Eurovision 2016When presented with an ultimatum by Napoleon in 1806, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II not only had to abdicate and accept the dissolution of an entity in the centre of Europe boasting a vintage of eight centuries; he also had to endure a scathing summary of his overstretched Empire’s irrelevance in the continent’s new order. Bonaparte told the humiliated Habsburg that his Empire was akin to an old maidservant who had been raped by every member of the household in which she served. It was time to put her out of her misery.

Although the Holy Roman Empire’s genesis had been in the distant medieval era and it cannot be viewed in the same light as the war-like nations of Europe that were engaged in constant conflict with each other, it had continued as a useful and desirable ally for any competing European power poised to lock horns (whether England, France, Spain or Holland) for the remainder of its existence, mainly due to the sheer scale of the land it covered and the number of troops it could therefore call upon when battle commenced. Largely governed by Germanic rulers, the Empire nevertheless reached as far south as Northern Italy and comprised a complex sequence of sovereign kingdoms, city states, duchies, principalities and hundreds of other sub-divisions that, on paper, maintained a degree of independent sovereignty, though officially owed their allegiance to the Emperor. In retrospect, it’s hard not to view the Holy Roman Empire as a prototype for the European Union.

Perhaps if Boris Johnson had used his evident intelligence to draw parallels with Europe’s previous centralised economic and political powerhouse instead of taking the lazy Livingstone route to Nazi comparisons, maybe his latest gaffe could have been avoided. Both Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France evolved from mere nations into a system of continental conquest and subjugation, one that imposed order on central Europe by invading its sovereign territories and brutally expanding the boundaries of the conquering country in the process. By contrast, the Holy Roman Empire was a bureaucratic brotherhood of nations, part Common Market/part NATO; it even crossed the great divide between Catholicism and Protestantism in its member states. The Emperor usually emanated from an established dynasty of rulers, but was nevertheless an elected monarch, even if his electorate consisted of the elite Prince-Electors rather than the general public. Sound familiar?

The demise of the Holy Roman Empire was made easier by its sprawling size, particularly when Napoleon’s armies could pick off one vulnerable member state after the other before striking at its Austrian heart and forcing the Emperor to surrender his crown and bring the 800-year-old institution to an undignified end. It had become bloated, complacent and effectively irrelevant to the nineteenth century, and all that was required to kill it off was one ruthlessly ambitious demigod who had no respect for its ancient traditions. Unlike Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany, the EU is not a county and neither was the Holy Roman Empire. Boris resorted to crass Napoleonic and Nazi references because he knows these are ones that the British public can relate to in basic black-and-white terms, not to mention ones that will invoke the spirits of Trafalgar or Dunkirk. Utterly meaningless spirits when it comes to this particular debate, but potent ones all the same.

At the same time as Bo-Jo was playing his pound-shop Churchill, Eastern Europe was embroiled in a war of words set to music. Ukraine won Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest with a number apparently inspired by the singer Jamala’s great-grandmother being forced to leave her Crimean homeland by Stalin in 1944 (the title of the song) during his revenge on Crimean Tatars for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. This effective ethnic cleansing resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 deportees from the Crimean Peninsula to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in Central Asia. Not exactly the basis for an upbeat entry into a song contest noted for its banal lyrical content, but a highly charged one at this moment in time.

Let’s face it, though, the Eurovision has been a hotbed of political bias ever since the old Eastern Bloc countries were welcomed into the fold over 20 years ago. The blatantly partisan nature of the voting was one of the reasons Terry Wogan gave up his stint at the microphone, and it seems whatever controversial move Putin’s Russia makes is only ever really punished in the incongruous environs of an entertainment event while an impotent EU and UN watch on. I remember lipstick lesbians t.A.T.u. being greeted with a chorus of catcalls and boos during their performance for Russia at the tournament in 2003, so voters opting for a song criticising past Russian activities in a country that has recently been annexed by Putin is no great surprise.

Predictable outrage in Russia itself to Ukraine’s triumph hardly ranks the song’s success alongside one of the Eurovision’s great robberies, such as General Franco allegedly rigging the victory for Spain over Cliff in 1968, but it does show that the continent of Europe, from its western to its eastern tips, is a far-from happy bunny at the moment – something that the approaching deadline of June 23 (and all the hypothetical propaganda surrounding it) probably isn’t helping.

© The Editor


Alice 2 - CopyA family holiday was not always my favourite out-of-school experience as a child; as much as I disliked school itself, at least I was free of it from 3.30pm onwards – though home could often be as unpleasant as the classroom; not having to endure a full twenty-four hours in the company of either family or fellow pupils meant the division of the day made a degree of sense. Come the school holidays, my day was essentially my own, with working parents and the freedom to roam; for this period of ecstatic emancipation to be curtailed always seemed unfair, and on the rare occasions when family holidays took place during the six-week summer break, it felt as though I’d been robbed.

However, this didn’t happen very often. Mostly, family holidays were scheduled in term time, meaning that even if the holiday contained the usual tensions exacerbated by the unnatural nature of two weeks in the sardine can, at least I was missing out on tedious lessons, playground Capones, and slap-happy sadists masquerading as teachers. If you’ve paid any attention to the headlines over the past couple of days, you probably know where I’m going with this.

