceeds 161.

French govt said last week that military ops over Libya had so far cost it €160m

It’s not too surprising that everyone wants to be the friend of someone suddenly rich and lucky. But that supposed friendship doesn’t run very deep and is dependent on the lucky one being prepared to spread it around, including to the supposed friend. Mabel would not be the first lottery winner to discover that many people, not excluding family and friends she thought she liked and could trust, quickly resent the luck that has fallen on someone other than them. Some lottery winners have come to feel that the win is much more of a curse than a benison.

Were I the lucky winner, I would keep absolutely quiet. I would spurn Camelot’s desire to come to my own home to proclaim me the winner. And I would certainly not want to be photographed with a fixed grin spraying cheap champagne around in a bad parody of the racing driver cliché. Indeed, unless I were obliged by some legal requirement to disclose it, I should not reveal my address or even the county in which I live to Camelot. I should make an appointment to come to their offices in London, being careful not to allow them to guess whether or not I need to travel to London or am already there.

Ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman last fall blew $160m on her failed attempt to become California governor

I should demur at drinking their doubtless vile champagne (“Moët? I’m sorry, I can afford a little better, I suggest, and so can you”) and I would immediately stamp on their breathless and insincere cries of “congratulations”, pointing out that I have achieved nothing save for accidentally buying the ticket that won (“I submit that ‘lucky git’ would be more appropriate to the circumstances”). I would require them not to reveal anything about me or about where I bought the ticket – the corner shop would be sure to instigate an intense local search. I would let them know that if word of my win got out, I should assume that their discretion had failed and consult my solicitors.

Last month, Topaz Energy & Marine signed vessel contracts worth $160m

I don’t know whether Camelot presumes to advise on spending the money. Doubtless there are multimillion lottery winners whose imaginations cannot stretch further than buying a larger caravan. They might need a little guidance. For my part, I should make no decisions about putting the money to work until I had given the matter mature consideration, save that – had last night’s win been mine – I should want to take immediate steps to transfer an initial £5 million to the Disasters Emergency Committee for disbursing to the refugee camps in Somalia. Larger donations of that kind I would want to delay in order to be able to see first-hand that the funds were properly spent.

The immediate help Camelot could be, for my money, would be to take me through the options for the first, temporary resting-place for the fortune. I would not be putting it into my present bank because I could not be certain that some employee at the local branch would not talk. Equally, one wouldn’t want £160 million to sit in a financial institution that is in danger of turning up its toes, nor one that would decline to allow one to move all or a large proportion of the money without a lot of notice.

In February, Apple sold its 160 millionth iOS device

In my fantasy version of the scenario, I book myself a couple of nights at a splendid London hotel: Claridge’s, perhaps. I come up to town in time to purchase a couple of good suits and all the accompanying garments as well as some smart luggage and I change before checking into the hotel in the new guise of a man of means. I also dress accordingly for joining the Camelot people so that they and any banking people I meet subsequently have a sense of dealing with someone who knows what he is about. One needs to let Camelot know that one’s intention to preserve anonymity is firm. A fool and his money are soon parted, the old and wise saying goes, and one would need to keep one’s own folly deep under wraps.

An unaccustomed multimillionaire will be prey to endless intruders – beggars, shysters, false friends, fair weather acquaintances, crooks, snake-oil salesmen and wrinkle-browed advisors. I fit into the last category but, luckily for Mabel, the odds against her coming across my wise advice are even longer than were the odds against her landing the most lucrative win ever known in these islands.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Last weekend, on a brief visit to London, I caught a preview of Road Show. This is the latest and very likely the last of the musical plays with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the pre-eminent practitioner in the field for the past half century. It was his only show that I had never seen, not having been able to get to the public workshop in New York in 1999 or the world premiere production in Chicago in 2003 (followed by a brief Kennedy Center run) or the unveiling of the show in its present form at the Public Theater in New York three years ago. All of his earlier masterpieces I have seen – most of them several times – in New York, London and English provincial productions and I know them backwards.

