Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Christmas Greetings from UK Sport

It’s Christmas – the season of goodwill to all men, and indeed women, as long as the man or woman doesn’t play Basketball, Handball, or Table Tennis and isn’t a wrestler. If you’re any of them, the season of goodwill is going to pass you by courtesy of UK Sports ‘no compromise’ approach to the distribution of public money for the next Olympics.

‘No compromise’ actually means zero tolerance. Zero tolerance of failure to win medals, because all of these sports, together with indoor volleyball and men’s beach volleyball have seen their funding cut to zero as a result of their failure to contribute to our medals total and general feelgood bonhomie this summer. In contrast the sports that put a smile on our patriotic medal winning faces are getting big increases from a budget that is itself increasing by 11%.

Compared to the fate that might have awaited underperforming athletes in the Soviet era, UK sports zero tolerance response is small beer. You don’t succeed, you lose your funding, but nothing else. But it is still fairly draconian, and at odds with a mantra that it’s the taking part and not the winning that counts. Clearly winning, or at least beating the odds and exceeding expectations, is everything where funding is concerned.  

The justification for the zero budgets, given by Liz Nicholl, UK Sports chief executive, is that ‘they are not likely to medal in Rio or the Olympics beyond that. They probably won’t qualify to even be in Rio’. Well if they weren’t likely to qualify before the funding cuts, they definitely won’t do now. Cutting finding effectively turns a prediction into a self fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t have the money to prepare for the Olympics how are you going to get to Olympic standard?

An argument could be made that these sports should be given more money, not less, as they are clearly the ones in need of more development? Perhaps before simply taking away all funding there should be some detailed analysis of why their Olympic targets were missed. Was the failure to win medals down to under-performing athletes and sports people? Was it because national teams had coaching staff that failed to bring out the true potential in them? Was their failure because of their tactics and management style, or because they had to deal with sporting facilities that were always going to mean they’d face an uphill struggle? And were the medal targets they were set unrealistic from the outset? Was some other measurement of improvement between 2008 and 2012 necessary to make an adequate assessment of their success?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but the sports that have had their funding cut are putting forward convincing arguments to say you have to look beyond the medal count. But the targets doesn’t allow for that. The focus is only on the winning, and winning is, for the most part, defined in the narrowest sense of coming first. It may be that this is outside of UK Sports control. If the external measurement of their success is based on delivery of medals it is easy to see why they have effectively written off some sports and reduced funding of others. It’s a pragmatic way to achieve a target that is reflected simply in number of medals, not overall levels of sporting achievement and participation across a range of sports.

In defending the cuts, they have argued that the excluded sports still have grassroots funding and need to rebuild themselves. However, by taking the money away without first giving them a chance to say how they would make better use of it next time around, the task has been made that much harder. If they fail to progress in the next four years it will be used as evidence to show the ‘unlikely to win medals’ justification was correct. If they surprise everyone and make real progress it will be claimed that the UK Sports kick up the backside was what they needed to get their house in order. Nothing will show what could have been achieved with continued funding as there is no sport where this is being tested out.

Investing in them would obviously have been very risky, given the lack of medal prospects, but why give large increases to sports where we already win most of the medals? How many more medals can we gain from this investment, when there are so few that we don’t already have?

The increases to the elite sports of cycling, athletics, rowing and sailing, are probably needed to consolidate, and protect, our position, in case other countries decide to target the sports we cornered the market in when no-one else was interested, but will they do that? And if they do, will our increased spending have any say in whether or not they succeed. The evidence from Football suggests that if someone wants success really badly, they will pump inordinate amounts of cash into achieving it irrespective of what the current winners invest to preserve their position. One of the main factors that will determine the lead we have in our elite sports, will be how bothered other countries are to try and take them off us. If America or China decided to extend their dominance into cycling or rowing, we’d probably find that no amount of cash would keep our medal haul at a similar level in 2016.