It’s amusing to think that, if today’s rules had applied 35-40 years ago, my parents would have faced fines and possible imprisonment during my school days, both for taking me out of school for a fortnight and for ‘allowing’ me to take myself out of school. The latter occasions were those days when I preferred taking on my partner-in-truancy Stuart at PONG, playing air bass ala John Taylor to his copy of ‘Rio’ as he did his best Simon Le Bon (with a pair of his mother’s tights acting as makeshift New Romantic headband) or simply spending the afternoon up a tree on my own.

The fanatical obsession with endless exams, intense tests and putting pupils under all-day surveillance in the bureaucratic battle to ascend the league tables has placed both them and their parents under a strain I was spared, for which I am eternally grateful. I wasn’t viewed as a future financial investment by either parents or the State, which (as it turned out) was fairly shrewd foresight.

The legal victory on Friday of John Platt against the Isle of Wight Council following his refusal to pay a £120 fine for taking his six-year-old daughter out of school and on holiday during term time has been celebrated in some quarters as a triumph for common sense and two defiant fingers up at The Man. It is ironic at a moment when there is a continuous government emphasis on reducing the interference of the State in the lives of the individual that the State actually has more power to interfere today where some scenarios are concerned than it ever has previously. With regards to John Platt, he had managed to persuade magistrates on the Isle of Wight to overturn the fine, but the local authority appealed and took the case to the High Court. His argument was that it was not up to local authorities to decide what was best for his children, and this argument appears to have been vindicated following the High Court’s decision in his favour.

Of course, there is also the crucial truth that the travel agencies hike up their prices during official school holidays, aware that changes to the rules of the game mean parents now risk incurring the wrath of the watchdogs if they decide to holiday when prices aren’t so astronomical. Most don’t like making a fuss and adhere to the system, but for those who don’t, one has to ask what the child actually loses out on by missing a week or two in the classroom. All I can really recall about the aftermath of a holiday in term time is returning to school and being filled in on the latest gossip about who snogged who, who had a fight with who, and who went to the toilet in their trousers when a teacher refused them permission to go to the loo during a lesson. I don’t remember missing out on some vital piece of information that cost me dear come an exam, and (much to my chagrin) I was never absent from an exam due to a family holiday anyway.

Following the case of John Platt, there are now renewed calls for the law to be tightened. The Department of Education has pompously proclaimed ‘The evidence is clear that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chance of gaining good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances.’ Really? Does that mean, even if they miraculously acquire a precious degree, they still won’t be qualified enough to make it as a zero-hours contract, unpaid intern for a corporation whose billions are funnelled through to the Cayman Islands via Luxembourg or Eire and only ever reach the pockets of fat cat shareholders based in Monaco? All because they weren’t present for a physics lesson one moribund Monday afternoon? Education, education, education, eh?

© The Editor


ReithWhatever colour the Government, it and the BBC have always been uneasy bedfellows. As Chancellor of the Exchequer during the 1926 General Strike, Winston Churchill wanted to take the BBC over and turn it into a propaganda mouthpiece for the Government; Stanley Baldwin’s Tory administration had already attempted to prevent the BBC practising impartiality by broadcasting the viewpoints of all sides during the crisis, and when Opposition leader Ramsay MacDonald was denied the opportunity to speak on the airwaves, the Beeb found itself for the first time (though not the last) accused of bias towards both Labour and the Conservatives. However, the wheels were already in motion to turn the company into a corporation, bringing it into public ownership and, in theory at least, making it more independent from Government control. The year after the General Strike, the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation.

That Churchill had looked upon it with such envious eyes in 1926 highlighted how a service that had only been in operation for four years at that point had rapidly established itself as a powerful force in British life, one that the indomitable John (later Lord) Reith, first Director General, famously declared existed to inform, educate and entertain. Reith’s refusal to surrender the organisation’s independence and kowtow to Churchill resulted in a lifelong enmity between the two large personalities whilst also making the BBC walk a delicate tightrope, determined not to have policy dictated by Government yet dependent on whoever happened to be Home Secretary to issue its broadcasting licence under the terms of its Royal Charter’s ten-year renewal process.

The BBC Board of Governors emphasised the unique nature of the relationship between the nation’s Government and the nation’s public service broadcaster, with board members nominally chosen by the Sovereign on the ‘advice’ of Government Ministers; the Governors were also accountable to Parliament. Whilst striving to be free from political interference in its programming, the BBC nevertheless sometimes found itself bowing to political pressure. ‘The War Game’, a ground-breaking 1965 drama-documentary depicting the possible effects of an unnervingly realistic nuclear attack on Britain, was infamously pulled from transmission following an intense debate between the BBC and Harold Wilson’s Government; at a time when the likes of Mary Whitehouse was attracting media attention over her criticisms of BBC television’s risk-taking, the Beeb bottled it. Peter Watkins, director of ‘The War Game’, quit the country in disgust, never making another film in Britain again.

Five years later, the BBC found itself in hot water when ‘Yesterday’s Men’, a documentary profiling the impact on Government Ministers following a General Election defeat (in this case Harold Wilson’s administration) provoked a huge row between the deposed PM and the programme makers; the documentary was perceived as a character assassination of Wilson, and the Labour leader was so incensed by the questions put to him by David Dimbleby during its filming that he made a personal approach to the-then Head of the BBC Governors, Lord Hill (a man he had appointed) to view the programme before transmission, effectively pressurising the board to exercise editorial control at the behest of politicians. Neither emerged from the wreckage with much credit, and the debacle was to be echoed down the years in subsequent heated clashes with both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

The incestuous relationship between Government and Rupert Murdoch has accelerated from the Blair era onwards, and Murdoch’s anti-BBC stance, in tandem with the similar vitriolic antipathy of the likes of the Daily Mail, has often brought threats to clip the BBC’s wings on the part of Ministers into question on grounds of conflicting interests. The replacement of the Board of Governors with the BBC Trust in 2007 was an attempt to put the Beeb’s house in order following the unedifying fall-out from the Hutton Inquiry, though this body itself fared no better in its relations with Government and it has been announced the Trust will be replaced by Governors again, while OfCom will become the Corporation’s external regulator.

