It’s grim up Telly Addict this week. With C4 having made the strategic decision to own August, the historically authentic 19th century austerity reenactment The Mill began last Sunday, and this week it was joined to form a sort of wrist-slitting “theme evening” by Southcliffe, a fictional smalltown rent asunder by tragedy to sit alongside Broadchurch and, less fictionally, Hungerford and Dunblane. With a week having passed since the intrinsically disappointing finale of The Returned, also on C4 and also low on canned laughter, we tot up how many questions remain unanswered in that waterlogged Alpine hamlet; and, for double light relief from all this death and doom, on BBC1: competitive cookery with Celebrity Masterchef series eight, and codger crime-solving with New Tricks series ten (and the first episode of this hugely popular show I’ve ever seen).
In this week’s Telly Addict, I find myself returning to a number of shows I’ve previously assessed at the outset: The Returned on C4, which is proving to be the best thing currently on TV, now at Episode 3; The Americans on ITV, which hit a post-pilot dip but has found its feet again at Episode 4; and Oliver Stone’s Untold History of The United States, which reached a new pitch of alternative-narrative chest-beating in the final of its ten episodes on Sky Atlantic. Also, a new season of The Borgias on Sky Atlantic, a dip into Question Time, aka #bbcqt, on BBC1 to see how Russell Brand fares, and a nice moment from the new run of Marple on ITV, involving Ian Fleming and Charlie Higson.
In July 1983, when I was 18, Peter Adamson – the actor known to and loved by millions as Len Fairclough on Coronation St, a character he’d played since 1961 – went on trial for the indecent assault that April of two eight-year-old girls in a swimming pool. As you can see from the blunt-instrument graphic used by the Sun newspaper, the lines between Adamson and his fictional persona were deliberately blurred. I remember the trial well, as I was an avid viewer of the soap at the time. I stuck the above graphic into my diary on Thursday July 21, mid-hearing, alongside this doctored collage from the same newspaper:
As you may be able to see, I wrote “GUILT” in pencil over Adamson’s suit, so I would be able to add, “He’s got guilt written all over him.” This was my 18-year-old’s idea of a joke. A casualty of trial by tabloid – and the red-tops were pretty despicable then, in their early-80s pomp – I had passed judgement before the court had. (It’s a shame I wasn’t more sensitive, but we cannot rewrite our own history.)
In the event, on July 26, the jury found Adamson – and by dimwitted association, Fairclough – not guilty. But it was immaterial; he’d already been tried and convicted in the public mind. Although he lived until 2002 and managed to get some theatre work, he was never again seen on Coronation St, having been written out back in February, before the arrest, ironically for selling stories to the tabloids. A sad figure by all accounts, he struggled with a long-standing drinking problem and died penniless after a 1991 bankruptcy.
The clinical term “paedophile”, although well established, was not in general use in 1983; it was certainly too long a word for the Sun. I suspect, as well as “dirty bastard”, Len will have been branded a “pervert”. I bring up his story partly because it has stayed with me, and partly because at least two equally well-loved Coronation St stars are currently embroiled in court cases over alleged sexual assault: Michael Le Vell, who’s played Kevin Webster since, coincidentally, 1983, and William Roache, the longest-serving Coronation St star of them all, having been Ken Barlow since the first episode in 1960. Le Vell goes to trial in September for 19 charges, including alleged sexual assault and the rape of a minor; Roache goes to Crown Court next month for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old in 1967. Both men deny all charges.
These big tabloid stories interest us – and, one assumes, appall us – because they are men in the public eye. In the wake of Jimmy Savile, which I wrote about at the time, and Operation Yewtree, the truism is to say that each week discredits another previously loved celebrity from the 60s, 70s and 80s (which covers a lot of our childhoods). If any of these multiple, often historic accusations turn out to be true – and when Stuart Hall pleaded guilty to indecent assaulting 13 girls, aged between 9 and 17 years, between 1967 and 1986, he became the first to cross over from lurid speculation to actual admission of despicable deeds – then it will say dark things about society in the not-too-distant past.
