MAN AND BOY

ShishimarinAlmost 60 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson swore that his escalation of the US intervention in the distant Cold War battlefields of South-East Asia (which had been instigated by his prematurely-retired predecessor in the White House) was not one in which civilians were deliberately being targeted; LBJ claimed the upsurge in American bombing raids over North Vietnam was a calculated attempt to target industry and military installations, thus weakening the Soviet-backed Viet Cong. If the civilian population happened to get in the way, it was a pure accident and not intentional. Ever since, this has been the justification mantra of all Western leaders engaged in overseas conflicts whenever the subject of civilian casualties has been raised, though so successful has this tactic proven to be that even the likes of a world leader full of Eastern promise such as Vladimir Putin have adopted it as official protocol where opposition to foreign interventionism is concerned.

In order to vindicate his stance, Russia’s elected dictator has also cynically evoked a deep-rooted, romantic attachment to an ideal of the motherland that echoes everything from an ISIS recruitment manual to the IRA’s sentimental appeal to the displaced Irishmen of Boston and New York whenever it was time to produce the green-coloured begging bowl. Saving the Ukrainians from an enemy within – one bent on perverting the ancient ties between Ukraine and its invading ‘liberator’ – seems to be the Russian excuse to justify any number of war crimes as recognised by international standards. However, that ‘enemy within’ has learnt its lessons and has taken the opportunity to capitalise on global revulsion to Putin’s war machine by going through the war trial motions a long way from The Hague. A hastily-convened tribunal in Ukraine has judged a 21-year-old captured Russian tank commander, name of Sgt Vadim Shishimarin, as being guilty of murdering a civilian and has imposed a life sentence upon him.

Sgt Shishimarin has been convicted of the murder of a 62-year-old Ukrainian called Oleksandr Shelipov in the village of Chupakhivak back in February, and his defence (for what it was) fell back on the old Nazi excuse of ‘only obeying orders’ to highlight the unique conditions of wartime. The Kremlin’s response to this judgement has been to issue the threat that Ukrainian prisoners will receive equal treatment when tried as war criminals in Moscow, placing an ongoing conflict in the dirty hands of a legal profession hardly guaranteed to deliver justice when demands for a specific verdict will be overwhelming. The spur for Russia to engage in judicial tit-for-tat came via the judge at the trial of Sgt Vadim Shishimarin, who proclaimed ‘Given that the crime committed is a crime against peace, security, humanity and the international legal order, the court does not see the possibility of imposing a shorter sentence of imprisonment.’

At a time when the world’s focus – or the focus of the world online – appears to be fixed on a courtroom spat between a pair of overpaid and unsympathetic Hollywood planks, the first war trial of anyone involved in the current Ukrainian skirmish has come as a sobering contrast to the self-indulgent and highly public marriage guidance counselling of Tinsel Town; yet the trial of Sgt Shishimarin has had its own moments of drama shaming the simultaneous acting class being acted out by Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. During the televised trial, the widow of the man Sgt Shishimarin has been found guilty of murdering confronted her husband’s killer and asked him why his presence had even been necessary in her country to begin with. ‘Tell me please,’ she demanded, ‘why did you come here – to protect us? Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?’

Sgt Shishimarin’s story was that he and several of his soldiers had requisitioned a vehicle when separated from their Kantemirovskaya tank regiment in north-east Ukraine; upon sighting the unfortunate Mr Shelipov, Shishimarin was pressurised by his fellow troops to open fire with an assault rifle, an action he was reluctant to carry out and twice refused; on the third asking, he did indeed shoot, which resulted in the death of an apparently unarmed Oleksandr Shelipov on his doorstep. If Shishimarin’s version of events is to believed, it’s evident he was an extremely young man plunged into the kind of nightmarish scenario it’s difficult to imagine the extremely young men of the privileged Western world reacting any better to, but none of this truth had any bearing on the verdict of the war crimes tribunal when it sentenced him to a life behind bars. Oleksandr Shelipov was just one of an estimated (by the UN) 3,838 civilians to have suffered a similar fate ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine three months ago, though his case was the first to have received the war crimes treatment and naturally sets an unedifying precedent for the months ahead.

The sorry story of Vadim Shishimarin paints a picture of raw recruits thrown into the deep end and faced with life-or-death decisions their limited life experience has barely prepared them for. Even Shishimarin’s defence lawyer claimed that his client had received no orders from his superiors, nor from the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, which has shut up shop anyway. One imagines Russian units manned by novices and left to their own devices as Putin’s platoons venture so far from Moscow that communication has been all-but abandoned; the anticipated quick ‘n’ easy victory has not materialised and Russian troops have continued to plough on, faced with a virtual guerrilla war that none of them are old enough to recall their forefathers capitulating to in Afghanistan. If one were to travel even further back in the timeline of military history especially sensitive to that corner of the world, one might evoke the equally green German soldiers drafted in to fight a losing battle on the Eastern Front during 1943-45, with only a parade ground pat on the head from the Fuhrer to send them on their doomed way.

Sgt Shishimarin pleaded guilty to the murder of Oleksandr Shelipov, a Ukrainian citizen responding to the invasion of his country like thousands of his countrymen by opposing it in thought if not in deed; the accused didn’t deny the crime, but argued it was carried out in circumstances specific to the theatre of war and under extreme pressure from commanders entrusting boys to do the work of men. Whilst Kremlin denials continue unabated, the Ukraine authorities are eager for the trial of Sgt Shishimarin not to be viewed as a show trial staged in the middle of a war still in full swing and are consequently assembling evidence of upwards of 11,000 alleged war crimes on the part of Russia with a future veritable festival of tribunals in mind that will at least be under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

How many genuine war crimes committed during the Second World War were recognised as such either at the time or in the immediate aftermath of is disputable; it can amount to years, if not decades, for the truth to emerge, and even then the truth can routinely come too late for justice to be enacted. It took the best part of fifteen years, for example, before Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Israel, yet the pursuit of suspected Nazi war criminals was still going on until relatively recently, however decrepit the accused had become by the 21st century. Ukraine appears to have started the process far earlier than is the custom, though one cannot help but feel the actual instigator of the conflict that the likes of Sgt Shishimarin are the patsies of will evade justice – and, unlike the name of a 21-year-old tank commander, we all know it.

© The Editor

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A LOST ART

Family TVOn the whole, I can think of far preferable sedatives than daytime television; heroin or methadone spring to mind. Daytime TV for me evokes grim images of care home residents slowly succumbing to rigor mortis as they gather dust in sub-tropical temperatures before the small screen, powerless to resist the unremittingly bland diet of soporific sludge that gushes out of every daytime TV pore, leaving the viewer feeling as though they’re being smothered in a sickly-scented cardigan whilst their feet set in a bucket of treacle. Even if one disregards the dreary content, one thing these excuses for entertainment seem to share is the same theme tune – or at least that’s what it sounds like; whilst the themes themselves are as forgettable as the programmes, they all appear to employ those awful ‘synth horns’ that were once the province of Phil Collins hits from the 80s, and each tirelessly upbeat burst of their infantile jollity is akin to being trapped in a lift with a Butlin’s redcoat.

Whilst the paucity of original and gifted minds working today in a once-abundant field of talent such as pop music is regularly discussed, if one widens the net to encompass areas that used to be touched by trends in pop, the dearth of maestros is even more evident – none more so than in another once-abundant field, that of ‘library music’. A deep reservoir of earworms specifically penned for use in commercials or as TV and radio themes, at one time library music – along with specially commissioned themes cut from a similar sonic cloth – provided British viewers and listeners with melodies that simply refuse to go away; many infiltrated our ears as children and they’re still there. Some of the most prolific composers responsible for these persistent portals to happier times are anonymous to all but the most devoted aural archaeologists, even if their body of work stands up as far stronger than anyone ever anticipated when their output was regarded as little more than dispensable Muzak. And, needless to say, it blows the synth horn bots out of the water.