Road Show poster, London

Road Show is Sondheim’s difficult child. It has been rewritten, reshaped and rescored as often as Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, if by fewer hands; its legend seems as elusive as that of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Allegro. Unlike those two shows, it has also had a series of name-changes. In Sondheim’s original conception, it was Strike It Rich! When first knocked into shape and workshopped, it was called Wise Guys. For a while, a decade ago, it was known as Gold! named after what, for the duration, has been one of the score’s most characteristic numbers. In Chicago, it was presented as Bounce and, under that title, was first recorded on CD. It was for the Public Theater production that it became Road Show which, though in many ways its least satisfactory title, is surely what it will now remain.

Road Show CD

And after all that, how is it? Well, it should be acknowledged frankly at the outset that it is second-rank Sondheim. It sits in the canon with the works that pre-date Follies (1971) and post-date Into the Woods (1987). By any other artist’s standards, this is rich company. But the eight shows created at Sondheim’s peak – with the pardonable exception of The Frogs (1974) – are musicals of such sublimity, of an ambition, profundity, innovative grace and emotional daring that could not be imagined before they were wrought, that it is idle to expect Sondheim to have the wind and limb to approach such heights again.

The nearest kin in his previous work to Road Show is Assassins of 1991, the second Sondheim show to have John Weidman on the book (Road Show is the third). Both scores – sometimes subtly, sometimes directly – evoke traditional American song and you find yourself surprised not to have a banjo turn up in the new show as it does in the old. Each score carries a whiff of burlesque and an undertone of satirical commentary.

Road Show poster, NYC

Road Show draws on the five real-life Mizner brothers, four of whom, at the dawn of the twentieth century, went a progress separately and together in search of the American dream. Weidman and Sondheim only treat of the youngest two, Wilson and Addison who, they would have us accept, stand as handy exemplars of the contradictions at the heart of the American character. Given this emblematic quality, neither Willie nor Addie could exactly be claimed as fully rounded or complex characters, certainly not when compared with Phyllis, Ben, Sally and Buddy in Follies, Desirée and Fredrik in A Little Night Music, Kayama and Manjiro in Pacific Overtures (despite the conventions of Kabuki), Sweeney and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Franklin, Charley, Mary and Gussie in Merrily We Roll Along and George and Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, not to mention Fosca and Giorgio in the later Passion.

Bounce poster, Chicago

With one exception, the other figures in Road Show are ciphers. That exception is a character who did not appear until the Bounce stage of the show’s evolution: Hollis Bessemer, a young, disaffected heir who longs to act as a patron of the arts. The basis for the character is the developer of Palm Beach, Paris Singer, but whether Singer became the lover of Addie Mizner as well as the business partner (as Hollis does) I cannot discover. I suspect he didn’t, hence the change of name. Paris Singer was a lover of – and fathered a child by – the famous dancer Isadora Duncan. The real Addie, however, does appear to have been discreetly homosexual.

Bounce CD

One way in which Road Show scores over the Bounce stage of the show’s evolution is that the lilting ballad ‘The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened’, first written for Willie Mizner and a woman character no longer in the dramatis personæ, is now performed by Addie and Hollis, thereby becoming Sondheim’s first gay love song. It is almost certainly the score’s highlight and a tune that remains deep in the brain.

Explicit homosexuality would certainly not have been permitted to inform a mooted Mizner musical of many decades earlier. Intriguingly enough, Irving Berlin, who knew the Mizners personally, tried several times to fashion a musical about them, his own first title for which was Wise Guy. Other titles the unfinished show went by were The Mizner Story, Sentimental Guy and – this one only about Addison – Palm Beach. I have just discovered that there is a CD entitled Unsung Irving Berlin containing several of the numbers that Berlin wrote for this show that never made it to the stage. Sadly the CD is not available as a download from Dress Circle, iTunes or Amazon, otherwise I could have incorporated further detail into this posting. I shall have to order it as a CD, pricey though it is.

