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March 23, 2018

THE permanently combative Liz Kershaw – sister of our Andy – popped up this week at a House of Commons select committee on BBC Pay (blimey, they get paid as well) to tell the assembled MPs that she had been libelled by her own employer over slurs around avoiding paying tax to defraud the good citizens of the UK.
When not scouring streets in search of the very few remaining empty phone boxes left in which to start an argument, Liz is a presenter on Radio 6 Music (background muzak in postgraduate suites in lofty institutions the length and breadth of Britain but rarely listened to by ordinary people. My neighbours would struggle to find it let alone listen to it) and she told her doting political ego massagers (they never ask them intrusive or really meaningful questions like “why do you think the BBC should be paying you at all, Liz?” but instead feed them politically right-on lines about employment rights from their days as trade union bigwigs, proffer sycophantic leading questions, politically grandstand to appear concerned and worthy or artificially affect surprise and frothy indignation) who wanted to know the “truth” about how the BBC is run that she worked at Radio 6 for “not a penny” for six months after finding so much fault with the Beeb’s remote and unfathomable, ever changing and ever confusing system of contracts and payments before later informing us that she later put in an invoice for her stirling efforts and got her cheque (considerable relief all round, not least at the BBC’s “human resources” department).
I wondered who else would tell a similar story of sadness and woe about having to work freelance, employ accountants and form their own “personal services” companies to manage their tax affairs – Alan Partridge and Dave Clifton from North Norfolk Digital, perhaps. Alan holding forth assertively and ruefully on how treacherous and slippery BBC middle managers had treated him like a dog, cheques had often gone missing in the post and promised contracts had failed to materialise before he left in a huff to grind out a living like everyone else does in the real world.
But no, huddled around our Liz facing the MPs were Kirsty Lang, a journalist who once worked at Channel 4; Paul Lewis, who presents Radio 4’s Moneybox, a consumer journalist who speaks on the airwaves with great authority on pay, pensions, and investments (shouldn’t he be advising the BBC, not the other way around, I wondered) and a male news journalist/presenter from Nottingham whose name I do not remember but who seemed to be present to give some sort of token regional voice (just as angry but poorer and less recognisable).
Liz likes the sound of her own voice much more than I like it and armed herself assiduously with background information on her mobile phone to present quite an impressive, spiky and hugely entertaining insight into the warped and dysfunctional culture at the BBC, even mentioning the Saville affair at one point and laying into a number of director generals (or should that be directors general) for being incompetent and disengenuous (she liked that word) in dealing with their staff, even calling them oligarchical at one point.
Liz, of course, dominated, delighting in telling chair Damian Collins and his assembled crew of MPs on the Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee what a rotten deal she had been given over the years and how nobody in what used to be called the Accounts Department really knew whether they were proper employees or sole traders so the advice given them was just as muddled and contradictory (poor lambs). None of them mentioned their trade unions and appeared unrepresented by the National Union of Journalists.
Liz believes that the licence fee payers pay her salary, not the suits at Broadcasting House she was so contemptuous of and is one of those typically bolshie left-wing believers in public contributions to pay for a wide variety of things, even Radio 6.
There was, of course, a reverend and hugely convivial and collegiate atmosphere in the room as these privileged members of the liberal middle class metropolitan elite cosily confirmed each other’s “public service” and “public sector” righteous sense of entitlement and expectations around notoriously generous pension schemes, sickness cover and holiday pay (the MPs didn’t discuss their own affairs, significantly. I wonder why?)
How I envied these grotesques (the MPs and the presenters) for being able to lambast their employers so enthusiastically and heartily yet still remain seemingly permanently fixed in their respected and respective firmaments like dim old light bulbs screwed in stubbornly tight to an inflexible, eccentric power system which is rarely overhauled or restructured or which rarely responds adequately to the needs of the consumer or holds the powerful or its own staff to account (Jimmy Saville thrived).
It is an insulated and privileged job for life for far too many of them (my MP is Paul Flynn, need I say more).
It took me a long time to realise that in paying the licence fee I was helping to keep this nonsensical headache going. Not any more.