I’m not really here to talk about “the culture” that permitted a now unacceptable degree of “harmless” fun between powerful men and often much younger women, and children, nor about how boundaries have been more clearly drawn in the more enlightened decades since, as to do so often risks sounding as if you excuse the bottom-pinching that was the tip of a much more sinister iceberg. If an ex-Radio 1 DJ is accused, historically, of groping a female work colleague in the 70s, we should not excuse it just because it was time of Carry On films and Benny Hill, any more than rape should be excused because the victim was wearing a skirt. It’s very likely that the victim either didn’t come forward because she feared he or she would not be believed (that’s certainly the case with Savile’s victims), or that he or she did come forward and wasn’t believed.
This past week, Stuart Hazell, who was not a celebrity but achieved a level of ubiquity through his disgusting deeds, was imprisoned for a minimum of 38 years for the murder of his partner’s 12-year-old granddaughter. At the trial, some pretty disturbing insights into this 37-year-old man’s character emerged. With barely time to catch our collective breath about the prevalence of this kind of abuse and murder of children from within families, we saw seven members of a “sex grooming ring” in Oxford convicted at the Old Bailey of abusing six girls, who were targeted, drugged and suffered “sadistic abuse” while aged between 11 and 15. The details are too horrible. I won’t repeat them. Difficult debates are being had about the ethnic background and religion of the men, which largely matches that of the nine convicted last year after a Rochdale sex trafficking ring was exposed. However, there’s a much bigger coincidence, which links Stuart Hall to Stuart Hazell and every other sex offender in between: they’re all men.
Suzanne Moore has been writing passionately and controversially about this subject in the Guardian from a long-range feminist perspective (today’s column was particularly furious). Her concern is not just the seeming ubiquity of male sexual assault, whether historic or current, it’s the failure as she sees it of men to do something about it. She has harsh words for the authorities, social services, the police, the media, for failing to act, but she asks, legitimately, why women seem to be more enraged about it than men. Does that make all men culpable?
This line unfortunately takes us down the hardline Andrea Dworkin route (the uber-feminist wrote, in a 1987 paper called Intercourse, “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally”), and is not helpful, especially when most men – surely! – are not potential rapists, respect and like women, and know that a child is a child.
I’m quick to say that society is to blame, but that’s not to let individuals off the hook. If you talk about “a crisis of masculinity” it suggests you wish a return to the good old days when men were breadwinners and “masters of the house”, and I have no love for those Victorian values. The pressure on men today is not to be “the man” but to be a more caring, open-minded, feminised member of a family or social group. You might say that men are not born this way; to be the leader is somehow in the DNA of the hunter-gatherer, the physically stronger sex, the Martian (if we really are from Mars). But society changes, for the better, usually, and to fail to adapt is to die.
I re-educated myself in the 80s, taking onboard new information, discarding orthodoxies handed down to me from less enlightened times, and adjusting my behaviour and my thinking accordingly. This was not unique for the time. (I also went to art school, a more effeminate choice than most, and was in a minority as a male at my halls of residence and at college, which can only have had a good effect on me. I also looked effeminate, by choice, and was called a “poof” often in my teens, which galvanised my instincts about sexual equality.) I really do worry about subsequent generations who have grown up with available 24-hour porn, and especially those young enough to have come of age in the post-Loaded era of Nuts and Zoo. Those boys are going to have to do a lot more adjustment than I did.
Anyway, there’s a link between casual, seemingly benign sexism among male friends and unspeakable acts. I am not a psychologist, but the need to wield power must lie at the heart of sexual assault. To abuse, to rape, to threaten, to kill, are all acts of power. Stuart Hazell wanted something that was forbidden under the laws of the land, but he could not stop himself from taking it. Once the switch flicks, men are capable of bad things. We all do and say things we regret, and relationships break down all the time, and we can find ourselves saying unkind things to people we love, but all of this takes place within boundaries. To raise a hand is to cross that boundary; to break the law is to cross another one.
I don’t think you should hit women, but I don’t think you should hit men, or children, either.
Tabloid headlines never tell the whole story. They paint men as “evil”, and quote relatives of victims who wish to see them “hanged”. The headlines above from the April Jones and Tia Sharp cases are designed to lure us in on our basest instincts. The “goodies” and the “baddies” are clear cut in the blunt-instrument tabloid narrative, but the stories also offer voyeurism, and that’s where a lot of the bad stuff starts: looking at things you shouldn’t look at, or looking at things that you should look at, but looking at them in a funny way.