Unsung Irving Berlin CD

But back to Road Show. I don’t much care for the number that Mama Mizner sings about Willie, ‘Isn’t He Something!’, though I know many others rate it highly. One rather fetching song, the lyric of which has necessarily been comprehensively reworked, is the title number from when the show was called Bounce. Rather shockingly, the original lyric contained the kind of misrhyme that Sondheim so scorns in his fascinating book Finishing the Hat: “bounce” with both “counts” and “accounts”. ‘Waste’, the new version, avoids such solecism but is less effective in setting the agenda for what follows, drawing in too many of the plot’s succeeding strands for the first-time listener to grasp.

Willie (David Bedella) and Addie Mizner (Michael Jibson)

At the other end of the score, before a reprise of ‘Waste’ wraps it up, there is a “big finish” number, ‘Get Out! Go’, that doesn’t hold a candle to comparable songs from earlier Sondheim scores: ‘Next’ in Pacific Overtures, say, or (emotionally anyway) the finale of Passion or, supremely, Sunday in the Park’s overwhelming, transporting ‘Sunday’, Sondheim’s greatest choral achievement.

Road Show also has its inspirational, anthemic declaration, ‘It’s in Your Hands Now’, framed as Papa Mizner’s vale to his boys, and pretty routine it is too. Compare and contrast the ecstatic ‘Our Time’ in Merrily We Roll Along and even the cod varsity song ‘The Hills of Tomorrow’ from the same show.

Hollis (Jon Robyns) and Addie

I dare say it seems grudging and mean-spirited to carp at Road Show for not being Follies or Pacific Overtures, as it would to grumble that Pericles is not King Lear. On the other hand, I’d far rather see Road Show a second, third, fourth and fifth time than Phantom of the Opera or Spiderman the once (and I’ve no plans to see either the once). I think that, at heart, the story of the Mizner brothers just does not urgently lend itself to musicalisation in the way that Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and Ettore Scola’s Passione d’Amore did (as respectively A Little Night Music and Passion).

Tossing hundred dollar bills

The characters, such as they are, struggle to be sympathetic for the audience. Such success as the brothers make of their lives seems a little arbitrary. Willie at least is clearly a champion blagger and we can believe that promotion comes naturally to him. Addie’s unsuspected talent for architecture is harder to fathom. For him, I guess, art is easy. It’s not a convincing notion from Sondheim of all people. That the Mizners’ successes bring them fleeting fulfilment is of course the (pretty thin) point. On the way to making that point, the plotting is too discursive to suit simple, emblematic staging. Perhaps that is why Berlin could never crack the subject and why Weidman and Sondheim have struggled with it for so long.

John Doyle

Director John Doyle has terrific form in Sondheim, including in this show (he staged the Public Theater version). In particular, his wonderfully inventive revivals of Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park took those shows to new heights of achievement. For instance, veteran Sondheim collaborator Hal Prince (who directed Bounce in Chicago) worked wonders with the premiere production of Sweeney but Sondheim has revealed that he always meant it to be a chamber piece and so Doyle’s version must have thrilled him as it did us.

Road Show nearly defeats him, I feel. The sequence covering Addie’s travels goes for very little, the (somewhat middle-aged) supporting cast’s neutral costumes no more evocative than the unimaginative lighting and routine movement. Maybe some kind of atmos track would have helped. The convention of tossing hundred dollar bills into the air pays diminishing returns too.

Menier Chocolate Factory: the small stage is in the bowels

There’s a lot to be said for chamber production, inevitably if we are to see big-canvas work in these straitened times. The Menier Chocolate Factory, whose laudable policy ensures that nothing is too ambitious for its small space, has mounted many musicals that London would otherwise have been denied. One of which Road Show put me in mind was Richard Maltby Jr & David Shire's Take Flight for which John Weidman also wrote the book. Given my own level of disappointment with Road Show, I tried to re-imagine it on a big stage with bottomless funding. A little spectacle might help it a lot. But I still don’t think it would work because I believe that the flaw is in the very subject matter. Notwithstanding, given such resources, Stephen Sondheim would for sure want to do another major rewrite and perhaps find yet another title. I’d be tempted to offer Busted Flush.

Perfect fare for a caption competition

Thursday, July 07, 2011


The late Michael Young was a great man and much revered by progressive educationalists and leftists alike. His long association with the famously free-thinking independent school, Dartington Hall in Devon, is enshrined in the title he took, Lord Young of Dartington.