The build-up to the latest charter renewal has been accompanied by all kinds of rumours and threats emanating from current Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, yet it would appear these have been softened via an intervention from the Prime Minister, perhaps mindful of the ongoing unpopular battle with Junior Doctors as well as the struggling fortunes of the Remain campaign in the EU Referendum; any unnecessarily brutal assault on the BBC could be received badly by the public, and Mr Cameron needs the public on his side at the moment. The news that the BBC will be given free rein to appoint its own new Governors and not have them selected by Ministers is an unexpected development few saw coming when so much doom and gloom was being forecasted. For once, it would seem timing has favoured the BBC in its perennial squaring-up to Westminster and Whitehall, though history has taught us not to take any cessation of hostilities for granted.

© The Editor


WallWhen the general consensus declares a decade to be hip again, the difficult truth that a ten-year period is not a self-contained entity in which everything and everyone adhered to a specific train of thought forces the fashionista to cherry-pick the highlights. Therefore, whenever the 1960s are in vogue, we get mini-skirts, Beatle hair and hippie threads; we don’t get 60s-themed fancy dress parties with guests turning up dressed as Vietnamese peasants with their napalm-fried flesh hanging off. The 1970s have been periodically dipped in and out of for the last twenty-five years, but again it’s a very narrow vision of afro wigs and platform soles. At one time, this could be attributed to the fact that those quick to embrace the image weren’t actually there; post-Yewtree, it could be down to a need to pluck the positive from a barrage of retrospective negativity perpetrated by hypocrites who actually were there.

One aspect of the 1970s from a British viewpoint that could do without being revived is one that spanned the whole decade and beyond, only officially ending a couple of years away from the dawn of the twenty-first century. Whilst the dress sense of its practitioners during their 70s peak seems unlikely to be seen on the catwalk this summer (unless a top designer decides tank-tops are chic), the activities of Irish Republican dissidents have slowly edged back onto the periphery of the headlines.

With Sinn Fein politicians having held prominent posts in the Northern Ireland Assembly since its inception and former IRA bigwig Martin McGuinness having gone so far as to play host to the Queen, any resurgence of old-school Republicanism does seem reminiscent of Japanese soldiers still hiding out on remote Pacific islands because nobody told them the Second World War was over. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of non-sectarian political systems that followed in its wake has served to transform Northern Ireland for the better in the space of a generation, and the PR that has promoted Ulster in the last fifteen years has been almost wholly positive. Anyone old enough to recall even the 80s will remember how no national news bulletin was complete without the announcement of another callous assassination on the streets of Belfast or Londonderry or in those rural outposts the British Army referred to as ‘bandit country’. Thankfully, casual murder in Ulster no longer forms part of the daily headlines.

However, this is a corner of the United Kingdom where some communities remain physically divided by huge Berlin Wall-like edifices given a collective name that Donald Trump’s team might consider when it comes to their plans for Mexico – Peace Lines. Erected to replace the makeshift barriers of burnt-out cars and old furniture hastily shoved together at the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the Peace Lines separate Catholics and Protestants in the notorious interface neighbourhoods of Derry and Belfast. Some are as high as 25 feet, some are as long as three miles, and – rather remarkably – more have been built since the Good Friday Agreement than before it. They both represent and perpetuate an Us and Them mindset that continues to fester in the poorer quarters of Ulster despite the progress of the past couple of decades, building on the bigotry passed down the generations to communities on both sides of the divide.

It’s no real surprise that the worst excesses of Nationalism live on in such neighbourhoods; I doubt there’s much else that can provoke passion when former Republican heroes like McGuinness are seen lording it up at Stormont. Most would be of the opinion that McGuinness has done his bit for the Cause, but if your daily existence revolves around the limited opportunities on offer in a sink estate as bad as any in mainland Britain – with the additional grim feature of a 25-foot wall greeting you first thing on a morning – the sight of Martin McGuinness being driven in a Ministerial limousine en route for tea and scones with Her Majesty probably feels less relevant to Republicanism than a mural marking an incident that occurred in the seventeenth century.

The various IRA splinter groups that have continued to operate on a small scale since the Provos decommissioned their arsenal have often filled their time either controlling the illegal drug supplies in and out of Northern Irish cities, indulging in bank robberies and petty crime, or simply ‘policing’ their areas with the same ruthless notions of law enforcement that are characteristic of the dark days of the 70s. Recent attacks on individuals in Northern Ireland have sounded distinctly paramilitary in nature; when someone is shot in the legs, one cannot help but remember the horrible punishment known as ‘knee-capping’.

The language used by the group calling itself ‘The New IRA’ – a method of distinction presumably along the lines of what distinguishes The Seekers from The New Seekers – has a ring of the bad old days about it and yet also possesses an inherent and curious quaintness that renders it almost comical, declaring its members are ‘determined to take the war to the age-old enemy of our nation’. One could positively wince at the clichés. Just as some political parties seem happier in permanent opposition than in government, there are clearly many disgruntled diehards in Ulster who will never accept what is good for the province as a whole and can only relate to what makes their lives feel fulfilled, thriving on chaos rather than submitting to order.