We do not yet know if Rolf Harris, or Michael Le Vell, or Max Clifford, assaulted anyone, although we do know that their careers are likely to be over, even if they are acquitted. We live in suspicious times. (Anyone else see Paul Shane’s name the other night and think, “Oh no, not another one”, before sighing with relief when you found at that, no, he had only died?) The historic cases and the contemporary ones tell a sad story about men. I am, at heart, a self-hating man, in that I have no great love for my gender. I am not perfect, but I do consider myself a feminist and have a pretty sensitive radar to everyday sexism.
I felt very uncomfortable about the fact that, for no real narrative reason, and in a 12A certificate film, Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness. This was a Nuts moment, pandering to the young male’s worst instinct, which is to ogle and objectify. It’s not a trivial matter. Stamp this sort of thing out and you get to the root of the problem: some men hate women and don’t even realise it.
To the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on the first balmy evening of 2013 for an event laid on by the actor David Morrissey (who I can’t pretend I haven’t recently befriended) and his wife, the writer Esther Freud, to promote the good works of the charity Reprieve.
I’m not really used to these things, but the idea is to assemble a roomful of media and arts folk who find “a social” hard to resist and shamelessly talk up a charity with a view to either financial assistance, or some other payment in kind. I consider myself neither a mover nor a shaker, but the guest list turned out to include one or two affable giants of comedy whom I have the pleasure to know – Al Murray, Sean Hughes – as well as other familiar faces like Simon Mayo, Tracey MacLeod, Dan Maier and James Brown, so the terror of walking into a room on my own was quickly salved.
Also present: Olivia Colman, Polly Harvey, Peter Capaldi, Sam West, Tom Goodman-Hill, Sinead Cusack, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hollander, Mariella Frostrup, Alain de Botton … here are some pics.
Reprieve’s aim is simple enough: to deliver justice and save lives. You shouldn’t really need a charity to cover those two things. But then, neither should you need a charity to prevent cruelty to animals or save the children, but that is the world we live in. Reprieve, founded by unstoppably energetic and courageous human-rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, describes itself as “a vibrant legal action charity … that punches well above its weight.” It only has 28 full-time staff, and yet its lawyers were among the first into Guantánamo Bay, a cause that has come to define the charity. They have acted for 83 prisoners there in total, 66 of whom have now been freed and 21 of whom are being assisted by Reprieve’s Life After Guantánamo (LAG) team.
Reprieve hates the death penalty. It hates drones. It does not believe in killing people, full stop. It also hates secret prisons and rendition, whether ordinary or extraordinary. (You’re getting the feeling that Reprieve has its work cut out in a post 9/11 world, and you’re right to.) The charity’s death penalty team have assisted hundreds of prisoners sentenced to death around the world and it knows how to use the media to the advantage of its various causes.
Let’s not be coy, it attracts a lot of celeb supporters, including the aforementioned, and David and Esther – who hosted the evening from behind the lectern and gave impassioned speeches; they also corralled actor chums to read out shocking statistics – and a number of big-name patrons including Vivienne Westwood, Alan Bennett and Jon Snow – and none of this glad-handing hurts.
It’s a serious business, of course. Clive Stafford Smith’s self-effacing but involving presentation was simply to describe his “average day”, which starts early and ends late, and often criss-crosses continents. Most of the trouble Reprieve seeks out is abroad, for self-evident reasons. We may live in a country whose compassion has been trampled underfoot by market-led politicians, but at least we don’t put prisoners to death. Our American cousins do. Although I learned last night that Pakistan has the most prisoners awaiting death in the world.
You can read more about Reprieve’s work here. It’s ongoing, it’s endless, and their to-do list isn’t going to get shorter any time soon. When the HOPE-defined President Obama reneges on his promise to close Guantánamo Bay, what HOPE is there? Well, it resides with Clive and his team.