When most vintage rock and soul genres had been plundered and sampled to death by DJs, producers and Hip Hop acts in the 90s, a sudden wave of interest in the untapped riches of archive library music, such as that housed on the books of KPM, led to the so-called ‘Lounge-core’ craze. CD reissues of long-deleted LPs that had spent years in the charity shop bargain bins were suddenly appearing on hip Indie labels, with everything from test card music to novelty noodlings on early synthesizers selling like cult hotcakes. Though the fad passed – as fads do – this ‘ironic’ appreciation of an imaginary soundtrack to an Austin Powers dinner party didn’t erase the nostalgic wave still capable of sweeping over the listener whenever one of the classic library pieces launches a fresh assault on the ears. A warm analogue glow flows through every note and what strikes the listener today is just how well the composers responsible for these tracks managed to take rock elements characteristic of the 60s’ cutting edge and marry them to traditional ‘easy listening’ vibes, producing a uniquely cool hybrid of old and new.

Key musical elements of the Golden Age of library music and theme tunes (the late 60s/early 70s) seem to be fuzzy guitars, the Hammond organ, strings, and lots of horns. Some of the best themes of this era were from the ITC stable of adventure series, as well as the Gerry Anderson shows; whilst John Barry was responsible for some of the former, Barry Gray composed the majority of the latter. A little more well known due to his knack of writing 60s pop hits for Petula Clark and his wife Jackie Trent, Tony Hatch not only worked with the young David Bowie, but his Midas touch gave us memorable themes for ‘Man Alive’, ‘The Champions’, and ‘Sportsnight’ – as well as…er…‘Crossroads’; he also produced a series of future ‘Lounge-core’ classics with his own orchestra. He later became a TV celebrity playing a proto-Simon Cowell alongside the equally sharp-tongued Mickie Most on the panel of the 70s ITV talent show, ‘New Faces’, but it is his musical talents that warrant an inclusion in this particular hall of fame.

Keith Mansfield was a composer who worked extensively in the library world, but also provided the theme tunes for ‘Grandstand’, ‘The Big Match’, and the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage; Johnny Pearson was the leader of both his own Sounds Orchestral band and the Top of the Pops Orchestra (for 15 years), though he composed both library music and numerous memorable TV themes at the same time, including the likes of ‘Captain Pugwash’, ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, and even ‘News at Ten’; Cliff Adams may be remembered with a groan by more than one generation of teenagers waiting for the Sunday Top 40 when leading his silky-smooth singers on ‘Sing Something Simple’, yet his contribution to television came via the commercial break, for which he wrote the jingles we still associate with Murray Mints, Fry’s Turkish Delight, and ‘For mash, get Smash’ amongst numerous others.

Another name worthy of mention is Alan Hawkshaw, who was a brief member of The Shadows before branching out into library music. Several of his library tunes ended up as TV themes, including the smoky organ grooves of ‘Dave Allen at Large’ and – in a weird occurrence that highlighted the non-exclusive nature of library tracks – the tune most of us remember as the original ‘Grange Hill’ theme, yet one which was simultaneously used on an ITV schools series called ‘Alive and Kicking’ as well as ‘Give Us A Clue’; also, though Cliff Adams wrote it, it was Hawkshaw and his band who performed the Bond-esque theme that accompanied the well-remembered ads ending with the tagline, ‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’.

Many of the tunes associated with this productive era that found their way onto television or radio as themes with a surprising longevity were put together by musicians with a solid track record in the business, often emanating from a jazz world that didn’t pay half as well as the royalties on a theme tune guaranteed to be aired at least once a week. Take the likes of British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth, for example; he was responsible for the toe-tapping Shepherd’s Bush Bebop of the original ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme and for ‘Beefeaters’, the tune Tony Blackburn opened with every morning on the first Radio 1 breakfast show between 1967-73. Back then, most radio shows had theme tunes, including the shows of each star DJ to jump ship from the pirates to Radio 1 when it debuted. Library music was regularly called upon to provide them, and many of these tunes have stuck in the memory, even if we can’t always pinpoint their source. They’re all tunes we know, though we may not know where we know them from.

The familiarity of library music from this period is due to the way in which it was widely disseminated across television and radio, just as likely to be found as the start-up theme for an ITV franchise-holder, introducing a schools programme, featuring on a test card or opening a regional Sunday soccer show as it would be on a networked institution such as ‘Mastermind’, which has always begun with an aptly-titled piece named ‘Approaching Menace’ by library composer Neil Richardson. The fact these tunes have remained part of our pop cultural wallpaper and have crept into our collective memory bank with stealth is testament to the depth of unsung talent that once worked in an unsung arena. Easy to dismiss, but not so easy to forget, the melodies these men made are just one more example of how even the most seemingly throwaway elements of what we used to have far outshine the majority of what we have now.

© The Editor

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SING WHEN YOU’RE WINNING

Eurovision UkraineIt wasn’t exactly the same as the sinister sabotage that prevented Cliff and ‘Congratulations’ from claiming the crown in 1968, though it did seem a tad unfair that a recent tweaking of the Eurovision voting system resulted in the UK’s first win for 25 years being downgraded at the eleventh hour. Having soared ahead on the jury vote – and the jury vote always used to be binding – ‘Space Man’ by the hirsute Sam Ryder topped the board once all the individual nations had had their say. Up until the last five or six years, that would’ve been enough and the embarrassing nul points and relegation zone finishes for virtually the whole of this century were poised to be swept aside by a surreal scenario few viewers in this country thought they’d ever see again. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and (even more so) Brexit hardly made us the most popular nation on the Continent, and our European neighbours seemed to relish inflicting an annual humiliation on us. We’d grown so accustomed to it that once Saturday’s votes began to be announced in the broken English of each country’s equivalent of a ‘One Show’ presenter, we expected the same old punishment.

However, despite the standard Swedish Euro ballad and the nutcracker-tastic posteriors of those three Spanish ladies making a big impact in the Turin arena, it was evident more or less from the off that the British entry had impressed almost all of the individual juries. As the voting progressed, we were even receiving maximum points from countries ordinarily regarded as traditional enemies, i.e. France and Germany. The gate-crashing Aussies couldn’t bring themselves to award us anything, though it turned out the Poms didn’t need ‘em; our new bezzie mates Ukraine gave us twelve points instead (as did seven other nations), and Sam Ryder was odds-on to do what only Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz and Katrina and the Waves had done before him. And then it went to that relatively new innovation, the televote – one that wasn’t a fixture last time we were in pole position…a long, long time ago.

On the eve of the Contest, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Ukraine would walk away with the title without even having to sing a note. The beleaguered nation’s entry could have strolled on stage and simply mooned the audience and they would’ve still won it – if one believed the pre-Contest hype. Yet, the juries weren’t entirely swayed by sentiment on the night and at the end of the jury vote Ukraine were placed fourth on the board with 192 points, behind Spain (231), Sweden (258) and the UK (283). The televote was a different animal, though; widespread sympathy for Ukraine from viewers was manifested as a surge of points – 439, to be precise – and the UK could only manage 183. Any other year and we’d have won it, but this is no ordinary year where Europe is concerned. When combined with their jury votes, Ukraine were undisputed victors.

So unfamiliar was the territory the UK found itself in on Saturday night, chances are Sam Ryder would’ve been knighted by the end of the year had he won it. As it is, he finished with the silver medal, adding to the runner-up spots Brits have now achieved on a record sixteen occasions; but it still made a pleasant change from the usual predictable formula from a British perspective. Even though we’re one of the ‘Big Five’ nations who automatically appear every year due to the financial contributions we make to the European Broadcasting Union, the underwhelming songs and poor receptions of the last couple of decades has made watching a bit like tuning in to the World Cup when England don’t qualify; deprived of patriotic possibilities, UK viewers tend to pick a favourite from one of the other participants; this year, we didn’t have to do that and it made the Contest a much more engaging experience as a consequence.