Maybe we should anticipate this, and rather than pump new money, and divert old money, into these sports we should look for the next set of Olympic events that no-one is paying attention to so that we can then become trailblazers in them. Perhaps we should look at any nation that got one or two Gold’s in London, see what the Gold was in, revert to our imperialist traditions and draw up plans to take them away from them next time round.

Or maybe we should look beyond the immediate medal count, not try and pass off the cuts as something that won’t affect grass roots funding, and so is not as damaging as these sports claim it will be, and use the additional money to at least keep their funding at 2008 levels while developing more meaningful ways to decide if the money is being well spent. It’s just a thought.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

In Defence of the BBC

Bashing the Beeb sounds like it should be a euphemism, but it’s fast turning into a new national pastime, taking over from the short-lived but intimately related sport of Hunt the Celebrity Paedophile. The Beeb came late to this sport, with the result that they missed the opportunity to be the first channel to bring it to the masses in 2011, and then tried too hard to play catch-up last week. And now the media have moved on from this sport and on to Bringing down the Beeb, a Jenga-like game where they aim to take out as many BBC executives as it takes for the ancient structure to collapse.

First up, of course, had to be George Entwistle, the hapless Director-General whose 54 days in office represents the most disastrous short-term tenure since Brian Clough took the helm at Leeds United in 1974. David Peace is probably writing the book about it already.
Entwistle’s ‘crime’ was to behave like a rabbit caught in the headlights when faced with the Lord McAlpine allegations. The headlights were the flurry of accusations levelled at the Beeb over its decision not to air allegations about Jimmy Savile. Blinded by these, it immediately jumped at the chance to redeem itself by outing another public figure. The cautiousness it showed about Savile had got it into trouble and it wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. The end result was a story that soon fell apart, but it was a story they would never have run if the glare of the Savile headlights hadn’t been harming its ability to make rational decisions.
Now they are condemned for doing what they failed to do in 2011, which is to run a story without double and triple checking the facts first. They can’t win. And not just on the expose that wasn’t. If Entwistle hadn’t quit there would have been demands for him to be sacked and allegations of contempt at their failure to react given the significance of the mistake, but once he did the honourable thing and resigned, there was an immediate reaction against the £450,000 payoff he gets. The payoff was included in terms of employment drafted long before anyone knew the BBC could get caught up in a crisis that appears to be this large. It equates to one year’s salary. To me it seems entirely reasonable and indeed less generous compared to ‘get-out’ clauses in other Chief Executive’s contracts. Next to what it took to get rid of Bob Diamond, who presided over a bigger institutional disaster at Barclays, it’s peanuts. And even if it isn’t, the issue is the BBC appointing people on contracts that give them a year’s salary if they resign, rather than giving a year’s salary in this instance. But in Bringing down the Beeb, finer details are avoided and glossed over.
This brings us to a closer examination of what the Beeb did and didn’t do in relation to Savile and McAlpine. In the case of Savile they chose not to report allegations that, for all they appear to be genuine and the tip of an iceberg, are still unproven in a court of law. They were allegations that, for whatever reason, were not pursued while Savile was alive. If they had gone ahead with the Newsnight report, and the allegations had turned out to be unsubstantiated, the public reaction would have been outrage. ‘The memory of charitable hero Savile being defamed so soon after his death and with him unable to defend himself. How disgusting’, would have been the condemnation from the newspapers that now condemn them for not publishing it, in spite of never running stories about him themselves.
In the case of McAlpine, the BBC reported allegations without naming the alleged offender, responding to the general public frenzy for anyone who might possibly have ever done, or been accused of, anything to be named and shamed. The internet did the rest. How does this differ to the wave of super injunctions we were told were stifling the press and protecting the guilty last year? The only difference is that the allegation turned out to be misplaced. Is that enough to justify the wholesale witch hunt and seeming desire for destruction of the BBC that is going on now?
Okay we expect the BBC to have higher journalistic standards than tabloid newspapers, but it’s still worth noting that allegations and retractions have been going on for years and normally they are settled with compensation and apologies, not wholesale resignations, unless they achieve the same scale and critical mass as the phone hacking scandal, which this one doesn’t.
Of course it’s distressing for McAlpine to be named, but various other celebrities have been accused, arrested, and even prosecuted, in relation to underage sex or rape allegations that have turned out to be false. The law and the press have not afforded them anonymity. One or two bad journalistic decisions do not constitute a major crisis and should not be allowed to bring down a great broadcaster, but that’s what it seems the media are hell bent on doing. In the meantime, the genuine victims of child abuse in the Welsh care home are forgotten and the caution that lead to the Savile story being shelved last year may re-appear just as quickly as it went, with obvious consequences for other famous perpetrators and their victims.
It’s time for some perspective. Large sections of the public got caught in a shameful moment of voyeuristic desire, insanely excited by the imminent naming of famous paedophiles. That desire lead to an ill-advised decision to jump the gun, and now the people who caused them to make that decision, by stoking the desire, deny all responsibility and turn on the organisation that made the decision, without considering how easily it could have been them in the firing line instead. It’s time to move on from Beeb bashing and get back to real stories and sensible behaviour.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Great Expectations