That their activities have apparently caused the threat of mainland Republican attacks to rise up the charts for the first time since the 90s must have made their day and vindicated their futile attempts to drag the British Isles back forty years. Expecting this deluded little outfit to compete with the blood-chilling professionalism of the new kids on the terrorist block, however, is a bit like watching the corner shop take on Waitrose. The majority of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland have moved on. As have the British troops that provided the paramilitaries with their violent raison d’être. Wake up and smell the century, chaps.

© The Editor


HydeOkay, so everyone can groan at something stupid said under the influence; whatever was said, however, it’s probably safe to assume few ships are sunk these days due to lips loosened by alcohol. In the bigger picture, an utterance is the least damaging side-effect of the demon drink when too much is consumed. From what I can gather, I’m a relatively entertaining drunk – very theatrical in my behaviour and quite amusing; for me, the inner extrovert is released for a few hours, which I don’t mind as long as Quentin Crisp knows when it’s time to go back into his box. I’d hate to be the kind of drunk I grew up being exposed to – not so much the physically violent as the verbally violent.

I don’t necessarily believe excessive drink reveals the hidden core of a person, but I do believe it can unleash an element of a personality that social convention suppresses. It can certainly bring an X-rated anger to the fore that festers during extended sobriety; it can also elevate an unpleasant nastiness espousing previously-unheard bigotry and prejudice to the surface. I once had an extremely PC friend whose publicly-aired opinions ticked every right-on box, though I recall an occasion when her alcoholic intake exceeded its safety limit and she suddenly began disparagingly referring to Muslims as ‘them’, something that served to render her political correctness a sham subconsciously engineered to survive and prosper in her chosen social demographic. For some, drink can have more serious ramifications when it gives Mr Hyde the green light.

Yesterday, a 23-year-old student called Samuel Watts found himself behind bars for a crime committed when he was under the influence, though this was no embarrassing utterance. He killed someone. The victim was a 72-year-old pensioner called Melvyn Hargreaves who was walking his dogs with his wife when they encountered the pissed student itching for a fight; Mr Hargreaves stood his ground when Watts let rip with a stream of profanities and shoved him, leaving Watts without the scalp he clearly craved. Watts retaliated by chasing after the old man as he walked away, pushed him to the pavement from behind and then proceeded to literally kick Hargreaves’ head in. Watts then did a runner and the ambulance arrived. Hargreaves died of his head injuries within a couple of days of the attack.

What emerged from the tragedy once Watts was arrested thanks to CCTV footage was that he had already had a go at five other individuals unfortunate enough to cross his path before settling on Melvyn Hargreaves, the consequence of heavy drinking in Derby city centre that night. During his trial for manslaughter, Watts claimed he had no memory of the attack, which may well be true; but it is equally true that he was conscious of his actions at the time if his immediate flight from the scene of the crime is anything to go by. He made the choice to drink himself into a rage, just as he made the choice to inflict a vicious beating on a 72-year-old, just as he made the choice to run once his despicable deed was done. However, the fact that his appalling behaviour was attributed to the drink gave his barrister the opportunity to play the ‘diminished responsibility’ card, which resulted in a sentence of a paltry nine years; and, as we all know, perhaps only half of that will be served. Samuel Watts will probably be a free man again before he reaches thirty. Some justice for the family of the man he murdered, eh?

If a violent streak isn’t already present, drink cannot bring it to the fore; drink doesn’t have the power to transform us into completely different people, merely the ability to expose a symptom of our personas that others can be unaware of. There was evidently a psychopath nestled deep in Samuel Watts, one that drink could coax out of its shell, and one that drink did indeed coax out on that fatal evening just over a year ago. But is drink a sound excuse? Obviously not where many rape accusations are concerned; in those circumstances, drink is viewed as incidental to the perpetrator’s inner rapist and there is little talk of diminished responsibility when juries and judges go to work.

Whichever incarnation of Mr Hyde that drink can let out of gaol, there are many occasions when he badly needs some compassionate leave, if only to let off steam that will then keep him subdued when it’s time to return to the cell. Drink can be good for that. It just depends what shape Mr Hyde takes before we let him out, for if he happens to be a psychopathic sadist when obscured by abstinence, he’ll still be a psychopathic sadist when his cell door is opened.

© The Editor


1956A culture that appears to have its best years behind it can often be defined by its anniversaries, and every twelve months now brings a glut of them, each serving to remind the observer of the present day’s cultural impoverishment. Take this year’s line-up: forty years since ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and the snotty eruption of Punk; fifty since ‘Revolver’ and the genesis of Psychedelia; sixty since rock ‘n’ roll went over-ground with the chart debut of Elvis Presley. Perhaps 1956 stands as a more significant year than either 1966 or 1976 for it was, in many respects, the lift-off moment of the culture we are forever marking the respective anniversaries of today.

The impact of John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the Royal Court Theatre, debuting sixty years ago on this very day, was a bombshell that can easily be (and regularly has been) cited as the turning point away from Britain’s immediate post-war malaise, though its impact isn’t always put into context. Too often in an era that can only judge the past by contemporary standards that are irrelevant to it, Osborne’s ‘angry young man’ Jimmy Porter is portrayed as a ranting, nasty misogynist. That Porter takes no prisoners – particularly when the claustrophobia of his grubby rented flat transforms his wife into a manifestation of everything he regards as wrong with the state of the world outside his window – is today held up as something that dates the play, whereas to me there is a refreshing squeamish-free honesty to Porter’s vitriol. Any objections to it now say more about 2016 than 1956, highlighting the new limitations upon what can and can’t be said in polite society that have simply superseded the ones Osborne railed against.