But it must have been the black sheep among the particular emission of spermatozoa that fertilised the ovum that gave rise to his son. Toby Young, by contrast, is a great booby and much scorned by progressive educationalists and leftists alike. Because reactionary blowhards have no difficulty securing platforms in the Tory press for their irrational, irrelevant views and because Young has distinguished himself insofar as he has never been deterred by being seen to make an utter jackass of himself, he has carved out a good living from blowing off on anything that catches his fancy. The name I have bestowed upon him and shall use herebelow is Yobby Tounge.

In the current hailstorm pouring over News International in general and the News of the World in particular, Yobby Tounge has shown himself to be unique among journalists outside the Murdoch fold by attempting to mount any kind of defence (or, as he spells it in his tweets, “defense”) of the phone-hacking that was evidently standard practice both at NoW and throughout the gutter press. Here are his arguments with my notes in bold.

Michael Young and the egregious sprog

From The Daily Telegraph blog:

IN DEFENCE OF TABLOID JOURNALISM (by someone who’s been turned over by the Screws)
By Yobby Tounge

I’m disappointed by how few people are willing [already you see that YT cannot craft a decent English sentence] to defend the News of the World. Not the phone-hacking, obviously, but the paper itself. It’s always the first paper I read on a Sunday morning and has been for at least 35 years. [I don’t think he sees what a trivial clown this makes him look. If I have had as many as five copies of NoW in my hands in the whole of my life, I would be surprised and now of course I will never add to that total]. And I say this as someone who’s been turned over by the Screws. [For those innocent of this field, the paper is known to its fan-base as News of the Screws, due to its predilection for the salacious, the repellent and the untrue]. In my wayward youth, I was once discovered in the ladies lavatories of the Groucho Club with Christina Hance, the official Lady Di lookalike. It was fairly innocent – we were just snogging – but it was enough for the News of the World who ran a story about it under the headline: “Milord’s son in love flush.” My father was not best pleased. [Now, YT reveals a great deal of his character in retailing this piffling anecdote. It allows him to swank about his father being a peer and about his supposed success as an adventurous Lothario – though why he should want people to know that he “snogged” a woman who looked like Lady Diana Cooper is hard to fathom. What we see here is someone so distressed by being “turned over” by NoW that he feels it necessary to repeat the calumny without prompting. You wonder if he didn’t sell the story to the paper in the first place].

Yobby Tounge: oh dear, pissed again

I’ve written a defence of tabloid journalism in today’s Spectator that you can read here [below]. The gist of it is that the reason tabloid hacks sometimes cross the line into illegality is not because they’re dishonest or corrupt or lack a moral compass [though that is clearly precisely what they lack]. It’s because they have until 5.30pm that evening to nail the story and they know that if they don’t some other bast**d will [or in any other words the ends justify any means, however dishonest, corrupt or lacking in moral compass]. This newsroom culture – the belief that you should stop at nothing in pursuit of a good story – can lead to the sort of excesses we’ve learnt about this week, but it can also lead to the discovery of wrongdoing at the highest level.

Without the unscrupulous, appalling, “shocking” behaviour of red-top reporters, we probably wouldn’t know about Cecil Parkinson’s infidelity or John Prescott’s affair with his secretary [in what parallel universe are these examples of “wrongdoing at the highest level”? Sexual adventurism, of the kind that YT in his “wayward youth” would certainly have grabbed with both hands, is nobody’s business outside those intimately concerned. Aren’t Parkinson and Prescott men who were “turned over” by the tabloids?]. We wouldn’t know about the match-fixing antics of Pakistani cricketers [true, this was a NoW investigation and I could care less about it] or the corruption at the heart of FIFA [mostly exposed, I believe, by the BBC]. Yes, the ink-stained wretches regularly desecrate the graves of dead girls [this levity is wholly inappropriate; and the phone-hacking involving murder victims cannot possibly be justified by citing the match-fixing in cricket], but they also speak truth to power [no they fucking don’t] and they do it more often – and with more impact – than the broadsheets [they may reach more paying customers but I doubt the establishment takes their customarily fanciful claims more seriously than those of broadsheets and broadcasters].