Despite the disappointment of the UK missing out, few would begrudge Ukraine their symbolic win, even if the song itself will probably be forgotten in less time than it took to perform it. The second of their now-three triumphs this century was six years ago, and that victory was also charged with a political frisson that infuriated the country currently acting as an uninvited guest in Ukraine. ‘1944’ by Jamala dealt with the wartime deportation of Crimean Tatars from the Soviet Union by Stalin – yes, I know, it’s a long way from ‘Jack in the Box’ by Clodagh Rodgers. Anyway, the song was judged by the EBU as not having a relevant political context due to its subject being a historical event – as was the case with the title of a certain winner by Abba in 1974, I guess. But, of course, Crimea was a hot topic at the time due to the annexation of the country by Russia just two years before, and the Russians took umbrage with the number. In the end, they couldn’t prevent the song from being included and could only voice their protest by withdrawing from the Contest the following year, when it was held in Kyiv.

Of course, political elements are nothing new to the Eurovision narrative. From General Franco’s (alleged) intervention to ensure a Spanish victory in 1968 to Greece’s 1976 entry being a song about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus two years earlier – not to mention the always-controversial presence of Israel – politics have routinely bled into the Eurovision as much as they have into sport. The event commands such a massive television audience across the Continent – and beyond it – that many nations with a point to prove naturally see it as an ideal platform to get that point across to a uniquely huge viewing public. Since the map of Eastern Europe was redrawn 30 years ago and former Iron Curtain countries have been allowed to participate, political bias has become a regular feature of the show, especially in the voting – a factor which Terry Wogan wearily criticised as it increased and eventually prompted him to hang up his commentator’s microphone. This year’s programme, for instance, opened with a mass chorus of ‘Give Peace a Chance’, which didn’t really require much in the way of explanation.

The perception of Russia as an international pariah state on a par with North Korea or Iran has been fairly unanimous in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and with most major global sports having expelled Russian teams and players from their ranks, the Eurovision was bound to follow suit. And the absence of Russia for only the fourth time since the nation’s debut at the Contest back in 1994 was no greater a surprise than the wave of public sympathy that propelled Ukraine to the winner’s rostrum. Considering the horror stories emerging from Ukraine on a daily basis, it’s only right that Russia was kicked-out this year, not to mention it being something of a minor miracle that Ukraine was able to put together an act to compete at all.

The other day, I read a remarkable story of an escape on foot from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol by one man and his dog that sounded like a movie waiting to be made; but to dramatise something that remains very much miserable reality for millions of people would seem beyond tasteless at the moment. The portrait painted of the damage done to Ukraine in such a short space of time was more than grim, and one feels it will be one of those conflicts whose gruesome truths will be released to the wider world in dribs and drabs for decades. With such a gory backdrop to something as frivolously camp as the Eurovision Song Contest, it feels fitting that Ukraine won it, however nice a change it would’ve been had the UK finally staged the most unlikely of triumphant comebacks. Right now, I suspect the people of Ukraine will grab at anything that represents even the slimmest glimmer of optimism for their nation – and love it or loathe it, the Eurovision today at least means something to them.

© The Editor

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IT’S DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS

Katie TaylorViewing a recent documentary series on Muhammad Ali via the BBC iPlayer, I was reminded how boxing bouts were once central to the lives of even those for whom a sporting event is usually a TV schedule-disrupting irritant. Ali’s appeal transcended the hardcore pugilistic following, as the huge ratings his fights attracted proved; his trilogy of battles with Joe Frazier between 1971 and 1975 and the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman were grandstand occasions that the majority of the globe tuned in to watch; Ali’s irresistible force of personality undoubtedly did more than any other boxer to make boxing one of the world’s most popular spectator sports, and arguably saved it from extinction when many American States were contemplating banning it from their borders on the grounds of the brutality that his balletic grace helped redefine. Since his heyday, however, the sport has largely retreated back from the frontline of terrestrial television prime-time, kidnapped by the pay-per-view marketplace and removed from the free-to-air arena; the average person today would probably struggle to name a current world champion, let alone whichever woman holds the equivalent female titles.

If boxing itself has diminished in importance for those members of the public that would once settle down to watch Ali in the same way they’d nowadays tune in to some vacuous TV talent show, the women’s version of the sport seems to only be of interest to the already-converted – though this is fairly routine where television audiences are concerned. The BBC’s insistence on referring to the world’s oldest club football contest as the men’s FA Cup Final emphasises the investment the Corporation has made in the women’s game, yet the latter remains a minority interest, regardless of the disproportionate coverage it receives from our national broadcaster. Women’s boxing, on the other hand, is exclusively in the hands of the subscription services that half-inched boxing around 20 years ago, and as a consequence its stars are heroines to the devoted and largely unknown to the masses.

Listening to ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ for the first time in quite some time this morning, I was introduced to Katie Taylor, an Irish female boxer I learnt is the current undisputed world lightweight champion; a sportswoman evidently well-schooled in sports still regarded as the prime domain of men – she used to be a footballer – Taylor solidified her status a couple of weeks ago by defeating Puerto Rican-born Amanda Serrano at the ancestral home of boxing, New York’s Madison Square Garden. Just as staging the Ireland Vs Italy fixture of the 1994 World Cup in NYC was a guaranteed stadium-filler considering the potential audience of Irish and Italian-Americans the Big Apple could call upon, Katie Taylor sealing her reputation as one of the greatest female pugilists on the planet in the same city was a masterstroke in ensuring pre-fight interest in a sport few beyond the dedicated pay much attention to.

You might not know it due to the factors already mentioned, but history was made at Madison Square Garden when Taylor fought Serrano, for it was the first time the prestigious venue had made a women’s bout the main event. The BBC’s Steve Bunce was a ringside witness to this watershed moment in women’s boxing and reviewed the spectacle with unbridled verve on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, enthusing the event was the first time two women had earned a million bucks each for a fight. Taylor was defending her lightweight crown she owns – as of 2019 she is one of only eight boxers (male or female) to be the simultaneous holder of all four major world titles – and her opponent was perhaps the sole fighter capable of offering her a serious challenge. From everything I could gather, this is a sporting rivalry on a par with many others that have pulled in the punters over the years – indeed, 19,187 spectators packed the staidum on the night, underlining the fact that this occasion captured unprecedented attention, as did the 1.5 million watching online at the same time. Thousands of Katie Taylor’s countrymen and women had flown in from the Emerald Isle to be present at the fight and no doubt all the Irish-American communities embedded in the USA’s urban enclaves sent plenty representatives to cheer ‘their girl’ on. Similarly, the fact Amanda Serrano was raised in Brooklyn meant she could regard Madison Square Garden as a home venue; it seems no more apt location could have been chosen.

Such was the level of hype surrounding the fight, even the Empire State Building was illuminated by the colours of the Irish and Puerto Rican flags respectively on the night; and it’s perhaps telling that a sport starved of the characters it could call upon in Ali’s heyday has been revitalised by two women when the men have summarily failed to prompt the same kind of reaction in recent years. By all accounts, the fight itself was worthy of the hyperbole, with Taylor retaining her titles via a split decision points verdict at the end of ten titanic rounds; Steve Bunce on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ described the tenth and final round as possibly being ‘one of the greatest rounds ever to be fought in the Garden…I have never, in 35 years at ringside, seen such scenes – emotion and chaos. It was breathless stuff. At the final bell, they fell into each other’s arms, bloody and exhausted, cut and bruised and smiling.’ Bunce calls Katie Taylor the greatest female boxer of all time, and listening to his enthusiastic description of the fight and of the two fighters made me wish I’d seen it – or even been aware of it before it actually happened.

Watching the aforementioned Ali series evoked the excitement his fights used to embody back in the day – great television events enjoyed by the whole viewing population rather than merely those prepared to pay extra for the privilege of tuning in. Making any sport available to the causal viewer as well as the one devoted enough to fork out for a subscription fee is essential in transforming its practitioners into household names, and maybe I’d have already have heard of Katie Taylor had her fight been in the hands of terrestrial broadcasters, or even if terrestrial broadcasters had never lost the rights to screen big fights in the first place. As it is, the decision of the boxing authorities – as with the cricket authorities – to throw their lot in with the satellite money-men a couple of decades ago removed the sport from my eye-line and my interest in it evaporated. To be honest, I wouldn’t even know if ITV or the BBC had shown the Taylor-Serrano fight, so detached am I now from boxing. The fact I was drawn to watch a series on a boxer unlike any other is more a testament to Ali’s enduring position as a pop cultural giant as opposed to a mere participant in a sport I’d long since drifted away from.