Only this week I have been reading about waterboarding in two separate places: in the New Yorker, and a long article (“The Spy Who Said Too Much”) about John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who spoke to the press about the torture used, specifically, on “high-value detainee” at Guantánamo Abu Zubaydah, a suspected Al-Qaeda lieutenant who was waterboarded 83 times, among other nasty “interrogation” techniques, and has never been charged with anything; and in Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars, which I’m still ploughing through and which has reached “the Surge” in 2007, by which time George W Bush was in the process of handing over power to his successor, who, to his credit, banned waterboarding. (If only that was the whole picture.)
I spend my days trying to write funny scripts. It’s what I was doing yesterday, and it’s what I’ll be doing today. But I think very seriously about serious matters, and I’m constantly haunted by the wickedness that men do, whether it’s leaving a nail bomb in a bin in Boston, setting fire to a house your own children are asleep in, or signing off on the torture of individuals from behind a desk. Obama is no angel. Blair was a warmonger. If leaders on the left can’t deliver us from evil, where do we turn?
Well, we turn to people like Clive Stafford Smith, whose selfless campaigning and tireless publicising are as much weapons in his peaceful armoury as his legal fleet-footedness. If I can pass on some of his sentiments, then I won’t have wasted another day on writing jokes.
Have a look at this:
As you know, I’m hooked on TV cookery competitions, and I’m currently following The Great British Bake Off – to which I came relatively late – and Celebrity Masterchef – which I have been faithful to since its inception. (Pictured above is my favourite Bake Off contestant, vicar’s wife Sarah-Jane, who I really hope goes all the way to the final, although she’s prone to mistakes and self-flaggellation, and had never been on a train on her own before the competition, so it won’t be a breeze, and that’s why I’m rooting for her.)
You’ve probably noticed, but there’s also a lot of very expensive, star-studded, cinematic new drama on both BBC and ITV – Parade’s End, Downton Abbey, Good Cop, Mrs Biggs … But I sometimes wonder if all of the talented, hardworking, dedicated, creative and technical people who write, perform and produce this drama could ever speed up an audience’s heart rate and lure them closer to the cusp of their sofas as economically and efficiently as last night’s episode of Masterchef, when Emma Kennedy (someone I’ve met!), footballer Danny Mills and Northampton-born TV presenter Michael Underwood were tasked with feeding the hungry cast and crew of … a BBC drama, New Tricks, from a catering truck.
It was all going so well. They were confident. They were on time. And then one of them left a pan of custard literally spinning around on the edge of a work surface …
Look at her poor face! (Scroll through on the iPlayer to about 20 minutes in for the moving pictures. Or, watch the whole thing.)
As well as lamenting the passing of Shooting Stars, on this week’s very-slightly-different-looking Telly Addict, I’m reviewing I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here on ITV1, and two very different shows on BBC2, namely, Rev and Pan Am.
If you’re not already a convert to Rev – and this is series two, so you’re going to need to get the DVD – there are a couple of clips here, and they show just how lovely the writing, by co-creator James Wood, and acting, from Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman and the rest of the cast, are. As I say in my review, Wood seems to revel in the art of conversation. There’s story here, too, and character development, but the joy lies in the interaction between Hollander’s Anglican priest and, well, whoever he happens to be interacting with. I love the humility of Hollander’s performance; in many of the show’s best scenes, he says much less than whoever he’s talking to – Steve Evets’ church groupie, Miles Jupp’s lay reader, Simon McBurney’s archdeacon, Hugh Bonneville’s media vicar – and yet he says just as much with his expressions and his faltering reactions. This seems of a piece with the job he’s portraying – a priest is often called upon to listen, and to assess, and then to react. It’s beautiful stuff. If Fresh Meat is the best new British comedy of 2011, Rev is surely the best returning British comedy.
I shall be reviewing The Killing II next week.
This will not be a long entry about Celebrity Mastermind, which I filmed at MediaCity, Salford Quays, in Manchester, on Tuesday. I am under strict orders not to reveal anything about the show, for self-evident reasons. I have not even told my Mum and Dad how I got on, other than to say, it was fine. That’s all I will say. Having done this most surreal thing, what can I safely tell you? Well … they film four editions in a day, over three days, which is quite an endurance test for host John Humphrys and the producers, directors, floor managers, technicians, runners and caterers, not to mention the audiences who I assume sit there for the whole day, too. Because it’s shot in Manchester, it’s acting as a canary down the coalmine of the BBC’s financially-driven migration north, as are Blue Peter, CBeebies, 5 Live and various other TV and radio shows, including 6 Music’s Manc outposts, Radcliffe, Maconie and Riley, who only moved in this week.