The influence of ‘Look Back in Anger’ spread way beyond the cosseted confines of the theatre and acted as a lightning rod for other cultural earthquakes in a country that Osborne himself later remembered as akin to a sleepy village in the mid-50s. 1956 also saw both the last disastrous hurrah of the old Imperial Britain with the Suez debacle and the introduction of Premium Bonds, a pointer to a future Britain that chose consumerism over colonialism. Between 1950 and 1960, the average wage trebled to £14 10 /- a week, and by the end of the 50s, three-quarters of British homes had a television set. The retrospective rose-tinted memory of 1950s Britain as a quaint little Ambridge theme park, one nostalgically evoked by the likes of 1990s Prime Minister John Major, was certainly not the 1950s Britain of Harold Macmillan as the country’s first true consumer boom took hold.

The democratised affluence that appeared to be changing the country for the better required a neat sound-bite to summarise it, and in July 1957, Harold Macmillan made a speech that contained one of the most paraphrased political slogans of all time, one that served to encapsulate the mood of the moment in a way few politicians’ utterances have before or since.

‘Let us be frank about it,’ he puffed. ‘Most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country; go to the industrial towns; go to the farms; and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime, nor indeed ever in the history of this country.’

However, not everyone was impressed with this view of the country. There is a montage sequence in the 1962 film of Alan Sillitoe’s short story, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, in which the lead character’s mother embarks upon a spending spree when the insurance money following the death of her husband comes through. As she and her younger children excitedly blitz the shops, Tom Courtenay’s Colin looks on with thinly-veiled contempt. Indeed, when he is handed his own share of his father’s legacy, he proceeds to burn the money. When Arthur Seaton, the antihero of Sillitoe’s 1958 novel, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, was memorably brought to the screen in 1960 by Albert Finney, the character’s response to the superficial benefits of the consumer boom was sneering disdain, especially at how it had impacted on his own parents – ‘Me mam and dad have got a television set and a packet of fags,’ he snarled, ‘but they’re both dead from the neck up.’

That these observations on the zeitgeist emanated from the North of England was no coincidence; the new affluence of Macmillan’s Britain was not regionalised as Mrs Thatcher’s would be, but time-honoured traditions were more cherished and held dear in the old industrial towns, and any dramatic alteration in everyday habits could often be viewed with suspicion. The intellectual Left had a particular gripe with the way in which commercial television and the rampant consumerism it had inspired was changing the character of the country. The same year as Macmillan declared the nation had never had it so good, Leeds-born academic Richard Hoggart published ‘The Uses of Literacy’, a landmark study of how the authentic urban British culture that had defined each region of the country and given it its own unique identity – a culture that celebrated the dignity of labour, one in which financial security was a reward for a good day’s work and the Church still governed social morality in the best possible sense – was being eroded.

Hoggart viewed ‘Americanised’ popular culture as dictated by the likes of broadcasting newcomer ITV, or the elevation of acquisitiveness encouraged by Premium Bonds and Green Shield Stamps, to be a damaging dumbing-down process long before such a phrase had even been coined. Hoggart believed the imposition of a certain kind of popular culture on the public by the mass media was in danger of homogenising the nation, an opinion that was a remarkably visionary one to air as far back as 1957.

But Hoggart was not alone. Passionate architectural critic Ian Nairn published a scathing attack on the post-war British landscape in a 1955 edition of ‘The Architectural Review’, titled Outrage! Nairn invented ‘Subtopia’ as a derogatory description of the new urban town-planning he saw as robbing towns and cities of their individual identity, making every corner of the country resemble the other, a ‘massification’ of Britain’s visual makeup as corrosive as the new popular culture Richard Hoggart railed against. Both Nairn and Hoggart’s prophetic critiques were violently at odds with Harold Macmillan’s viewpoint; but more than half-a-century later, in an age of indistinguishable, identikit towns crammed with the same chain-stores and home to an enslaved populace whose tastes are dictated by a select few controlling the mass media as well as their creature comforts, these prescient warnings from the past have remained criminally unheeded.

1956 may be a long way from 2016, but the desperate need to make people sit up, open their eyes and think seems more important now than it did then. Where be the Osbornes, Sillitoes, Hoggarts and Nairns, though?

© The Editor


LondonSo, as they say, the polls have closed and the results are in. How does the return to public office of once-disgraced ex-Tory Minister Neil Hamilton (capturing a seat for UKIP at the Welsh Assembly) reflect the political map of the country? Well, let’s start up at the top. The Liberal Democrats have embarked upon their road to recovery…by maintaining their reliable dominance in the Orkneys and the Shetlands. Not a great surprise, really. After all, former Liberal leader Joe Grimond held one of the most distant Parliamentary seats from Westminster at Orkney and Shetland for over thirty years and was a lifelong supporter of Scottish Home Rule. With the loss of their traditional fan-base down in the West Country, the faraway Scottish isles remain one of the last outposts of liberalism in the UK; had the Lib Dems lost there, they may as well have gone the way of the Whigs. Mind you, the Scottish mainland wasn’t as accommodating, where the party was pushed into fifth place by the Greens.