I suppose one significant factor in the publicity afforded the Taylor-Serrano rivalry is that two natural-born women have put one overlooked women’s sport on the map for all the right reasons. These days, when women’s sports usually grab the headlines it tends to be for all the wrong reasons. The farcical situation whereby underachieving male cyclists, weightlifters and swimmers proclaim themselves to be women and are then given a free pass into the female arena – only to utilise their physical advantage and suddenly reinvent themselves as world champions – has reduced many women’s sports to a laughing stock. And whenever genuine sportswomen raise voices to protest against the unfairness – even an unarguably supreme female athlete such as Martina Navratilova – they are shouted down by the fanatical trans-harpies and subjected to levels of abuse and harassment that bear more than a passing resemblance to the old-school misogyny their endeavours had helped eradicate. For now, however, at least the ring is free from the insidious virus of Identity Politics – only for now, though.

© The Editor

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QUEEN AND COUNTRY

Brenda BarbieAmidst all the silly ceremonies and inexplicable rituals set in stone so old it has a vintage comparable to that lot on Salisbury Plain, there was one glaring absence from the State Opening of Parliament this time round: the bejewelled crown was present, though the head upon which it traditionally sits wasn’t. Naturally, there were no Charles I-type shenanigans responsible, merely a monarch too elderly to undertake a task only pregnancy had previously excused her from – and the last time that happened was almost 60 years ago. Her past understudy in such exceptional circumstances was the Lord Chancellor, but so throwaway is that ancient office these days that the prospect of incumbent idiot Dominic Raab reading the Queen’s Speech prompted Brenda to bring Brian off the sub’s bench he’s occupied for the last seven decades. Indeed, it would appear the Prince of Wales is gradually taking on the role of Regent in all-but name, and notable public events his mother has always been the hostess of, such as Trooping the Colour and Remembrance Sunday, will probably be ones old age will force her to host by proxy from now on.

Obviously, with this year characterised by the unprecedented spectacle of a Platinum Jubilee, Her Majesty’s presence at one or two of the big celebrations to mark the unique occasion seems necessary, so it’s possible she’s conserving her energy by prioritising them over more routine duties. At the age of 96, however, it’s pretty clear that whatever is planned for this summer’s Jubilee schedule will most likely be the final outing for the ageing sovereign at a major public event. The Queen has already announced Buckingham Palace will henceforth be no place like home; Covid prompted the flight from London to the seclusion of Windsor and it would seem the relocation is now permanent. As is commonplace with anyone of such advanced years, she also appears to be quietly settling her affairs now that mortality is close at hand. Not every 96-year-old has such a prestigious roll-call of possessions to bequeath, of course, so she has a little more to attend to than simply deciding which of her kids inherits the dressing table.

As for the State Opening of Parliament, it still seems odd not to see Her Majesty occupying the throne in the Lords with old Philip alongside her, what with the pair of them having been a guaranteed fixture of the event from before most of our mothers met the milkman; but then there are several elements long associated with the ceremony that are gone now – especially the one-time highlight of waiting for whatever witty remark would emanate from the Beast of Bolsover when the moment came for Black Rod to march into the Commons chamber; no Dennis Skinner, no Duke of Edinburgh, and now no Brenda – no, things ain’t what they used to be where this particular occasion is concerned. Apparently, the Queen watched proceedings on the telly at her retirement home of Windsor Castle, though seeing someone else sitting in her seat, and flanked by Camilla and William to boot, was possibly an even more surreal experience for her than the average viewer. As for what followed the somewhat different pomp and circumstance part of the occasion, however, nothing much had changed at all. It was the same old flannel.

Coming in a post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis, this Queen’s Speech presented the Opposition with plenty open goals, but the leader of HM Opposition was still busily preoccupied with last year’s crisis. In an effort to sell himself as an honourable man prepared to fall on his sword in a way Boris declined to when he was charged and fined for breaking Covid restrictions, Sir Keir Starmer has dramatically declared he will resign as Labour leader if found guilty of similar misconduct in the so-called (wait for it) ‘Beer-gate’ scandal. Yes, maybe now those who formulated, implemented and supported the restrictions will belatedly realise precisely how ludicrous it was that someone could be fined for the unforgivable crime of having a drink and a bite to eat in company. I don’t doubt Starmer will be exonerated, something he himself probably knows or else he wouldn’t have volunteered to make the Labour Left’s day by promising to quit. Again, a politician assumes the electorate is stupid enough to take a statement at face value and not see through the wafer-thin ulterior motive; but, hey – plenty people fall for it, so why wouldn’t Starmer engineer such a stunt?

A story emerged on the same day of the Speech that a customer in a Brighton branch of Tesco had come across a distinctive tin of budget baked beans on the shelf, described as ‘Boris Beans’. According to the blurb on the packaging, Boris Beans come in a ‘tasty austerity sauce with misery guaranteed’; it sounds like a Banksy product, and being right-on Brighton, chances are it probably is. At the same time, it could be seen as an ingenious riposte to Environment Secretary George ‘Useless’ Eustice, who advised the plebs to buy the cheapest goods in the supermarket in order to save money – as though the idea had never occurred to them or that they might actually have no choice but to buy the cheapest goods in the supermarket with food prices up 2.7% on 2021. What this episode highlights is the widespread anger at the state of affairs this administration is presiding over whilst seeming both careless and clueless when it comes to solutions – not to mention not giving a f**k.

News that BP recorded a £4.9 billion profit during the first three months of 2022 hardly helps alter the popular perception that the people are being shafted by The Man in all his numerous guises. The Government is particularly perceived as being out of touch, with even a minor Minister like Eustice exhibiting the ignorance that comes with detachment from the reality of life lived beyond Westminster Village. There’s no reason why someone from a privileged or at least materially comfortable background can’t empathise with the less fortunate and try to improve their lot – the majority of the institutions established to help the needy during the Victorian era were founded by the wealthy and powerful, lest we forget; but all too often today it feels as though there isn’t the desire there to do likewise by those in a position to act. It just seems like most couldn’t care less – and that indifference appears at its least empathetic when embodied by a rich Tory MP. It was highly visible in the Con-Dem Coalition of a decade ago, of course, and nothing seems to have altered since.

It goes without saying that there is usually at least an effort on the part of a Government when delivering the promise of a ‘package’ in a Queen’s Speech to give the impression they care. Ordinarily, the Queen’s Speech tends to be loaded with tantalising offerings intended to persuade the people the administration in power isn’t merely a collection of indifferent political freeloaders blind to the sufferings of those they purport to serve. Having said that, there appeared to be very little in this one that offered anything to the vast chunk of the population paying for the disastrous policies of the past couple of years; calls for an emergency budget on the part of Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP to help those struggling to survive were brushed aside by Boris. ‘However great our passion and commitment,’ said the PM, ‘we cannot simply spend our way out of problems.’ Considering the state of the economy and the size of the national debt, he has a point; but who’s responsible?

In less than a month, the working week will be put on ice once more, though not so we can all be confined to quarters again; this time we will positively be encouraged to indulge in the kind of social gathering Keir Starmer is threatened with a retrospective fine for indulging in. The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee ‘long weekend’ will begin on a Thursday and last till Sunday – four whole days in which we can pack up our troubles in our old kit bag and smile, smile, smile; none of us (nor Brenda) will ever have an opportunity to do so again, so we may as well.