MediaCity is vast, custom-built and labyrinthine, but then so was Television Centre. It’s clean, slick, digitised and freshly painted and thus has zero character – it’s more like the backstage part of a large arena venue – but it seems to work. Though the celebrities who take part very much occupy the full spectrum of “celebrity” – starting at me and Escape To The Country presenter Jules Hudson, and rising to the dizzier heights of, say, Jason Manford, Erin Boag, Sandie Shaw and cricketer Michael Vaughan OBE – all are treated equally. In this respect, it was fun for me to travel First Class to Manchester (not that I was truly able to relax and enjoy the journey as I was wracked with self-doubt and nerves), and to have a dressing room, and be escorted about the building by designated young men and women in headsets. When I met my fellow contestants – won’t spoil it by naming them, you’ll find out soon enough – I was fully aware that they probably didn’t know who I was, but that I knew who they were. This is fine. In many ways, Mastermind is a great leveller. You don’t score points for how many times you are recognised.
Here’s the weird thing. I was so nervous about the whole thing in the days leading up to Tuesday, and terrified when I woke up on the day. But once I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly and found my cab, the nerves started to dissipate. I think this was something to do with the inevitability of my fate as it got nearer. There was really no more time to revise. I had done all that I could. I had been using quiz books to “revise” general knowledge, and once I put my final quiz book in my bag around Macclesfield, I knew that I would not be needing it again. I liken the whole experience to my fear of flying. I don’t like flying, and yet I have flown a lot. What happens is: I get nervous and uneasy in the days leading up to a flight, and feel a bit sick when I wake up in the morning, but the closer I get to flying, the less nervous I become. Thus, my nerves dissipate when I travel to the airport, when I check in, when I go to the gate, and finally, when I board the plane, by which time, I am no longer nervous.
As we were introduced to the audience by warm-up man Ted Robbins and trooped to our seats (I was placed third from the left), I realised that there was no escape. It was happening. I was going to sit in one black leather chair and eventually be directed to sit in another one, there to be asked questions on my specialist subject for a minute and a half, and subsequently on general knowledge for two minutes. (I liked the fact that the two rounds were referred to by the production team as “SS” and “GK”.) Like all TV studios, especially ones you are used to seeing on TV, the real thing is oddly unimpressive and commonplace. I remember thinking this when I went to a studio recording of Have I Got News For You – the set looks like the pieces of wood it is actually made from, as opposed to being made of TV magic, which is what we expect. TV Burp is the same. With re-takes and pick-ups, Mastermind is no less real, but the one thing that isn’t faked is the answering of the questions: these take place in real time, by and large, and the buzzer actually sounds at the end. The main difference between watching it and being on it is that you are on it.
It was a treat to be recording on the same day as Justin Moorhouse, whom I haven’t seen since we lived together in Edinburgh last year. He kindly put me up for the night in his house, too, which meant I could hang around afterwards in hospitality and eat what amounted to three lots of catering, one after each show. It was only at the end of the day that John Humphrys turned up backstage, all relaxed and without a tie, to have a couple of cans of bitter. So we nabbed him for a photograph. I’m glad we did. Although, frankly, there will be enough visual evidence that I was on Mastermind in December. I’m such a star-struck passenger, I took the little insert from my dressing room door. More proof that this ridiculous thing actually happened to me. Now time to move on with my life.
I expect you’ve gathered that I have been asked to compete on the next series of Celebrity Mastermind, which is filmed in Manchester next week for broadcast on BBC1 over Christmas and New Year. It goes without saying that I am flattered to be asked, and excited, and terrified. I have known for three weeks and have been mainlining quiz books ever since. (Even though you can’t actually revise general knowledge – it is, after all, about everything – I have found that testing myself has been good exercise for my brain and it has unlocked quite a bit of knowledge that’s already in there. Also, it’s good fun.) I have been forbidden from revealing my specialist subject, for the simple reason that if anybody helpfully asks me a question on it in a public forum, that question will then be disqualified for use on the programme. (I seem to remember running into this grey area with Richard last year on 6 Music, when listeners helpfully sent in test questions on Rasputin, unless I’m getting the chronology of it wrong?) Anyway, after Tuesday, when I spend the day in Salford Quays, I’ll at least be able to reveal what many have already guessed, although not how I got on, obviously. I shall abide by Mastermind‘s official secrets act until it’s broadcast.