March 15, 2018

NEVER before have I seen a stage partly given over to a restaurant business with chefs busy at their tasks in a kitchen behind glass in the background and waiters and waitresses rushing to and fro serving paying guests while a production is going on at the same time on the same stage anywhere in the world.
Having seen it in Network – the National Theatre’s blockbuster winter smash – at the Tuesday matinee, I don’t think I want to see it again.
Part of me wondered what they were eating and drinking in the rectangle of the stage occupying roughly a quarter of the entire space, how much they had paid, why I wasn’t there but instead standing at the balcony, how they would affect the actors during the action and why they had to be there at all (couldn’t a waitress slip and throw ice cream all over Bryan Cranston’s tie? Would Howard Beale get mad as hell and throw the lot of them out mid sip or mid gobble?)
The stage itself is as much of a star attraction as any of the actors in this glittering, all-action, frenetic, shimmering and deeply cinematic staging of the famous film about a journalist who presents the news soberly without comment or opinion then suddenly announces he’s going to kill himself live on air and uses the time left to preach, prattle and proselytise at a gripped nation locked onto the tube desperate to hear every word from their new messiah.
Imagine Huw Edwards losing it on air reading the BBC Ten O’clock news then telling us all that things are bad, very bad, and getting worse by the day, blaming the bloody government, the Russians and the secret services and telling us he was as mad as hell and would not take it any more before he one night appeared ruffled and unshaven in his pyjamas having an almighty breakdown live on screen.
Now that broadcasted breakdown – where all the rules and conventions of journalism get kicked emphatically into the trash can in a manic, revolutionary self destructive and self indulgent rant at a cruel and deeply divisive, unfair world – would be certain to win viewers, new viewers in their droves because spontaneous anarchy, of course, is hugely compulsive. Rubberneckers love a good car crash.
Try watching a person on TV forget their lines or have some kind of psychological blip of any kind. That’s always what you remember. Always. Every time. Someone “dying” for real on air is far, far more compulsive than someone living a lie professionally night after night. It’s one of the reasons I don’t watch TV any more – I never really trusted it.
Breaking Bad actor Cranston does a very convincing job of playing a journalist having the mother of all psychological blips – Howard Beale, veteran anchorman on UBS News, played in the film by Aussie Oscar winner Peter Finch.
But the TV station bosses see the potential for huge ratings to save them from bankruptcy and boost shares (big business and journalism in an unholy alliance of demonic proportions, who’d have thought it, eh) with his crazed attacks on anything and everything so give him plenty of space and air to vent his anger and frustration after first sacking him in a show of disgusted mock outrage.
The message is that there are no morals in journalism or big business and success is judged always by the outcome never the intention. If it works, it works, if it sells, it sells.
The stage is a busy place before the show starts – restaurant guests are seated at their tables tucking into food and quaffing wine, chefs are busy chopping and cutting, “TV journalists” are manically pacing around in the studio nerves on edge preparing the broadcast Howard will deliver on that night’s news.
Huge screens offer live news feeds from all over the world, hungry, egotistical young TV journos huddle in conspiratorial cabals plotting the next coup to inch them further up the greasy, sleazy pole and the ubiquitous clocks, tick-tocking on huge digital monitors remind everyone that time is running out and the dreaded DEADLINE is approaching. Last chance to apply make-up, straighten your tie and get your hair and your lines straight.
That fizzing, addictive energy based on massive regular ego boosts reminded me of a career in journalism where I once believed I was a messenger delivering to an audience.
Today, everyone can present the news and they frequently do in blogs, Twitter and Facebook posts and even on live mobile phone streams direct to you from wherever they are. Freak shows are free and ubiquitous on the internet, in fact, many regard it as the greatest freak show of all time.
The world has changed beyond belief since Paddy Chayefsky wrote Network in the early seventies when print and television was still highly respected and authoritative so it is strange to see a film like this re-hashed on stage as a vehicle for the versatile Cranston.
Michele Dockery, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary, plays Diana, the love interest, an ambitious hard-as-nails, duplicitous newsroom vixen crammed full of insecurities and deeply torn between her own selfish needs and the greater good. She is a pale shadow of the character played memorably by Faye Dunaway I remember from the film. More Down-ton than Down-on.
Douglas Henshall is a vapid and washed-out newsroom editor who befriends Beale and tries to watch his back as his intentions and his actions become more and more bizarre and unhinged just as the grip he holds over the American viewing nation strengthens and consolidates with every manic mouthful.
This production is hugely dynamic and takes real risks with Cranston rubbing shoulders with the audience for genuine chats, including some of the diners, and cameras following Henshall and Dockery as they take a walk outside the theatre among bemused passers-by on the South Bank pavements.
Finally, though, big business in the shape of faceless, big-suited newsroom executive boardroom monsters decide to impose their own dramatic deadline and we realise that an audience really does get what it deserves.
All that and the restaurant guests get to finish their meals, pay their bills and wander politely out into the big, bad, scary world.