© The Editor

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OLD-SCHOOL TIES

WatermanSad but true – Dennis Waterman is dead, and another one has bitten the dust. Perhaps he can lay claim to being one of the most active actors on vintage TV channels specialising in mining the rich archive of British television via his decade-long stint as a household name via ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Minder’ – stalwarts of the schedules such channels live by. But there was more to Waterman’s CV. Take, for example, ‘Joe’s Ark’, a 1974 ‘Play for Today’ by another Dennis, this one being Potter. Angharad Rees, soon to become better known as Demelza in ‘Poldark’, played a terminally-ill cancer sufferer retreating to the rooms above her father Freddie Jones’s pet shop in Wales to breathe her last. Dennis Waterman played her wayward brother, eking out a seedy living providing a musical accompaniment to strippers in dodgy clubs; Waterman’s character makes his way home to see his sister and build a few bridges with his God-fearing father, but arrives a little too late. It’s one of Potter’s most underrated and moving plays, and Waterman gives a touching performance that would probably surprise those only accustomed to his more beefy roles.

The risk of typecasting was a genuine gamble for actors on television in the 1960s and 70s – one thinks of Harry H Corbett’s tragic failure to evade the long shadow cast by ‘Steptoe and Son’ – so it’s no wonder many successful character actors approached the prospect of a hit series with trepidation, particularly those who were in the process of establishing themselves as familiar faces. Dennis Waterman had been a minor child star – starring in an early 60s TV adaptation of the ‘Just William’ books – and adolescent one-to-watch, making a mark as a young man in the movie version of the celebrated (and controversial) ‘Wednesday Play’ set in his own Clapham backyard, ‘Up the Junction’; but he carved a career for himself as a significant grown-up character actor by appearing in one-off episodes of numerous popular small screen series in the early 70s.

His versatility was apparent by the fact he occasionally ventured into the comedic arena, such as his appearance in a 1973 episode of ‘Man About the House’; by contrast, that same year he also scored a memorable cameo in ‘Special Branch’, the hard-hitting police series produced by Euston Films – the speciality film wing of Thames Television. He’d also appeared as a customarily sinister Gestapo officer in an episode of ‘Colditz’ and in another characteristically labyrinthine Potter play, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ as well as the token Hammer horror outing (1970’s ‘Son of Dracula’), which was a rites-of-passage necessity for up-and-coming actors at the time. By this stage of his career, Waterman was certainly being noticed, though as a recognisable face rather than name. However, all that was about to change.

‘The Sweeney’ began life as a TV movie called ‘Regan’, which aired in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ slot on ITV in 1974. The potential for a series was immediately evident, and Dennis Waterman resumed his role as the reluctant second-in-command to John Thaw’s DI Regan when ‘The Sweeney’ went into production a few months later. Debuting on ITV at the beginning of 1975, ‘The Sweeney’ famously rewrote the rulebook in the way the British police force was portrayed on television, and Waterman’s George Carter was the perfect counterpoint to Thaw’s Jack Regan, exuding a less cynical and less grizzled persona than his superior. The two together exhibited a macho chemistry that has ultimately outlived them both, setting the template for a nostalgic, Brut-drenched, buddy-buddy relationship which breezes into contemporary touchy-feely sensibilities as no-nonsense fresh air.

When ‘The Sweeney’ ended in 1978, John Thaw took several years to find a character which could represent his middle age in the same way Jack Regan summed-up his prime. Dennis Waterman, on the other hand, moved on far quicker, but even the character of ex-boxer Terry McCann wasn’t an instant hit. It took a good series-and-a-half before Waterman’s character and the winning dynamic alongside veteran George Cole as Arthur Daley struck a chord with the viewing public, though by the early 80s ‘Minder’ had established itself as one of the UK’s most popular and culturally prescient TV shows. One thing it did do was to extend Waterman’s televisual omnipotence; he even scored a top ten hit with the ‘Minder’ theme tune, ‘I Could Be So Good For You’, in 1980, and he found himself back on ‘Top of the Pops’ three years later via an unlikely Christmas novelty duet with George Cole, ‘What Are We Gonna Get for Er Indoors’.

Whilst starring on ‘Minder’, Dennis Waterman also remained open to other, more intriguing, offers. His passion for the beautiful game inspired an affectionate tribute to football’s amateur beginnings with the 1982 TV movie he himself financed, ‘The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale’, which dramatised the famous triumph of West Auckland FC in winning the first attempt at an international soccer tournament, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, in 1909; he also played a major part in the BBC’s landmark feminist fantasy, ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ in 1986. By this time, he had quit ‘Minder’ and starred in several TV series without making the kind of impact he’d previously enjoyed, though he was the ideal host for the retro-football series, ‘Match of the 70s’, which aired on the BBC in 1995-96, tapping into the vogue for the decade Waterman was inexorably linked with; around the same time, renewed interest in ‘The Sweeney’ led to him becoming the programme’s unofficial curator whenever it was profiled on clips shows in the absence of contributions from John Thaw.

Ongoing affection for ‘The Sweeney’ unquestionably played its part in Waterman’s final TV success, ‘New Tricks’, in which he starred from 2003 to 2014; this BBC series focused on a team of ageing ex-police detectives brought back to solve cold cases and featured many familiar faces from the 70s, including in its original line-up James Bolam and Alun Armstrong. Despite the indisputably odd appearance of an unnaturally white set of dentures, Waterman’s strong presence and association with the era the old jacks were supposed to have been prominent coppers in aided the show’s success and contributed to its ultimate longevity; he also once again ‘sang the theme tune’, which was played upon in a typically surreal recurring sketch in ‘Little Britain’ that left Waterman himself more than baffled. At the same time, however, the skit seemed to solidify his enduring place in British TV’s cultural wallpaper.

The cause of Dennis Waterman’s death at the age of 74 has yet to be revealed, though one often formed the impression he was a man who enjoyed life in ways that are now frowned upon by the acting profession; he received two convictions for drunk-driving and was married four times, the most eventful (from a tabloid perspective) being his 11-year relationship with Rula Lenska, one marked by physical violence on Waterman’s part. He was certainly ‘old-school’, though one suspected this was a tag he himself wouldn’t have objected to. Part of the appeal of ‘New Tricks’ was, like ‘Life on Mars’, its knack in reflecting late 20th century generations’ inability to get to grips with the constantly changing unwritten rules and regulations of the 21st century and, in turn, mirroring the audience’s similar confusion at what could and couldn’t be said both in polite company and in the corporate business the police force has morphed into. Dennis Waterman was undoubtedly one of yesterday’s men, though that’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment.

© The Editor

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LOCAL HEROES

BallotOn one hand, yeah, it looks like carelessness – the Conservative Party has lost two MPs in the last couple of weeks and now stands to definitely lose another whenever the next General Election comes around. On the other hand, there’s something inevitably familiar about the reasons for all three quitting: Sleaze. After being exposed as the Tory Member whose in-House search for tractor websites naturally led him to online porn, Neil Parish was faced with little choice but to voluntarily walk the plank. The MP for Tiverton and Honiton’s grubby escapades in the Chamber have prompted the same old calls for a reform of Parliament and its ‘institutional misogyny’, just as we had five years ago when Michael Fallon’s resignation as Defence Secretary after admitting to touching Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee prompted the circulation of a clandestine and eye-opening ‘hit list’ of MPs behaving badly that some of us perused at the time. If anything had been done to sort the problem out back then, we maybe wouldn’t be where we are now; but there you go.

Crispin Blunt, MP for Reigate, isn’t on his way straight away – thus sparing his party another by-election; but he’s announced he will be when this current Parliament runs its course either next year or the year after. An MP since 1997, Blunt has been dogged by calls for him to quit ever since he somewhat foolishly defended fellow Tory, Imran Ahmad Khan, who has only just surrendered his seat following his recent conviction for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008. Khan was part of the new intake of Tories who smashed the ‘Red Wall’ in 2019, turning Wakefield blue for the first time. Questions over his original selection as a candidate have been raised (when rumours about his dubious behaviour were apparently circulating beforehand), but his conviction has led to him being appointed Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, which is a very polite Parliamentary description for the sack. Actually, perhaps this quaintly meaningless title should be bestowed upon anyone being fired from any job. ‘How come you’re home early from work, luv?’ ‘Bloody boss called me into his office and told me I’d been appointed Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds. Bastard.’