Yobby Tounge ... erm ... exposed (look away now)

I can see the problem with this defence. It sounds like I’m making an excuse for the tabloids’ use of the “black arts” – that anything goes because they occasionally break important stories. Clearly, there are people who should be protected from tabloid intrusion, such as the victims of the 7/7 bombings or the families of dead soldiers. But how do you shield them without also shielding wrongdoers? A privacy law wouldn’t just protect the innocent, it would also protect the guilty. Do we really want Britain to become more like France, where members of the political class know they can get away with behaving appallingly because there’s no danger there’ll ever be exposed in the press? Without papers like the News of the World, Britain would be more like France. [This isn’t a serious argument. There is a distinction, perfectly definable in law and recognisable by any grown-up in practice, between privacy, confidentiality and the right not to be stalked on the one hand and deceit, hypocrisy and improbity on the other. YT seems to believe that any discretion practised by public figures to keep infidelity private is tantamount to fraud, bribery and corruption. In any case, the tabloids themselves employ deceit, hypocrisy and improbity in the pursuit of stories – undercover reporters, kiss’n’tell payments, wired moles posing as members of the public, agents provocateurs].

Alan Rusbridger’s [editor of The Guardian] line is that you can regulate the tabloids without clipping their wings. They’ll still be able to go after corrupt sports officials, just not the grieving parents of dead girls. They can be forced to behave more responsibly and still speak truth to power.

But is that feasible? Can you have the good without the bad? I’m not so sure. [I am. But then I don’t require the “freedom” to pore gleefully over malicious and inaccurate gossip about the peccadilloes of celebs].

Masthead of the News of the Screws: it is now

Never one to earn himself one fee when he can bag two with the same material, Yobby Tounge wrote the following for The Spectator, of which he is something called associate editor:

STATUS ANXIETY: A word in defence of tabloid journalism
Yobby Tounge suffers from Status Anxiety

Forgive me if I don’t join in the orgy of sanctimony surrounding the News of the World. If any evidence is uncovered that proves a member of the paper’s staff hacked into Milly Dowler’s phone and deleted her voicemail messages, then, yes, he or she should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. [13 year-old Milly was murdered. While she was classed as missing, her mobile was hacked into on behalf of NoW and, when it filled up with in-coming messages, the hacker deleted them. The knowledge that messages had been deleted encouraged the Dowler family to believe that Milly was still alive]. But to describe such behaviour as ‘shocking’ is to reveal an astonishing ignorance about the tabloid profession. It’s a bit like claiming to be ‘shocked’ when a celebrity is caught cheating on his wife or a politician is caught lying through his teeth. [This is itself an astonishing statement. Had such tactics been known about, arrests would have been made, new regulations brought in and politicians would have backed away from the Murdoch press. I submit that Yobby Tounge is the only non-tabloid journo not to have been ignorant of this practice and its extent, which makes me ask: shouldn’t the police be interviewing him?]

The reason phone-hacking was, until recently, such an established tool of the Fleet Street trade — and I’m talking about every red-top, not just the News of the World — is because a good [sic] tabloid journalist will stop at nothing in pursuit of a story. That’s the newsroom culture. They don’t cross the line into illegality because they’re dishonest or corrupt or lack a moral compass. It’s because they have until 5.30 p.m. that evening to nail the story and they know that if they don’t, some other bastard will.

2010 election poster from the vonpip.wordpress website

People unconnected with Fleet Street imagine that tabloid journalists have all sorts of sinister agendas. They’re determined to distract the masses from their wretched plight by bombarding them with celebrity tittle-tattle or trick them into voting for whichever political party has promised to do the most to advance the business interests of their proprietor. Or they’re racists or homophobes or misogynists. [Well, sir, all of the above is indeed true of many tabloid journalists. Have a read of Richard Littlejohn or Kelvin MacKenzie sometime]. In fact, there’s only one agenda on the Street of Shame and it’s the news agenda. Getting stories — and getting them first — is the vital thing. Everything else pales in comparison.