Nicola Sturgeon and her one pair of earrings (it took a woman to point that out to me) claimed a third straight win for the SNP in the elections to the Scottish Parliament on Thursday – even if, for the first time, the win didn’t give them an outright majority. That’s not really news, though; nobody expected a Nationalist collapse just as nobody expected the bad losers of 2014’s Independence Referendum to stop carping on about another vote on the same subject. One suspects they’ll keep carping on about it, however many times Scotland goes to the independence polls, until they eventually get what they want.

The biggest shock north of the border by far was the fact that the new opposition to the SNP is none other than the Conservative Party. Yes, you heard right. The Scottish Tory has been on the brink of extinction ever since the calamitous 1997 General Election, yet by building on their electoral disaster in Scotland last year, Labour have unexpectedly been replaced by the Tories in second place. It’s certainly a remarkable turnaround in Tory fortunes as well as an embarrassing indication of just how far Labour have fallen in what was once one of their key heartlands, with new Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale faring no better than her hapless predecessor Jim Murphy. Whatever the Labour PR machine says in the days following this latest kick in the tartan goolies, there’s no glossing over the fact that the party is perilously close to being completely finished in Scotland.

Labour remarkably failed to win any of the nine constituency seats in Glasgow, something not even Jeremy Corbyn’s fiercest critics anticipated. Yes, it may be true that the decimation of Labour in Scotland took place while Ed Miliband was at the helm of the national party; but Jezza has managed an impressive achievement by being even less appealing to the Scottish electorate than Red Ed. It’s certainly hard to imagine Labour returning to power without the strength in depth that Scotland traditionally gave them, so the council seats they retained in England seem little more than a mere short-term bulwark against Corbyn’s critics. The fact that HM Opposition tends to gain rather than lose seats between General Elections, a tradition even Michael Foot upheld (as the media keeps reminding us), leaves Labour stuck in an uphill battle to reconnect with voters beyond London and the big northern cities, with Sadiq Khan’s predictable mayoral victory over Zac Goldsmith in the capital reflective of the party’s metropolitan popularity.

At least Labour continues to control Wales, though a 24% swing to Plaid Cymru in the Rhondda leaves Labour facing a considerable hole in its previously-impregnable Welsh fortress. There were also seven regional Welsh seats won by UKIP, including the aforementioned return of Neil Hamilton, celebrating his triumph as usual with his minder…sorry, wife…by his side. The Lib Dems polled badly in Wales, losing all but one of their seats there as well as their Welsh leader Kirsty Williams, whereas the Tories were sandwiched between Plaid Cymru and UKIP, an unappetising snack if ever there was one. Mind you, at least the media focus on the local elections has enabled the Government to bury a bit of awkward bad news following one more post-Budget U-turn, this time on the plans to convert all schools to academies.

Have we really learnt anything from this batch of elections that we didn’t already know, then? The Conservatives suffered less than a party in government usually does; and Labour didn’t experience the national disaster some had predicted, even if falling behind the Tories in Scotland is a once-unthinkable humiliation. Not quite ‘as you were’ in that particular case, but more or less ‘as you were’ everywhere else. Roll on June 23.

© The Editor


SAM_1498Persistent hounder of many a bounder, TV journalist Michael Crick once described the General Election as ‘our World Cup’, with the ‘our’ being the small coterie of correspondents and commentators whose careers are devoted to documenting developments in the British political arena. If that’s true for the major event held on average every four/five years, local elections must then equate with some minor tournament staged during the summer, the kind of poor relation that is exclusively available on some obscure subscription-only satellite channel nobody has ever actually seen.

Most of us could probably name our MP (at a push), whereas councillors are a far more anonymous breed. At one time, there appeared to be a proliferation of regional titans who were never slow to remind the electorate that they’d once run around without shoes on their feet, hard men – and occasionally women – carved from local stone and prepared to pocket a few backhanders to put their towns on the map. Many, such as Newcastle’s T Dan Smith, became embroiled in scandals that were a side-effect of their rapacious ambition, eventually paying the price with prison sentences and the consequent end of careers in public office. Yes, they were rogues, but there was a certain begrudging admiration for their refusal to be cast as pale imitations of their Westminster superiors. When compared to the bland double-glazing salesmen and primary school headmistresses who constitute today’s moribund councillors, it’s no wonder so few potential voters can be sufficiently fired-up to trek to the polling station.

Not that this will be evident as live TV coverage bigs up today’s elections once the results begin rolling in, mind. It’ll still be presented as ‘David Cameron’s first serious test since the General Election’ or ‘the first chance to gauge the public’s opinion of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership’ or numerous other ‘firsts’. The broadcasters love it, and they’ve not even had the EU Referendum to get their teeth into yet; not that through-the-night broadcasts of this nature aren’t occasionally entertaining, however – fun to dip in and out of, a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s even acquired a crass Americanism to inject a dash of glamour into proceedings – Super Thursday, as opposed to not-bad Wednesday and bloody awful Friday.

Lest we forget, the engrossing allure of local elections isn’t quite sufficiently engrossing to support the hype, so it’s handy we also have elections to the assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland as well as the Scottish Parliament and one or two mayoral shindigs, most prominently the one darn Landan way, between renowned Bollywood devotee and man of the Asian people…Zac Goldsmith; and Sadiq Khan. Hell, there are even a couple of Westminster by-elections to add to the list. Come on!