All of this comes in the wake of Barnard Castle and Matt Hancock and ‘Partygate’ and Rishi’s missus and a pervasive, putrid stench of rotting reputations, not unlike the same odious odour that emanated from the Conservative Party in the early 1960s and – especially – the mid-1990s. All parties that have been in Government for a decade or more slowly see their mortal remains begin to decay and disintegrate after that length of time, but the Tories always seem to do it so much better than anyone else. And now the electorate has the opportunity to make its feelings known towards the governing party at the ballot box, with the local elections taking place tomorrow. The previous occasion in which most of the seats up for grabs on 5 May were contested was way back in 2018, and it’s fair to say a hell of a lot has happened since then. And yes, folks, that’s what they call an understatement.

Last year’s local elections were undertaken at the time of Covid restrictions and left the Tories in a relatively strong state after their first test since the sweeping victory of 2019; at the time, their impressive gains were attributed to a post-vaccine bounce, when the speed and success of the roll-out gave people the impression the end of the pandemic was nigh. By contemporary standards, it was a fairly optimistic moment. This time round, the mood of the nation has altered yet again and it’ll be interesting to see how much of the ire directed towards the party during a cost-of-living crisis will be reflected in the way people vote. Only the most diehard and deluded still see Boris as an electoral asset, yet one could argue the Tories’ (and the PM’s) most effective electoral asset remains the Labour Party. The shadow of Brexit, the toxic legacy of Corbyn, and the scourge of Identity Politics are three factors that continue to drive a deep wedge between Labour and its one-time hardcore support base in the old Northern heartlands. Labour may well score points on campus and amongst the metropolitan middle-classes, but until the party reconnects with the far greater numbers that always stood by it in less affluent locations it’ll never be returned to power. Local elections tend to be an interesting means of gauging how far Labour has come or how far it has continued to fall behind actual public opinion rather than the minority opinions of MSM mouthpieces and broadsheet elites the party seems to use as an ill-advised yardstick.

The one thing in Labour’s favour is the fact that London – which appears to be its new heartland – will see the contesting of every seat in every borough, meaning there are over 1,800 of them to fight for, and the omens are good. However, success for Labour in the capital when it comes to these local elections could present the party with one more superficial impression of its resurrection as a potential party of government, as it doesn’t yet appear to have realised that what happens in London largely stays in London. The rest of the country remains unmoved by what Labour has to offer. A year ago, the party performed badly in the local elections and lost the Hartlepool by-election as a pre-match warm-up, but even if it does better in 2022 than it managed in 2021 – and it would take something special to do worse – the fact that the majority of the seats on offer tomorrow are in Labour-leaning areas will again give the party a distorted picture of its popularity if it does as well as expected; after all, in the 2018 local elections, Labour gave the Tories the best bloody nose it had landed since 2012 and yet was still trounced at the General Election the following year.

Perhaps the Tories needn’t be too concerned about Labour and should instead concentrate more on the Lib Debs, whose post-proroguing ‘detoxification’ and return to their familiar protest vote status could be perceived as more of a threat. That said, the Tories are lucky that few of the locations where their traditional popularity is waning are on offer this time round; the sense of relief in Conservative circles that the Home Counties will only constitute a tiny portion of the battleground on Thursday means worries over a potential Lib Dem challenge will be minimised. Labour’s failure to reconnect with its ex-Red Wall regions has also left Tory support staying fairly strong in the old blue collar ex-industrial towns Labour abandoned, so the party should be safe in those areas.

Regardless of Thursday’s events, the Tories are already looking ahead to the next General Election, devising what they have called an ‘80-20 strategy’, which refers to keeping the 80 marginal constituencies they hold and capturing a further 20 they’ve earmarked as potential gains. With the threat of Rishi Sunak as the most likely contender to stand against Boris now seemingly neutralised, the PM can breathe a sigh of relief that his ninth life has proven to be as jammy as the eight before it. He is the most fortunate of Prime Ministers, a man entirely unsuited for the prestige of his office yet surrounded by mediocrities in his own party and confronted by an Opposition comprising a fair share of its own mediocrities, none more so than the man who leads it.

This week’s local elections may well contain a sizeable amount of protest votes that serve as a comment on the way the Tories have been performing at a national level, but even if Labour and the Lib Dems do well, it’s still a long way from a General Election. That the governing party is led by a serial philanderer and liar who was charged by the police for committing a criminal offence and yet has simply kept calm and carried on without fear of losing his job is something that says everything about where we are and how we get the politicians we deserve. Then again, if you’re concerned about bin collections, cast your vote.

© The Editor

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THE WRONG BORIS

Boris BeckerIn many respects, a fall from grace is a good career move for the contemporary celebrity. Depending on the nature of the fall, it can often provide the recipient with a lucrative second career as a ‘survivor’, hiring a ghost-writer to pen the requisite misery memoir and enjoying a string of redemptive, Diana-like television and press interviews to elicit public sympathy and plug said volume in the process. Going off the rails with an intoxicating cocktail of drink and drugs is always a nice little earner once rehab has been endured and the begging for forgiveness begins in earnest; a short prison sentence ala Jeffrey Archer or Jonathan Aitken also helps. Eventually, there’s always the possibility all will be forgotten and the previous career can be tentatively revived as long as the celebrity in question exudes a degree of humility and a willingness to atone for their former sins.

However, if the fall had a sexual element to it that is deemed beyond the pale, there’s less of a possibility that the public’s affection can be regained. It’s hard to imagine, say, either Gary Glitter or Bill Cosby ever returning to the prominent positions they once enjoyed in the pop cultural firmament; and it’s only because Johnny Depp’s ex has been exposed as a manipulative, psychopathic domestic abuser bent on ruining his career that one of the most consistently successful movie stars of the last 30 years will probably avoid the terminal exile of the Hollywood blacklist. Depp is perhaps one of the few current male celebrities to have fallen foul of an especially vindictive playing of the sexist card whose future redemption is, in all likelihood, secure.

There’s always a build ‘em up/knock ‘em down factor present in this country when it comes to the fall from grace of a former hero, particularly a sporting one; we first saw it with George Best half-a-century ago, and a little later with Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne – and whilst Best’s fall became intrinsic to his compelling life story, providing it with colourful off-the-field anecdotes that considerably enhanced the narrative, the jury remains out on whether Gazza will eventually find a posthumous resurrection. What of the sporting celebrity whose crimes are financial ones, though? What indeed of a three-time Wimbledon champion who became an overnight household name as a 17-year-old way back in 1985 and subsequently found himself making more money than he knew what to do with? Despite his apparent crimes being hard to distinguish from those of numerous City wheelers and dealers – and politicians, come to that – who have been rewarded with knighthoods, no one gave a flying f*** about them; they did about Boris Becker.

I well remember following Boris Becker’s astonishing run at Wimbledon in 1985. With all eyes focused on the usual anticipated finalists of the time such as defending champ John McEnroe, long-time battler Jimmy Connors, and world No.1 Ivan Lendl, the un-seeded adolescent steadily worked his way through each round and gradually began to attract attention as the favourites fell by the wayside, opening up the possibility the teenage sensation could make it further than anyone dared to imagine. He powered his way into a Semi-Final showdown with the No.5 seed, Anders Järryd and beat the Swede in four sets. Suddenly, a tournament in which the usual suspects were, for once, nowhere to be seen had sprung into life and Becker found himself facing No.8 seed Kevin Curren in the Final, a player ten years his senior. Nobody had seen anything quite like this in SW19 before. Becker won it, sealing his place in history as the youngest-ever Wimbledon champ and the first un-seeded player ever to triumph on Centre Court. It remains one of the great sporting moments, and it gifted Becker with an enduring popularity amongst those who follow tennis that seemed destined to last.

However, Becker, who enjoyed a good decade at the top of the tennis tree, is now facing the prospect of two-and-a-half years behind bars after being found guilty of hiding assets in the wake of his bankruptcy in 2017. Past Wimbledon champs such as McEnroe may have aroused the ire of the staid All England Club due to their behaviour on court, but Becker was the consummate pro whenever he strolled out to play and his unprecedented success as a teenage prodigy earned him the ongoing affection of the premier tennis tournament’s annual audience.