Ed Milliband almost let me down this week. The reason for this had nothing to do with the contents of his speech, but everything to do with the fact that it seemed to come as a surprise to every journalist and political commentator wheeled out to talk about it afterwards.

Until his speech I’d been getting wound up to the point of blogging about how nothing in politics comes as a surprise any more. Every speech, be it to a conference or Parliament, is preceeded by a news story beginning with the words ‘in a speech today x is expected to say...’

If you haven’t noticed this just google the words ‘expected to say that’and over several pages you’ll find a dazzling array of examples including‘Danny Alexander is expected to say “Fair taxes in tough times means everyone playing by the same rule book,’ ‘ Yvette Cooper is expected to say: "Look at the Libor scandal that emerged this summer. It is a multibillion pound fraud,’ and ‘George Osborne is expected to say that he’s never ate a pasty in his life, but did once have a sausage roll and understands the dietary issues that face the working class.’

All of a sudden, Milliband appeared to have bucked the trend, and I lost the chance to moan, but then I came across this on the ITN website “In a highly personal keynote speech to the Labour conference, Mr Miliband will draw on his own memories of attending a comprehensive school in north London, and speak of classmates failed by the education system because they were not suited to academic exams and university.” Normal service was resumed.

Why this irritates me so much is that it’s another example of a world where people are so impatient that they can’t wait for an event itself, and everything has to be trailed in advance. For example, unlike any other person ever to sing a Bond theme, Adele cannot wait until the official announcement, she has to tweet about it to a world who also don’t want to wait four days till something that we all knew anyway is finally made public. Newspapers do the same. The Guardian a few weeks ago had at least two ‘stories’ that were little more than teasers for interviews elsewhere in the paper. One was with JK Rowling, and the other was, once again, Danny Alexander. Is there such a lack of real stories that papers have to make quotes from their own interviews into separate articles? Just take some pages out rather than repeat the same thing twice.

This trend for sneak previews began with TV, and the same nervous executives with attention deficit disorders that decided we couldn’t be trusted to tune in on two seperate weeks for a mini-series, we had to watch on consecutive nights in case we lost all interest and forgot about it. They then decided that even if a programme was on the next night, we might still not tune in if we didn’t have some idea about what was coming, and as a result they gave us the twenty-second glimpse of the next episode that is meant to give us a scene that we’ll be eagerly waiting for, but actually destroys any of the suspense by showing us the hero will still be alive, and the villain will strike again.

I can only assume that political advisers believe they have to satisfy the same level of impatience and imagined anticipation when it comes to political speeches, but political conferences are not rock gigs. Do they imagine a whole conference, or nation, full of people sitting through a 90 minute long speech waiting for the words ‘Look at the Libor scandal’ to emerge, just as they would wait for the opening bars of Mr Brightside to tell them their favourite song is on the way at a Killers gig, or for the lights to focus on the guitarist at a rock gig to tell them this is the long solo and it’s time to go to the bar?