March 15, 2018

PETEY Bowles represents us in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party – the powerless onlooker repelled and reviled by our capacity for evil but even more repelled and reviled by his own instinct to gape and stare at it happening rather than intervene or to actively fight against it.
Self interest is the deckchair attendant’s main interest and he wants a quiet life free of hassle far from the madding crowd in a faded, all our yesterdays seaside “resort” on the English south coast.
But on his lodger Stanley Webber’s birthday, a sinisterly heavy comic double act – Goldberg and McCann – arrive like a bitter bolt out of the blue to assert themselves with an arrogant and vindictive manic energy on their chosen victim, the joyless birthday boy Webber (played by Detectorists star Toby Jones at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, when I saw it yesterday).
This adaptation plays it straight, wringing huge dramatic power and profanity from the mundanities and morosities of life in a rundown, cheap and nasty guest house on the English coast. It’s close enough to the sea to be able to hear the lapping of waves and the seagulls squawk, the wallpaper is peeling off, the breakfast consists of Corn Flakes and lonely, unappetising fried bread if you’re lucky and Petey and Meg chirrup at each other like two tired old caged budgies trapped in an old rut silently wishing they were seagulls.
Webber is the only guest, utterly contemptuous of his host and his faded, sad, saucy wife (Zoe Wannamaker doing provocative nudge-nudge wink-wink superbly in this) who overindulges him with breakfast “treats” and wakes him up personally in his room religiously each morning.
She presents him with a drum as a birthday present yet seems not to notice when he puts his foot straight through it during a game of blind man’s buff in a hastily thrown together birthday party with no cake and candles but plenty of whisky, bite and rancid, sour hot air.
We see him being bullied, marginalised and eventually taken prisoner, mute and broken, after Goldberg and McCann divest him in his bedroom of spirit and fight probably through brain surgery or electric shock treatment (McCann enters the house carrying two long rectangular brown leather cases which look nothing like luggage and he carries them in the way a hitman would carry a very small stiff to a secret burial place at dead of night).
Pinter’s first play was first performed in 1958 at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, when psychosurgery and ECT treatment was having a frighteningly corrosive effect on people deemed by psychiatrists to be abnormal or anti-social, causing much worse suffering and even death and destroying traditional family attachments. I sense that it lurks somewhere here and, although the times have changed considerably, the threats in the home still exist and the battle to be heard among people who have no drum of their own to bang remains as relevant as ever.
It was badly received by critics then. They struggled to define and classify his work and were put off by the malevolent menace lurking in an English home as well as the unremittingly acidic archetypally staunchly Jewish characters and dialogue.
Ian Rickson directs with considerable skill, coaxing excellent performances out of the entire cast with Stephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor cleverly synchronised and carrying considerable menace, mischief and mayhem as the demonic duo who suddenly appear out of nowhere to ask Petey for a room.
It is difficult to precis Pinter or to accurately assess true meanings or point out his intentions.
The Birthday Party is definitely about power and powerlessness set with rather than against each other, in constant frenetic dialogue with absolutely no winners, triumphs or victories. How it was ever classified as a comedy I really do not know, although many people in the audience laughed like hyenas throughout the dialogue, particularly between Meg and Stanley in the first act.
The oppressors and their victims soon arrive at their destinations (this is a short play, like most of Pinter’s work, and the first act is rapid and concise).
Cruelly mocking Goldberg and McCann, agents of a relentlessly merciless state which institutionalises rather than individualises, abuses rather than enables, marginalises rather than includes, holds captive rather than sets free, expose and exploit their victims.
Lulu, the “easy lay” who falls for Goldberg’s snappy rapid-fire patter – “Lulu, you’re a big, bouncy girl. Come and sit on my lap” he tells her at the party – is exposed and exploited, again, and Stanley is completely crushed and left out on the margins.
He is seated with his back to the audience at one point in the play, fully explaining his lack of status and voice as the drumsticks and broken drum – a metaphor for his harsh, dissonant tone with no melody or lullaby, gathers dust in the corner.
The ride is a deeply poignant, perfectly paced, superbly crafted journey which reminds us that ageless, potent writing like Pinter’s is still relevant long after the asylums stopped mistreating people.
Be careful what you wish for – especially on your birthday.