Even after hanging up his racquet for good, his post-playing career as commentator, pundit and occasional coach kept him in the public eye as a likeable character on the circuit and he never gave the club whose distinctive purple and green colours he wore for his final court appearance cause for concern in associating himself with the august institution. That Boris Becker should have swapped one kind of court for another has been a fall from grace that exposed him as guilty of either – depending on how one looks at it – financial naivety or a cynical evasion of a legal obligation.

54-year-old Boris Becker was declared bankrupt five years ago, in the wake of an unpaid loan exceeding £3 million on a property he owned in Spain. Having claimed the bulk of the fortune earned during his playing career – totalling around £38 million – disappeared into the black hole of an expensive divorce from his first wife as well as child maintenance payments to his four kids, Becker was suspected of concealing assets that should have been surrendered when bankruptcy beckoned. Found guilty of shifting hundreds of thousands of pounds around that he failed to own up to, Becker evidently had pretty bad financial advice or imagined he was cleverer than the team investigating his clumsy concealment.

Becker’s ‘crimes’ were valued at £2.5 million by the prosecution, and the facts that emerged were as follows: He didn’t declare a property he owned in Germany nor a £1.053 million house his mother resides in; he hid a euro bank loan of somewhere in the region of £700,000 (plus the interest) as well shares amounting to £75,000 in a tech company, and relocated upwards of £390,000 into the accounts of others.

Failure to disclose property and concealing debt under the Insolvency Act is treated as a serious crime with a potential prison sentence of seven years, though when Becker arrived at Southwark Crown Court to be sentenced last Friday, he was additionally ticked-off by Judge Deborah Taylor, who admonished Becker for his absence of humility. ‘I take into account what has been described as your fall from grace,’ she said. ‘You have lost your career and reputation and all of your property as a result of your bankruptcy.’ This acknowledgment of Becker’s embarrassing downfall was then followed by a less sympathetic summary of his behaviour. ‘You have not shown remorse, acceptance of your guilt and have sought to distance yourself from your offending and your bankruptcy,’ the Judge said. ‘I accept the humiliation you’ve felt, but you’ve shown no humility.’

Although it’s expected that Boris Becker will probably only serve around half his sentence in the clink, he’ll still have to serve it; as Mick Jagger once recalled when looking back at his own (admittedly brief) prison sentence back in 1967, he may have only spent the solitary night in Brixton, but the swift conditional discharge he received was unknown to him when the cell door slammed in his face and the grim reality of his situation hit him as the lights went out. Becker will have more than one opportunity to ruminate on the grim reality of his own situation over the next year or so. He might not be looking forward to decades of incarceration stretching out before him, but for someone who has lived the life of a jet-setting international celebrity ever since he was a teenager, perhaps the one item his appetite may belatedly acquire a taste for on the inside could be humble pie.

© The Editor

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SNATCH OF THE DAY

Sharon StoneOver the past week, the corridors of power seem to have been transformed into the cheesy plot of an ‘erotic novel’ penned by Edwina Currie; perhaps John Major’s former bit-on-the-side was on to something after all. Then again, it’s not so long since a quick grope beneath a CCTV camera by Matt Hancock was splashed across every front page on Fleet Street, so none of the current wave of ‘revelations’ are especially jaw-dropping. Granted, unnamed MPs watching phone porn in the Chamber is a new one, though why anyone would want to view porn in public when the accompanying physical response to it cannot be entered into without the risk of arrest on the grounds of indecent exposure is beyond me; yet, maybe the brazen thrill of watching it in a public place is part of the appeal for those who indulge in it – like dogging. Added to this grubby incident there’s also the alleged tribute to Sharon Stone on the part of Labour’s Deputy, Angela ‘Thingle Mother’ Rayner; considering how damaged every VHS copy of ‘Basic Instinct’ being returned to Blockbuster back in the day must have been whenever it came for that notorious scene to be played (and played and played), it’s a relief the camera crew working for BBC Parliament exercise a little more discretion.

I’m not quite sure if the suffix ‘gate’ has been attached to the saga of Angela Rayner’s crossed/uncrossed legs yet, but to do so would elevate it to a significance it doesn’t deserve at a time when one might say there are a few more important issues for our elected representatives to deal with. Perhaps it’s just a deliberately distracting story after an endless slew of relentlessly depressing heavyweight ones, and a convenient chance for Labour to play the sexist card when they appear incapable of chiming with public opinion in any other way. However, as it naturally slots into a certain feminist narrative, it’s being held up by some as emblematic of ‘institutionalised sexism’, which is as prevalent a presence as ‘institutionalised racism’ when it comes to our institutions in the popular imagination. The fact that Ms Rayner has been accused of joking about flashing her pins in the PM’s eye-line – supposedly overheard on the terrace of the Commons – suggests if the alleged flash actually happened it could well have been intentional.

Anyone who doubts that some women are not beyond occasionally weaponising their sexuality by deliberately exploiting men who are vulnerable to such cheap tricks evidently doesn’t get out much. If Angela Rayner did intentionally give Boris a peek in order to put him off his stride, she at least did so in the knowledge she couldn’t have picked a better target. After all, the PM has had his Benny Hill moments, as his numerous wives and mistresses will testify. Mind you, as a speech bubble in the current Private Eye points out in a photo of Rayner addressing the Government benches, she’s the one who has to look across at a twat every day, not Boris. At the same time, the sense of this story being used as a point-scoring exercise by Labour is kind-of ironic considering the Party can’t even define what a woman is; laughable Labour logic implies that the PM could just as well have been confronted by a dick should his gaze have wandered over to a lady on the Opposition benches – and, let’s face it, there’s no shortage of dicks on either side of the House.

But if Angela Rayner gave Boris an accidental flash, it would support the notion that the Commons is not really the right environment to wear a skirt that leaves little to the imagination; it’s only a couple of years or so ago that the now-‘Mayor of West Yorkshire’ Tracy Brabin made a speech in the Chamber dressed in an off-the-shoulder number that one wag said made her look as though she’d just been done over the dustbins round the back of her local KFC at the end of a hen night; and if Parliament didn’t have some sort of dress code, then male MPs could theoretically turn up for a debate dressed in T-shirts, shorts and baseball caps. Nobody is accusing any female MP of dressing ‘provocatively’ and therefore ‘asking for it’, but an awareness that they are in a workplace and should at least make the effort to dress accordingly is probably required. They’re not on a pissed-up day-trip to bloody Aintree, when all’s said and done.

It goes without saying that accusations claiming Angela Rayner was overheard bragging about putting Boris off by doing a Sharon Stone have been sidestepped by Labour, which has instead chosen to adopt the familiar victim line, with the Mail on Sunday – the paper that broke the story – singled out as a peddler of archaic misogynistic muck-raking. The article contained comments from the usual anonymous sources stating that Ms Rayner ‘knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks’. In a way, the most offensive thing about that line is the implication that, by virtue of his privileged background, the PM is somehow in possession of a verbal dexterity that the low-born Rayner can’t match and therefore has to resort to the tactics of a back-street slapper to outwit him rather than employing a highbrow luxury like intelligence.

Whatever one’s opinion of Angela Rayner, it cannot be disputed that making it all the way to Deputy Leader of a major political party has been a considerable personal achievement on her part; but she is her own worst enemy. Her infamous ‘Tory Scum’ rant merely handed ammunition to opponents who had a far smoother ride to the top, and by playing the sexist card she is once again confirming her enemy’s view of her intellectual limitations. Of course some male MPs, particularly those schooled in the gladiatorial arena of a single-sex environment like Eton, are insensitive towards their female colleagues in the Commons – largely due to their lop-sided impression of what women want – and a fair amount of genuine, old-fashioned sexism can be endemic in such characters; yet, at the same time, there are some female MPs who play upon this misogynistic ignorance and manipulate it to their own political advantage in a manner that is just as shameless and serves to render them no better than their opponents.