Head-and-shoulders above the rest, though, have to be the elections for the local Police and Crime Commissioners. When the Tories introduced this extra layer of police bureaucracy in 2012, the turn-out amongst the electorate was a canny reflection of the public’s appetite for the new innovation: between 10% and 20%. One cannot but suspect had the damp squib proposal by the Blair administration for regional English assemblies got past the drawing board at the turn of the century, the enthusiasm on the part of the electorate would be similarly euphoric.

Having said all that, there are certain aspects of the day’s machinations which might prove interesting as pointers to where the major parties go next. Will the recent anti-Semitic accusations affect Labour’s prospects? Will the divisive European issue damage the hopes of the Tories? Will the internal coup that has been brewing ever since Corbyn rose without a trace be given the excuse it needs to move into action? Will the whole exercise serve as a warm-up for which way the wind may blow come June 23? Only one way to find out, you lucky bloody insomniacs.

And on a less cynical note, here’s a silly video…

© The Editor


LeicesterBear with me; it’s just a passing phase, honest. The truth is, however, that I can’t help but admit the fact that Leicester City are Premier League champions just makes me feel happy. I don’t support the club, but like many armchair viewers they’ve become my favourite other team over the past nine months, and I suspect, bar a few unfortunate fans in a certain corner of North London, this sensation isn’t unique. Ever since the Premier League replaced the old Football League Division One in 1992/93, the pattern has been depressingly predictable, with big money talking loud for 24 years. Even when a team successfully challenged the dominance of Manchester United, it only ever did so by breaking the bank.

Blackburn Rovers’ victory in 1995 was remarkable for a club that had languished in the lower leagues for decades, but they had been bankrolled by then-owner, millionaire businessman Jack Walker; Chelsea didn’t become the power they are today until they received the seemingly limitless cash injection of a Russian Oligarch; and Manchester City, another illustrious old name that had endured several falls on hard times were similarly raised to the pinnacle by overseas lucre. A crucial point worth bearing in mind is that all three had enjoyed success in the past – the very distant past in the case of Blackburn Rovers, but there was a previous record of league triumphs, nevertheless.

What makes Leicester’s triumph so remarkable is that they’ve always been that curious breed of football club, ‘the cup team’, the kind of club whose only chance of silverware has traditionally rested on the erratic pattern of the cup competition rather than the season-long slog of the league. That they famously appeared in four FA Cup Finals and lost on every occasion is one of those unenviable records that a trio of League Cup wins probably hasn’t compensated for; but such a history is typical of a club that has often seemed to be there to make up the numbers. Whenever they’ve scooped a league title, it’s been in terms of promotion from one division to another; the thought that they might one day get their hands on the one trophy prized above all others in English football was pure pie-in-the sky stuff.

Unlike its Scottish equivalent, English football has tended to spread its winning names wider, with some clubs dining at the head of the table in one specific era, such as Huddersfield Town, Portsmouth, Wolves, Burnley, Leeds Utd, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, and others proving to be perennial giants such as Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester Utd. Leicester City have never belonged to either category and the signs at the start of this season gave no indication that this situation would ever change. Last season, it took a late rally to rescue a team that had been dead certs for relegation, and a mid-table place was the best they could hope for as 2015/16 kicked off with all eyes on the usual big guns.

Something strange was clearly happening after just a few weeks, however. Defending champions Chelsea, ravaged by internal politics between players and management, made their worst start to a season in living memory; Manchester United still hadn’t recovered from the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and struggled again; Manchester City and Arsenal flattered to deceive, playing football worthy of a league title one week and then the following week not even good enough to put their names to a league title awarded to pot-bellied bruisers on a Sunday morning. Moreover, all were distracted by European adventures. The regular promising starts made at the start of the season, the kind that generally run out of steam around Christmas, were made by unlikely contenders such as Crystal Palace, West Ham, Spurs and Leicester, but everyone expected business as usual come the New Year. Rather wonderfully, this never happened.

Tottenham Hotspur, having settled for cup triumphs over the long decades since the immortal double side of 1961, stepped out of their North London neighbours’ shadow and emerged with a team that looked like it could genuinely challenge for the title. As the season reached its final furlong, neither Spurs nor Leicester gave the impression they were poised to slacken and give way to the usual suspects and, to the joy of every neutral, this proved to be the case. Both teams have played some beautiful football and have displayed the consistency that none of the routine contenders have been able to match; but the thought that Leicester could actually be crowned champions still seemed too unreal to be true, despite their remarkable form saying otherwise.

And yet, here we are, it’s official. A club without past championship credentials, assembling a team from the lower leagues both home and abroad, managed by a man whose popularity wasn’t enough to spare him the brutal chop at Stamford Bridge more than a decade ago, have gone and bloody done it. I know from experience that one league title win does not make a European super-power, but I doubt many in Leicester would care today. What matters is that one David took on all the pampered Goliaths and whipped their arses; and Leicester has more than Showaddywaddy, Mark Morrison, Kasabian and Richard III to shout about. About time too.