It doesn’t happen, and, with the exception of the power and style of delivery that Milliband managed on Tuesday, it just means there are no real surprises coming from the party conferences or any other political speech. Maybe it’s ‘focus group’ politics taken to its logical end with every announcement tested in advance for consumer satisfaction, so that any unpopular ones can be quickly replaced with a sanitised family-friendly ending. I seem to remember that this was what happened with David Cameron at last year’s Tory party conference, where a controversial part of his speech was trailed and quickly altered after it was clear that it was not popular. I tried to google this to find out what the announcement was, but googling ‘David Cameron u-turn announcement’ produced more results than ‘expected to say that,’ and discovering this was where I decided to end this post.

In my next post, I’m expected to say a lot more rubbish about anything that is getting on my nerves. Bet that’s got your attention.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Naked Royals here!

What do London buses and nude Royals have in common? You get none for ages and then two come along at once. Less than a month after Prince Harry was caught letting his hair and his pants down in Las Vegas, Kate Middleton is now the talk of the internet simply for daring to sunbathe topless, and for not realising someone might take photos of it. Fortunes are being made in legal fees, and outrage at this gross invasion of privacy is helping our newspapers get over the disappointment of not being able to print the photos.

It's worth looking back at The Sun's justification for publishing the Harry photos, both to see whether it would justify publishing the Kate photos and also because it said so much about the Sun and its readers. They claimed there was a "clear public interest in publication" and it was important its readers were fully informed about a "legitimate public debate about a man who is third in line to the throne." Do you need to show the photos in order to do this? Maybe this proves that 'Sun readers' is an oxymoron, and all they can actually do is look at pictures? A legitimate public debate is an exchange of words, theories and arguments, not pictures. If you need to see the picture to help you understand the debate, the chances are your contribution to it is not going to be defining.

Also, when did the Sun keep its readers fully informed about anything? This is the paper that ran the headline 'Gotcha' during the Falklands War. It's the paper that employed Richard Littlejohn without a right of reply from a sensible person. And, as we were reminded last week, it's the paper that ran the headlines about Liverpool supporters after Hillsborough.  To now claim it believes its important to keep its readers fully informed is to reject almost its entire history and ethos, but then double standards have always been a key part of these.

Joining the Sun in claiming that there was "clear public interest in publication" was Louise Mensch, who claimed the interest was "demonstrable" as well as clear, as if to suggest she had some empirical research to prove the claim. What Mensch and the Sun failed to realise was that 'what the public are interested in' and 'what is in the interests of the public' are not one and the same thing. I'm not saying this as some high-minded statement, I'm simply making the point that most of the things that interest us are not things that will protect us from tyrannical abuse, dictatorship, and the erosion of fundamental human rights - things that are in the public interest. The things the public are interested in include football, reality shows, and famous people in embarrassing situations preferably involving sex or at least some form of public nudity.

On that basis, there is a clear and demonstrable interest in pictures of Kate Middleton Windsor, or whatever she's called, without her top on, and its probably at least as strong as the interest in the Harry pics. Because I'm not aware of any poll asking 'which member of the Royal Family would you most like to see without any clothes on' I can't definitively say that the interest in naked Kate is higher than the interest in naked Harry, but I'm guessing that it would be. So, are there double standards if no-one is calling for publication of the Kate photos? The counter argument may be that there is not a legitimate debate about her behaviour, let alone a debate that Sun readers have to be informed about, but that only works if you buy into the theory that this was the reason Sun readers wanted to see the Harry pictures, rather than because they were pictures of a Royal with his clothes off.

Taking away the legitimate debate argument, what are we left with? The answer is the difference in public perception. Kate is seen as a sensible young woman on holiday doing what a lot of other women on holiday do. Prince Harry is seen as a Royal 'comedy-turn', the role that Prince Andrew used to hold, and Princess Margaret held before him. The difference in the nature of the photos is a by-product of this. Harry was acting like other incredibly rich people his age do, and how not so rich people his age would if only they could afford it. This makes him fair game to the press, and Kate is  is not really comprable to him, even if Princess Eugenie sounds as if she might be. Does that mean it isn't double standards, or that it is but with justifiable reasons? Maybe we just can't compare the two, and instead should look beyond the immediate Royal Family, although not all that far beyond them, to see whether Kate is being given preferential treatment. 