The reason the Milly Dowler revelations have surprised some people is because at the time of the alleged incident she was missing, presumed dead. Again, this is to reveal a breathtaking lack of knowledge about the culture of tabloid hacks. They pride themselves on being unsentimental about the dead or the recently bereaved. Surely everyone knows that if you lose a member of your family in a terrible accident and a tabloid reporter turns up on your doorstep, the last thing you should do is invite them in for a cup of tea? The moment your back is turned, they’ll steal a photograph of your loved one from your mantelpiece. Remember, it used to be a rule of the Daily Express foreign desk that any journalist coming across a scene of carnage and devastation was to announce themselves with the following words: ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’ [No it wasn’t “a rule” at the Express. It was overheard in 1960 in the Congo, spoken just once by an English reporter from an unnamed paper. But it’s hard to see how this particular piece of insensitivity and any other of the hobnail-booted behaviour YT ascribes to tabloid hacks may be hauled in to justify phone-hacking of the brutal kind now being exposed. YT’s position seems to be: “wow, these guys are awesomely amoral so you are showing your own ignorance if you are surprised that sometimes they surpass themselves”. I suppose it’s certainly true that my own position could be summed up as: “gosh, Yobby Tounge is such a complete prat that only someone ignorant of the depths of human immaturity can be amazed by how deeply stupid he is really capable of being”].

Lewis Milestone's 1931 movie version of The Front Page starring Adolphe Menjou, centre left in fedora

Walter Kerr, the late New York Times drama critic, summed up this attitude when he reviewed a production of The Front Page, Hecht and MacArthur’s affectionate satire of the Chicago newspaper industry. The central character is a no-nonsense editor called Walter Burns and Kerr described the essence of his appeal as his ability ‘to walk into a tough situation in order to be brutally nonchalant’. This was the chief characteristic of Chicago newspapermen, their complete lack of sentimentality, and it remains the hallmark of most tabloid hacks. Any News of the World journalist who thought he ought to temper his zeal because the story he was working on concerned a 13-year-old schoolgirl who had probably been murdered was in the wrong office. [There’s a vast difference between the amorality of the Murdoch empire and the realism of Hildy Johnson and the other newshounds in Hecht & MacArthur’s sour comedy, whose real-life models would certainly deplore the antics of their real-life successors. And the proprietor didn’t come to feel obliged to close the Chicago Morning Post].

Now, you might disapprove of some of the ‘dark arts’ that tabloid journalists use — phone hacking, for instance — but if they always played by the rules they’d rarely get the scoop. Some of these stories are trivial and hardly of vital national importance, but others are not ... [from here he repeats par 3 of the Telegraph blog and concludes with a light rewrite of par 4].

In sum, my view is: with friends like Yobby Tounge, Rupert Murdoch needs no enemies.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Of course, it’s all the fault of the 1960s. For the century and a half before that revolutionary decade, the “great and the good” were treated with all the deference to which they considered themselves entitled. In the longer view, I suppose, the scornful, the satirical and the downright scabrous have been more often in the ascendancy: one thinks of Swift, Pope and Defoe in the first half of the 18th century, Gillray and Rowlandson in the second half. Apart from the freedom that they may make of unbridled linguistic usage, the humorists, impersonators and caricaturists of the present age draw no more blood than did their afore-named predecessors.

In between times, geese were generally not said boo to and certainly not offered any sauce to gander at. In 1951, as a general election got under way, the BBC politely asked the shadow Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, if he would care to submit himself to an interview before an outside broadcast camera. Eden gamely said that he would but made it clear that the only interrogator he would tolerate was Leslie Mitchell, the Corporation’s senior harmless lightweight.

Leslie Mitchell, a safe pair of hands

Mitchell duly squared up to the soon-to-be Foreign Secretary (and, given Churchill’s relative frailty, effectively manager of the government) with this opening salvo: “Well now, Mr Eden, with your very considerable experience of foreign affairs, it's quite obvious that I should start by asking you something about the international situation today. Or perhaps you would prefer to talk about home? Which is it to be?” It seems a mighty chasm between that pat-ball and the take-no-prisoner cross-examinations of Sir Robin Day and Jeremy Paxman.