© The Editor


SteptoeFor all its faults, YouTube can reunite the late-night trawler with old friends and often throw up a few unexpected surprises in the process. Of late, I’ve found myself watching episodes of ‘Steptoe and Son’, both black & white editions from the 60s and the colour incarnation from the 70s – the latter being more familiar, though no less refreshing for all that. Forty and fifty years removed from the original transmissions, it’s easy to forget what a radical series ‘Steptoe and Son’ really was and how every classic British sitcom since owes it a massive debt. The groundbreaking plaudits tend to be dished out to ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, contemporaneous with Shepherd Bush’s most renowned rag & bone business, yet only able to step through a door that had been broken down by the warring father and son three years earlier. Alf Garnett, hailed as a hero by those he was intended to parody (as happened with Ali G decades later), took what a comedy character could get away with on TV in the 60s to a level the extremities of which negate repeat screenings in our more squeamish age; but Johnny Speight couldn’t have done so without Galton & Simpson creating a favourable climate for his grotesque invention.

The writing double act that changed the face of comedy on television had just come out of several successful years penning Tony Hancock’s most memorable scripts and it had only been the paranoid insecurities of Britain’s biggest comedian that brought the hugely popular partnership to an end. Keen to keep the pair that had generated the one programme to have beaten ITV in the ratings in the late 50s, the Beeb offered Ray Galton and Alan Simpson the opportunity to showcase their talents via a series of self-contained one-off comedies under the banner of ‘Comedy Playhouse’. Never intending to embark upon another sitcom after the unhappy ending of their contract with Hancock, Galton & Simpson were reluctant to acquiesce when the BBC insisted one of the ‘Comedy Playhouse’ episodes (entitled ‘The Offer’) showed definite promise as a series in its own right.

The rough outline of two rag and bone men engaged in an argument had leapt out from Galton & Simpson’s respective typewriters when they hit upon the intriguing idea of the characters being an elderly embittered father and his frustrated son. Eager to avoid the pitfalls of a professional gag man again, they sought out trained actors to portray the two leads rather than looking at the stand-up circuit. Wilfrid Brambell, an experienced Irish veteran of stage and screen (albeit in small supporting roles) was paired with Harry H Corbett, a promising thespian with heavyweight ambitions encouraged by revolutionary theatre producer Joan Littlewood in what both presumed would be a brief interlude between treading the boards. But the unprecedented masterstroke in casting actors as opposed to comedians gave ‘The Offer’ a dramatic depth TV comedy had never seen before. What viewers saw when this particular instalment of ‘Comedy Playhouse’ aired wasn’t derived from music hall – as the majority of television light entertainment was in the early 60s – but appeared to have more in common with ‘Look Back in Anger’. It wasn’t slick, shiny and showbiz, but grim, grotty and real.

It took some persuasion on the part of the BBC to convince Galton & Simpson, as well as Brambell and Corbett, that this single stand-alone play had the potential to be extended into a series, but all parties eventually agreed. ‘Steptoe and Son’ proper debuted on BBC TV in the summer of 1962 and was an overnight smash. Picking up the social realism baton from ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Steptoe and Son’ was the first product of the BBC’s television renaissance under Director General Hugh Carleton Greene, blazing the trail for ‘Z-Cars’, ‘The Wednesday Play’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Softly Softly’ and ‘Till Death…’. Brambell’s portrayal of Albert Steptoe imported the uncouth habits of a potty-mouthed dirty old man of a kind that could be found in any working-class British neighbourhood into the nation’s living rooms, clashing with the constantly thwarted aesthetic aspirations of Harold, the son who yearned to belong to the generation poised to make the 60s swing yet had missed the boat both by being born too early and being saddled with a mean-minded father who employed emotional blackmail to prevent him flying the nest.

The comedic and dramatic sat side-by-side in ‘Steptoe and Son’ as laugh-out-loud moments shared the screen with genuine and often heartbreaking pathos. Emanating from an era when TV was more informed by theatre than cinema, a ‘Steptoe and Son’ episode can often consist of a ‘two-hander’ between the lead actors, something that requires a level of writing and acting that few can sustain for thirty minutes; but both Galton & Simpson and Brambell & Corbett could do it. Sat atop the ratings, the programme’s phenomenal popularity even played its part in Labour’s 1964 General Election victory when Harold Wilson persuaded Hugh Greene to delay the transmission of the scheduled episode on election night until after the polls had closed.

So successful was ‘Steptoe and Son’ that it even survived Brambell’s arrest for importuning in a public convenience (he was homosexual during the period when prison was still a possibility) and Corbett’s deep desire to return to serious stage roles for fear of typecasting. After four series, both stars had the chance to spread their wings from 1965 onwards, yet the shadow of the parts that had turned them into instant household names proved hard to shake off when it came to the roles both were offered and ‘Steptoe and Son’ returned just as BBC1 was getting to grips with colour broadcasting in 1970. Three more series and two Christmas specials, not forgetting a couple of cinematic outings, followed over the next four years until the premises on Oil Drum Lane finally closed its doors at the end of 1974. A radio version, a live show and regular repeat screenings kept Albert and Harold in the public eye, however, and the pair even reprised their roles for the odd TV commercial. Neither could escape the characters.

Harry H Corbett died aged just 52 in 1982; Wilfrid Brambell passed away at the age of 72 three years later. But their premature exits from the screen didn’t affect the televisual immortality bestowed upon them; both will be eternally associated with their peerless portrayals of the dirty old man and his luckless son while ever an audience wants to watch a comedy that isn’t either pure slapstick or a spoof documentary. And as legacies go, that’s a pretty good one to put your name to. Moreover, for all its once-shocking colloquial lingo, ‘Steptoe and Son’ is refreshingly expletive-free. If only ‘family entertainment’ today could scale the heights that were achieved half-a-century ago. But there’s always YouTube…

© The Editor