Here’s what’s really weird about what is already a surreal situation. I’ve always felt at one remove from the sort of people they get on Celebrity Mastermind – or indeed, Celebrity Anything. Quite a few people I know have been on Mastermind – Richard, Stuart Maconie, Stewart Lee, Lucy Porter, Rhys Thomas, Giles Coren – but I consider all of them to be more “famous” than me. Stuart’s an established name on Radio 2, and it doesn’t get much more mainstream and housewives’ favourite than that, while the others are on television regularly. (Despite Richard’s forelock-tugging humility shtick, I consider his having been a panelist on Have I Got News For You and Never Mind The Buzzcocks the equivalent of making it. I’m not sure being a panelist on What The Dickens? on SkyArts is.)
I don’t feel insecure about not being famous. I get stopped in the street about just as often as I can handle, and many of those occasions are for Mark Steel anyway. What I’m insecure about is the already generous net of “Celebrity” finally widening to include me. It seems they really are starting to run out of actual celebrities. It was bound to happen. Richard enjoys telling of the time he was described in Cheddar as “nationally known.” I am happy to be “known” – most of my work happens in the public domain, albeit as a writer, I feel more comfortable than I do as a performer or broadcaster. Radio is a much more subtle and intimate form of communication than being on the telly. So it’s ironic that Celebrity Mastermind will put me on early-evening BBC1. (If my early experience of Telly Addicts – another early evening BBC1 quiz show – was anything to go by, it might actually get me recognised in the street afterwards.) “Celebrity” is not a profession; it is a condition, and a condition that is conferred upon you. If the word has its roots in “celebration”, that no longer holds true; many of today’s “celebrities” are anything but celebrated. Cat Bin Lady was, briefly, a celebrity. So is Louise Mensch.
Again, I am sworn to secrecy, but I have been told the identities of the three co-participants I will be up against on the day, and they are all recognisably famous. Your mum and dad would know who they are, to look at, if not in all three cases, actually name. If they are still alive, even your grandparents would know them. This is not a given; I have not known everybody who competed on the previous eight series of Celebrity Mastermind – if they were presenters of TV shows that I don’t watch, I didn’t necessarily recognise them, or their names. I will be that person on the night. I will be the one whose face and name leave many viewers clueless. Let’s face it, I am now part of the problem. By being on a programme with Celebrity in the title, I am adding to the desecration and belittlement of the word. Journalists love to describe people like me as “Z-list” although this is ironic, as journalists are just as likely to be asked to be on TV, where only hardened newshounds will recognise them from their picture bylines.
When I was growing up, if I didn’t recognise somebody on Celebrity Squares, I assumed it was because I was too young. I accepted without question that they were celebrities, because it said so in the title of the show. By that same token, by being on Celebrity Mastermind, I will appear to be a celebrity. Just as, say, Pixie McKenna, James Redmond, Hilary Kay and others I did not personally recognise did on the last series. (I found out who all three of these people were when their captions came up, of course: TV doctor, actor, Antiques Roadshow.)
I’m really thrilled to be on it, but because it’s Mastermind, and it gauges and rewards cleverness, not fame, and I’ve watched it all my life, and I want to do well (not win, just do well enough not to look like an idiot). I’m also excited to be able to make some money for – and give much-needed primetime publicity to – the charity of which I’m patron, Thomas’s Fund. I like quizzes. I like my own specialist subject. I like playing Mastermind at home. The C-word is the only fly in the ointment. And only a semantic fly in any case.
The car firm that is being sent to pick me up from Piccadilly Station on Tuesday is called Star In A Car. What if they operate on the basis that if you are a star, the driver will recognise you and pick you up? If mine doesn’t – and unless he records and keeps every edition of What The Dickens? on SkyArts, or he watches 6 Music on the webcam when one of the regular daytime presenters is ill, he seriously might not – I may have to pay for my own cab to the studio.
Right, back to my revision.