Here's the decider - Any newspaper or other media organisation criticising the taking and publication of the photos should ask themselves what would they have done if the photo was of Pippa Middleton? My guess is most of them would have published it, and they are giving Kate Middleton a protection and status they would not give anyone else. The well established principles of the nude photos and sex tapes industry appear to be that the more famous or wealthy you are, and the more embarrasing or intimate the evidence is, the more interest the public will have in seeing it. There should not be a Royal exclusion clause from this, and there should be no difference between these photos and any other sneakily taken topless photo of a famous woman. Whether that means they should be published or they should be banned and the photographer charged with a criminal offence is a different issue, but common standards should apply.  Meanwhile to anyone who was stumbled on this page while google searching for nude royal pictures, all I can say is if you have made it this far down, well done, but please note that just because Kate might now be a member of the royal family, it doesn't mean to say she's going to look any better than a lot of the other nude pictures you can find just as easily without ending up clicking on blogs like this by mistake.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Co-opting the Olympic Spirit

And so the Olympics come to an end after a fortnight that has delivered more than a few surprises - the opening ceremony was something everyone but Aidan Burley could be proud of, Britain won more medals than it has for over a century, the transport network did not collapse, London was largely empty, and the people that remained (including myself) discovered the fine arts of communication and smiling at their fellow man. As a nation we've rejoiced, and forgotten our domestic and international woes to such an extent that the dire news that the Bank of England had lowered growth forecasts to 0% was barely noticed. No wonder politicians and businessmen are talking about how they want to bottle the Olympic spirit and keep that momentum going.

Sadly for them, they have failed to realise that the Olympic spirit and the drivers of economic policy are entirely different things, and they can not hijack athletic success to get support for their own, less public-spirited, endeavours. 

The Olympic spirit is the result of athletes and sportspeople competing for the honour and pride of getting a medal, and volunteers giving their time and energy to make visitors to the Games and the country feel welcome. On the sporting side, Katherine Copeland amazement at realising she will now be on a stamp says it all -  it was not about money, even if sponsorship and advertising deals will now follow. This is true even in the men's football, where team GB gave their all for their country and the hope of becoming medal winners rather than for the large pay packet that normally entices them out of bed on a Saturday.

The absence of financial motivation in the athletes makes it easier for us to get behind them, and not only share their delight and be proud of them when they succeed, but also share their agony and show them we appreciate their vast efforts when they come up short. Contrast that with the reactions of the fans of the first Premiership club to have a bad start to the season and it will tell you all you need to know.  When people are paid vast amounts of money to compete, our tolerance levels fall, and the national trait of cynicism re-emerges. It's the same thing that makes us despise bankers and top executives - they have their reward in cash terms rather than the adulation of the crowd, and they are failing to deliver to the watching audience.  

This is why the sudden belief of politicians and businesses that they can co-opt the Olympic spirit is both misguided and insulting. When David Cameron talks about wanting to bottle that spirit and use it to get people volunteering, what he actually means is he wants to cynically manipulate it and use it to revive the discredited concept of the Big Society, and make good the cuts in services the coalition are imposing. When the Government say they want the Olympic spirit to continue, what they mean is that they want the nation to forget the mess that they've created, and support them in their failed economic policies because they are trying their best.

The most blatant example of the misappropriation of the Olympic spirit, however, is coming from the Chief Executive of the New West End Company that represents London's biggest shopping streets. When he said "the images of London now being seen by billions around the world can only help attract new shoppers from Asia, South America and North Africa bringing millions of pounds in till receipts" he was not even attempting subtelty, he was simply saying something that amounts to 'I want to harness the goodwill and happiness and make sackloads of money out of it.' That is a philosophy that is so at odds with the Olympians who will not make that much money out of it themselves.