The Mitchell approach, with all its complaisant clubman undertones, was swept away by the swiftly accumulating developments of the 1960s, particularly those unleashed by Hugh Carleton Greene’s leadership of the BBC and crystalized in That Was the Week That Was on the box and Private Eye in print. The pendulum swung from one extreme to the other and remained fixed on “yah boo” from that day to this.

Eden in interview with Mitchell: everything in the garden was lovely

Fast forward, then, and we find the hapless Ed Miliband unmercifully pilloried for giving the same answer to every question in a television interview, recorded by ITV but pooled for general use, that would appear in that night’s news on every outlet. You can watch the tape on this link:
I should have thought it was perfectly obvious that Miliband’s performance had a clear purpose to it and not a purpose that he would feel the need to explain because he would have no reason to expect that this tape would be released in order to mock him. The mockery that has indeed been heaped upon him demonstrates some resonance about the state of the culture.

Here, for instance, is Damian Thompson in The Daily Telegraph: “Not since George Brown used to go on television smashed out of his wits has a Labour politician made such a hash of things … he gave the same answer six times, irrespective of the question. His voice was robotic, his eyes glazed … At any moment, you expected a hypnotist to step forward, snap his fingers, and say: ‘You’re back in the room now, Ed’. For the Tories, truly this is the gift that keeps on giving”.

Incidentally and as a matter of record, George Brown did not “used to go on television smashed out of his wits”. He went on television clearly (and in the circumstances forgivably) affected by drink just the once, on the night of Labour’s triumph at the 1964 general election. I watched his appearance at the time and can vouchsafe that he was very far from out of his wits. Damian Thompson – who, in case you were wondering, is a Tory (and one of William Hague’s gay protégées but that’s a story for another day) – was two at the time. He attended something called Presentation College in Reading so you might think he would know something about presentation. Let me take the trouble to explain to him – and to any of my readers puzzled by Miliband’s “interview” – what was going on here.

Anyone who ever looks up from their iPad or their burger and chips will have noticed that very little coverage of politics in the media in the last – oh – thirty years is concerned with what politicians actually say. Considerably more is devoted to what reporters and other commentators (some of those themselves politicians) say about them. The only times that politicians’ own words are given due space and time are when they have said something disobliging, revelatory, erroneous, apologetic or unguarded. Or – and this is germane to the case under review – when the rules oblige the bulletins to give equal space to opposition as well as to government and the opposition has made a clear statement of policy.

Ed in interview: "I vill say this only once"

This swing away from what politicians wish to say (“perhaps you would prefer to talk about home”) to what reporters and commentators wish to say is a central part of the process of the media’s wholly successful attempt to arrogate to itself the setting of the political agenda, indeed of the whole agenda of public discourse.

Not surprisingly, politicians have sought means to combat this, not least in the employment of media advisors. These advisors came up with a nifty device, the sound-bite. This device – a succinct, free-standing summary of a position – was gratefully seized upon by the media, particularly the broadcast media, as a means of appearing to satisfy – or at least to include – actual politicians in their own disquisitions. For a long time, politicians felt that they could rely upon the media to spot and pick up on these sound-bites, as long as they were prominently voiced. Alas, that is no longer the case. The news media are so competitive with each other and so desperate to hold audiences against the ever-increasing distractions from new media that they try to insist upon exclusive tasters of what a politician has to say (you’ll have noticed how often you see someone giving a speech mutely while the reporter comments and then suddenly making whatever main point the speech had to deliver in a one-to-one interview).

Smart politicians, anxious (as the jargon has it) “to get their message across”, seek to control how they are heard with even more brutal techniques. One such was precisely what Miliband was up to. He agreed to a pooled interview and then declined to say anything except his prepared sound-bite, giving the broadcasters no option but to transmit what Miliband wanted rather than some (to his mind) secondary, irrelevant or perhaps less well expressed alternative. The device worked on the night. Miliband’s position, cogently stated, appeared on every news bulletin.

That should have been that. However, the interviewer was evidently a neophyte who had never encountered this phenomenon before, though several leading politicians have used it, including George Osborne and Alistair Darling. “His interviewer, Damon Green, was freaked out, as he later confessed” according to Damian Thompson. In an entirely underhand move, Green or some other ITV person released the complete tape to YouTube where, without context, Miliband’s performance was bound to seem curious.