Responding to the story Angela Rayner said ‘As women, we sometimes try to brush aside the sexism we face, but that doesn’t make it okay…it can’t be women’s responsibility to call it out every time. I don’t need anyone to explain sexism to me – I experience it every day. Every time I do a PMQs somebody has an opinion on what I wear.’ Probably true, but many similarly critical column inches are also devoted to the appearance of an MP such as Michael Fabricant and his hairpiece, just as they once were to the gargantuan bulk of Cyril Smith, long before less apparent aspects of his personality were made public. Yes, women are confronted by forms of sexism on a daily basis, and they don’t have to be Members of Parliament; just ask any woman who’s ever driven her car into a garage or has had to suffer a handyman in the house recruited to fix repairs; female MPs are in a unique position to rise above this, and playing the sexism card is a cop-out when they could do so much more.

The most worrying element of this sublimely frivolous story is the fact that the Speaker of the House considerably exceeded his authority by demanding that David Dillon, the Mail on Sunday editor, be summoned to appear before him. Mr Dillon rightly refused the summons, as did his political editor Glen Owen; even Boris Johnson – a former journalist himself, lest we forget – supported the stance of the Mail on Sunday, stating that journos should ‘not take instructions from officials of the House of Commons, however august they may be.’ This statement was added to by a Downing Street spokesperson, who said ‘The Prime Minister is uncomfortable at the idea of our free press being summoned by politicians.’ He went on to say that the PM wouldn’t want ‘any perception of politicians seeking to in any way curb or control what a free press seeks to report.’ Indeed. In these troubled times, both politicians and political journalists should be focused on issues of far greater importance than the height of a hemline.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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TV TIMES

Bingewatch30-odd years ago, when satellite dishes were the latest addition to the increasingly-expanding abundance of street furniture, the allure of new television channels beyond the reach of the traditional terrestrial broadcasters prompted the girl I was living with at the time to invest in just such an alternative. We ended up with Cable TV, and despite the accompanying literature boasting about all the new shows we could now access, most of its appeal for me was as a repository for the long-forgotten programmes the old television lords and masters had dispensed with years before. There wasn’t much new material on offer that I myself found capable of piquing my curiosity – bar the novelty exhibitionism of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ long before Jeremy Kyle encouraged the Great British Underclass to wash their own dirty linen in public; but the archive channels suddenly at my fingertips were a rich source of nostalgic entertainment and also (as it was still the 90s) a strain on my limited finances due to the amount of blank VHS tapes I felt compelled to buy to preserve them on.

In the intervening decades, the innovation of the DVD box-set and the advent of YouTube have opened some of the more neglected TV vaults to the public and this is a trend that certainly seems ongoing. Spending a weekend away with all the streaming services and vintage channels I’m not able to receive at home can find me enjoying classic ‘Star Trek’ – and I can’t remember the last time that received a terrestrial outing – and Gerry Anderson’s live-action landmark, ‘UFO’ amongst numerous others. I appreciate my own personal tastes aren’t everyone’s, and many sign-up for the kind of packages offered by the likes of Sky, Virgin or BT in order to catch the contemporary US shows that claim column inches and win awards – the sort of programmes ‘everybody’s talking about’ and so on. I’ve watched a few of these, I admit, and some are pretty good, especially when compared to the generally dismal standard of shows airing on the BBC or ITV, though I’m largely looking for an antique gem when I skim through the thousand-and-one channels listed; and I can usually find one.

During lockdown, the unexpected introduction of time on the hands of an overworked population unaccustomed to catching its breath often translated as binge-watching, whereby Netflix in particular saw a surge in subscribers eager to lose themselves in the sort of addictive mini-series it appears to churn out with effortless ease. Not being a subscriber myself, I found the aforementioned vintage shows to be my own personal source of comfort food for the eyes via the physical box-set, though my diversion was merely a manifestation of a common ailment when the world outside had suddenly taken on an unsettlingly alien element that made a retreat into a parallel universe preferable. This pattern for the populace as a whole reached a peak in 2020 and ’21, though the payback for lockdown in terms of industry and the economy grinding to an ill-advised halt has seen 2022 take on a very different tone for the viewer.

According to data released last week, this year has seen a telling reversal of the lockdown trend when it comes to subscribing to streaming services – 1.51 million subscriptions were cancelled during the first three months of 2022 as (what is already – inevitably – being called) the Cost of Living Crisis begins to bite. Despite 58% of UK homes being signed-up to one streaming service or another, 38% of those asked in a survey by market research company Kantar revealed they intended to cancel such subscriptions in order to save a few quid; the same time period also saw a noticeable decline in new subscribers. In the case of market leader Netflix, last year’s intake was approximately half of those who joined the club the year before. Evidence suggests Netflix and Amazon seem to be the last resort cancellations when others, such as Disney + or BritBox, tend to be first in line when it’s time for streaming services to walk the plank. But even the mighty Netflix is seeing its omnipotence challenged not just by competition, but by economic necessity. In 2022 so far, shares in the company have dropped by 35%, with over $50bn wiped off Netflix’s market value.

Still a relatively recent phenomenon in TV-land, streaming has followed a route all innovations on the small screen have followed, whether colour television, the home VCR, satellite, cable or the DVD, in that it had a rapid take-off, marched into the nation’s homes with a seemingly unstoppable pace, and has now levelled out a little, finding its feet and its permanent place as a steady option for the viewer. There was bound to be a slowing down eventually, and the expected incursion of competition for audiences was inevitable; less so the pandemic, which undoubtedly aided the rise of streaming in the first place and has now contributed to the abrupt halt of its speedy ascent. As a lazy leisure pursuit, watching the telly has been with us now for longer than most of us have been alive, yet compared to food or heating our homes it remains something of a luxury, with the additional payment required for streaming services a further indulgence that the current economic crisis has indeed forced some subscribers to confront as a luxury and to prioritise accordingly.

Globally, Netflix’s total subscribers have fallen by 200,000 this year and experts predict a further two million will follow suit by the summer. The post-pandemic economic situation has evidently been a factor in this, whilst many feel the excess of streaming choice is simply too much when the working-from-home aspect that fuelled the astronomical surge in subscription to streaming means there’s less time available to binge than there was a couple of years ago. Analyst Michael Hewson said, ‘Netflix’s wider problem, along with the rest of the sector, is that customers don’t have unlimited funds and that one or two subscriptions is usually enough. Once you move above that, something has to give in a cost-of-living crisis, and while Netflix is still the market leader, it doesn’t have the deeper pockets of Apple, Amazon or Disney, which makes it much more vulnerable to a margin squeeze.’

Even taking into account the unusual circumstances which facilitated Netflix’s rise to its apogee of popularity, it could only realistically go so far before its progress eased up a little. As things stand, it’s still ahead of the game with 220 million subscribers and constant flow of shows that excite TV reviewers, Twitter and audiences alike in its upgraded equivalent of ‘water-cooler television’. The quarterly growth Netflix has experienced ever since 2011 couldn’t be sustained forever, and price increases have also played their part in prompting a partial exodus from the service, costing it 600,000 subscribers across North America; Netflix’s voluntary withdrawal from the profitable Russian market due to Ukraine has clearly done a fair bit of damage, too – with the loss of 700,000 Russian subscribers to date. Mind you, the price increases have probably aided revenue, which has continued to grow despite everything.

For me, streaming services are something friends tend to have, and I don’t say that as a roundabout way of pleading poverty either. It’s a bit like how friends had toys I didn’t as a child, in that it doesn’t unduly bother me; I was content to play with them when in their presence, but I didn’t cry myself to sleep because I didn’t have them as well. I don’t mind watching some of these talked-about shows if I happen to be at the house of someone who does subscribe – or if someone kindly bungs them on a memory stick for me; but I find I simply don’t have the time to invest in binge-watching on a regular basis. Even the DVD box-sets of vintage shows I’ve often written about tend to be viewed in daily instalments – making use of a spare hour I might have before moving on. We each have our own brand of televisual escapism, after all.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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