Monday, 23 July 2012

G4S and Olympic joy

This is for all those who said that Britain should not have bid for the Olympics because it was a waste of money, and wouldn't unite the nation. You were wrong on at least the last of these points.  As the Olympics have got  nearer the country has come together with an ever increasing sense of hope, expectation and anticipation, and we have been rewarded. The only problem, of course, is that what we've  been hoping, expecting and anticipating is not Olympic glory, but something going badly wrong.

We thought our dreams were about to come true on July 7 when a key bit of the M4 that would transport athletes from Heathrow to the games was closed for emergency repairs. In spite of the official declaration that it would re-open in five days, the newspapers (or at least two of them) fuelled the nation's desire for catastrophe by speculating that the repair work could take all summer. We rejoiced with a sense of pessimism fulfilled, and then the road was repaired and re-opened in the stated time, and we were all disappointed again.

We needed something to lift our spirits again, and thankfully it arrived in the shape of G4S who have managed to take the role of both circus clown and pantomime villain, by not only satisfying our desire and expectation of Olympic catastrophe, but also by providing us with the opportunity to collectively indulge in another national pasttime - moral indignation. Thanks to G4S we can now get up in arms about the outsourcing of jobs to private companies, and also about the culture of rewards for failure that means those at the top never suffer for the misery they cause to others with their own incompetence.

It's great how it unfolded, with them first having to get the army to help because they hadn't got enough security staff, then having to draft the police in as well, because the ones they had got hadn't been told when are where to turn up, and then, as if that were not already enough to satisfy us, we had their chief executive telling a select committee that in spite of providing less than half the security guards they were meant to, and in spite of the cost and inconvenience they were generating for the armed forces and the police, they were still going to take the £57million pounds they were due for providing security. Now we had corporate greed on top of incompetence. The Olympic party could begin.  

We should never have doubted that G4S could manage to achieve such a dazzling level of disaster and sideshow of course. This is the organisation that, as Group 4 Security, managed to run a prison escort contract that in saw the wrong prisoners go to the wrong courts at the wrong times, and a fair few other prisoners escaping justice by escaping from their vans in the early days of its operation, so they have form on these things. Maybe it's a shame their Olympics contract doesn't also involve getting athletes to venues. If it did we would soon be able to spend hours marvelling at how Bradley Wiggins ended up playing tennis at Wimbledon, and how tennis players ended up competing in the  beach volleyball. Give them a contract to transport fans to events and we might even see a full house at a women's football game.

Of course, as an example of why public services really shouldn't be contracted out, the failure of G4S brings the biggest smiles to the faces of dyed in the wool Socialists. They also have the outsourcing of  court interpreter services that has allegedly resulted in cancelled court hearings and one court having to use google translate for a defendant (what odds an appeal in that case?) to cheer about, not forgetting the endless 'I told you so' moments that interest rate fixing, money laundering and the alleged facilitating of illegal arm sales, provide when talking about the deregulated banking system. This means that right wing Conservatives might be feeling left out of the party at the moment, but not to worry - they now  have the equally predictable strikes by rail companies and the UK Border Agency and can now come out with the 'holding the country to ransom' 'typical' and 'the nation won't stand for it' platitudes that provide them with their moment of value added indignation from Olympic problems. The Olympics are truly the gift that keeps on giving.

And so, to return to where I started, for all those who said Britain should never have bid for the olympics, all that remains to be said is shame on you. The games have provided us with opportunities to come together in having our prejudices and fears confirmed. That's the sort of enjoyment we wouldn't have got if France had been chosen as hosts on that fateful day in 2005, and you surely can't begrudge the country that, can you?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Nick is a photography student...

'Nick is a photography student', so begins the advert for the HTC One X smartphone currently showing at a cinema or TV near you. In the ad Nick Jojola is on an assignment. It's his first fashion shoot and he has to free fall from a plane and take a photo of a model all at the same time. What's more, he's only got a smartphone to do it on. 