Damian – Omen II

Green may be a greenhorn but Thompson is not. There are only two possible readings of Thompson’s shock-horror account. Either he genuinely doesn’t know how broadcast news operates which, for a man who has been in the business nearly thirty years, is itself quite a scandal (what does he do all day?). Or he knows perfectly well but is trying to do the leader of the party he opposes a piece of no good in the eyes of readers who cannot be expected to divine why such an apparently odd interview should have taken place. I incline to the latter explanation, if only to spare Thompson’s blushes.

The Telegraph’s agenda is one thing. That professional broadcasters who consider themselves progressive (people like Chris Addison and Armando Iannucci) should join in a Twitter harangue that seeks to characterise Miliband as if he is in some degree autistic is perfectly horrible. I appreciate that I am in a category numbering fewer than double figures in believing that Ed Miliband is a good, thoughtful, shrewd and smart leader of the Labour Party and – here’s the clincher – that there is no one else remotely close to leading who could or would do better. I don’t agree with all his positions or policies. Far from it: I oppose him on public service worker strikes, on his failure to make regulation of the banks and radical tightening of the tax system a crusade, and on Libya. But nobody in the Labour ranks is voicing that sort of opposition so I don’t see the advantage of damaging Labour by damaging its leader.

What is so depressing about this ridiculous episode is that, as with Gordon Brown’s overheard remarks about Gillian Duffy, the morality of the media and its use of its privileged access is not questioned, even by experienced and progressive commentators. My regular readers may remember that I advised Brown to hit back at Sky News for breaching his confidentiality by subterfuge rather than to hold his head in his hands in a BBC studio as though he were at fault. I hope Miliband will wake up and take Damon Green to task for his ignorant and illicit release of the tape. But I fear that even politicians have been seduced into believing that the media is so powerful it can do whatever it wishes. After all, it has taken the revelations about hacking into the already dead Milly Dowler’s phone for the criminal behaviour of Murdoch’s underlings really to get people angry.

Johann: there's a tirade in town

Another story about media morality gave the same Damian Thompson another stick with which to beat the left. Johann Hari, a columnist on The Independent, “confessed” to having imported extracts from their writings into interviews with various thinkers and, as it were, passing these quotes off as if given to him on the day. Hari justified this by arguing that the written thoughts were better expressed than the spoken ones and that several fellow journalists had told him that the practice was common.

Leave it to Damian Thompson to invent the world in which Hari operates: “Student radicals re-tweet his tirades against Tories, bankers, Catholics, Americans etc before rolling out of bed at noon”. This is so unworthy. A radical student re-tweeter of my acquaintance – how many of those does Thompson actually know? – regularly rolls out of bed at 11:45, sometimes even earlier.

As it happens, I follow Hari on Twitter, though not in The Independent, and I must have slept through all his tirades (can you do a tirade in 140 characters?). What I most recall of his tweets is his admiration for Grace Dent and Clive James, two writers who (as may be verified in earlier postings) I abominate. I submit that admiring Dent and James hardly constitutes a threat to the established order.

Thompson accuses Hari of being “happy to tell lies” and indeed the headline of his piece picks up that notion: “Writers who tell lies for a ‘greater truth’.” On Twitter, where the traffic is very far from universally supportive of Hari, I have seen him accused of “plagiarism” and “theft”. None of these accusations has any merit. Hari has certainly been naïve. He has probably been encouraged to work above his pay scale. But what he has been doing is merely to try to make his journalism as readable and authoritative as possible. Though I never went so far as to substitute written material for spoken in print interviews that I conducted, I certainly subbed and tidied up the spoken quotes that I included because verbatim transcript of speech usually read inelegantly at best, incoherently at worst.

In sum, I suggest that Hari could have conducted himself, both in the interviews that led to the outcry and in the outcry itself a touch more shrewdly. But to pillory him is absurd. Compared with the Neanderthals at News International and the crude propagandists at The Telegraph, Hari’s sins are pettifogging.