February 26, 2018

A FORMER civil servant in the Welsh government once opined to me that devolution was good for Welsh people because it meant free prescriptions.
Whoopee! we Welsh are all drugged up to the eyeballs at no cost but very little is being done to meaningfully measure on a regular basis that each of the drugs we take is still effective and if there are newer, more effective alternatives available or, whisper it, alternatives to drugs. The dosage is not being assessed and corrected regularly and tend too often to always increase.
Now health secretary Jeremy Hunt warns we could die if nothing is done about the frightening NHS prescription blunders which account for far too many hospital admissions as well as serious injury and, in some cases, deaths.
“Here´s your prescription again Mr Gibbs, we´ll see you when we see you,” is the default position for hard-pressed GPs who are now engaging with technology far more than they are engaging with the person because their workloads have massively increased and the time they spend with each patient is now heavily restricted.
Like most people, I suspect, I don´t want free drugs doled out with no meaningful check on how helpful they really are to me, I want quality time with expert practitioners who seek alternative approaches to the rigid medical model and the drugs first mentality.
The fact that I am in Wales (where David Cameron rather shamefully once said I was on the wrong side of the border between life and death) ensures that I get plenty of free drugs but precious little quality interaction, counselling or support.
I recently reported pins and needles and loss of sensation in my left arm and was told that it was linked to my neck (I had worked that out for myself) and, yes, you guessed it, I was offered a prescription without any meaningful examination or any tests which I am almost certain was some kind of pain-killer.
Thanks, but no thanks, was my very prompt reply.
I have shared on this blog the story of the GP who regularly dined with drug company representatives at a Chinese restaurant owned by an associate of mine at that time and loaded extra takeaway food onto the drug rep´s bill so he could tuck into TV dinners at home entirely at their expense.
I used to call him Dr Greedy.


February 18, 2018

ALL MEN are rapists or potential rapists and all young girls under 18 hoping to pass their driving tests are clueless, vulnerable children who could easily be ravished in the car, that seems to be the message in a new dictat warning driving instructors to keep their hands off their young pupils.
Who, seriously, is going to want to train to be a driving instructor now?
A number of things spring to mind.
The first is whether or not this could be aimed at female driving instructors as well as males and whether or not it could refer to both males and females under 18-years-old. If it does not, then it is a blatantly sexist, offensive attack which perpetuates the stereotype that only older males take advantage of young females. It happens the other way around not to mention older lesbian females who might hit on a girl.
If it is only aimed at male instructors who have female pupils, then it is the latest in a long line of initiatives that aims to marginalise and criminalise older men.
The Welsh Assembly Government is giving the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, following the lead set by the Scottish government, yet while in a car learning to drive they are seen as children who need protection because even if it is a consensual relationship the instructor will have committed an offence.
For the feminist, liberal radicals behind this crazy move, this is having your cake, putting hundreds and thousands on it while liberally applying raspberry jam and eating it all.
How long will it be before the instructor will need to pay for a chaperone?


February 17, 2018

FANCY a relaxing weekend in Cardiff in July as a little treat?
Then why not book this three-bedroomed house in Birchgrove near the city centre on the website for four nights from Friday, July 13 to Tuesday, July 17.
There’s only one problem, the price – £10,000, yes I’ll repeat it…… £10,000.;label=bin859jc-index-XX-XX-XX-unspec-gb-com-L%3Aen-O%3AwindowsS10-B%3Aedge-N%3Ayes-S%3Abo-U%3Asalo-H%3As;sid=b30890004172db952a40baa0a7276e50;checkin=2018-07-13;checkout=2018-07-17;room1=A;homd=1;srpvid=b8d049b40b190086;srepoch=1518863413;atlas_src=hp_iw_btn


February 15, 2018

PAUL Potent, vice-chancellor at University of Speaknoevil here.
Julie Defiant and Yvonne Rigid, our co co-ordinators in the university’s new gender equalities and fairness at work sub-group, rushed to my office in the management suite today from Tower of Chakrabarti to protest about some deeply disturbing news.
“Paul Flynn is like grey beardy old father time,” remonstrated Julie, “he just hangs on and on and on, clogging up the system to prevent us young women from getting a chance.”
“Yeah,” said Yvonne “silly old fart. It’s time to move over and let the girls in.”
I found myself wanting to ask “what about young men or boys?” but I very sensibly resisted the temptation as both Julie and Yvonne would brook no argument and seemed quite livid, demanding that I immediately support unreservedly their emergency motion to the NUS General Council on the matter and threatening that if I did not do so they would stage a sit-in in the Quadrangle and go on a 24-hour hunger strike.
Paul Flynn, in case Speak students do not know, is the 83-year-old Labour MP for Newport West who seems to win elections and return to Parliament rather in the way that night naturally follows day and is now one of our longest serving politicians as Newport West is as safe a Labour seat as you’re ever likely to get.
I have given the matter some thought and have decided that elections to student council will from now on be barred to males so that we here at Speak set an example to everyone. All student representatives will be female, too.
I am grateful to Julie and Yvonne for pointing out this kind of blatant discrimination against women so that we Speakers can stand proud and true in our aim for a fairer and more egalitarian world.
MEANWHILE: The University’s talks about a merger with the Totally Totalitarian Institute (we may be re-named University of Speaknoevil Totally or Speaknoevil Totally University) are proceeding very amiably with both parties totally (if you’ll forgive the pun) committed to educational excellence and world-leading standards of research and academic achievement.