Good grief, what kind of course is Nick on if they give him this for an assignment. Maybe his lecturer just doesn't like him. I can see why he might not do. What's worse for poor Nick is that he's got this incredibly hard assignment where a good photo is going to be almost impossible to get, and all they've given him to do it is a phone. Talk about making life difficult for the guy. Still, he's accepted the assignment, probably figuring the money he'll get from it will either help to clear his student loan or make it something he doesn't have to care about anymore, and he's now in a plane and about to jump.

What happens next? He jumps and not only a model, but a whole camera crew, follow him out of the plane, filming them from every different angle. Just what equipment are they using, and how much more of a challenge are they facing compared to Nick? All he's got to worry about is his phone.

Luckily for Nick he gets his photo, unluckily for Nick the picture he gets is of a model who looks like a Lady Gaga tribute act wearing a large puffa jacket and goggles. What kind of fashion shoot is this, and just who was it who ever thought that at that sort of height and with that sort of wind behind her, the finer details of her clothing would not get lost. I don't know much about photography or fashion shoots, but I guess that if you want to show off an item of clothing at its best, then taking a picture of it when you and the person wearing it are falling at a rate of knots from a height of God knows how high, is not going to be the way to do it. Get the model in the studio, and if you want a wind effect get a fan behind her, it's far easier and far safer.

But of course, Nick and the makers of the phone aren't doing this to show off the clothing, they're doing this to show you the potential of the phone and the fact that you can take a good picture with it while free falling from a plane. That's good to know, because there is no other way most of us will ever find out this information. I mean, how many of us will ever say to the wife or girlfriend 'I know what we'll do this weekend, we'll get in a plane, jump out of it, and take a photo'? And if we do ask that, what are the odds on the answer being 'okay, I'll get my coat'?  I'm guessing they'll be as high as Nick's plane is.

It's for this reason that the fact that the phone can do what it does is completely irrelevant. No one will want to do it. I'd be more likely to buy the phone if the advert showed Nick Jojola going to Brixton Academy on a Saturday night and getting a decent photo of whoever's on the stage without the head of a very large man appearing sometime between him pressing the button and the shot being captured. That would make me want to part with my money.

Whoever came up with the idea for this advert is a person who symbolises everything that is wrong with advertising. It's style over substance, very flashy, very clever, very annoying and totally useless. Congratulations Mr Jojola on getting a photo of a woman hurtling to the ground in some very expensive clothes that might as well be bin liners for all we can make out of them, but if you want to do it again please don't feel the need to get someone to film it and make an advert out of it.  And good luck with your course!

Friday, 1 June 2012

Infinite Riches review - Old Red Lion Theatre

The Faustus story gets updated for the easy credit eeasy fame generation in Catherine Harvey's first full length play, currently showing at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Phil (Daniel Simpson), a man facing debt to begin with, is seduced by the charms of Julie (Zazie Smuts), who he meets at a park bench while feeding the ducks, to kickstart a life where not only are his immediate debts wiped out but he can also have anything else he or his wife desires. The cost is high, as you would expect, but it is only when Phil is asked to pay the money back that he realises just how high, and how impossible his situation has become.

Whilst it could be seen as a fairly obvious analogy for the lure of easy money, Harvey and director Shani Erez deserve credit for avoiding cliches and the temptation to make money and fame seem sexy and powerful. Julie is not a femme fatale who can seduce a man just by looking at him, Smuts plays her as a streetwise urchin who would be more than at home in an updated Oliver Twist, and this gives her a more seedy allure that supports the Faustus story. Likewise the life of Phil and his wife Linda (Charlotte McKinney) barely changes as Phil acquires more wealth. Linda still obsesses over her plants, and they still stay in the same house with the same life except for a fake promotion and displays of disposable income. There is no magnificent transformation, and they don't gain that much for what they stand to lose, again supporting the theme of the play and the reality of what can be achieved with easy credit.

The play keeps you entertained even as the inevitable conclusion approaches, and the heat in the theatre does its best to destroy your interest in what is happening on stage, but there is nothing that comes as too much of a surprise. An opening reference to the story of Icarus re-emerges at the end and is suitably underplayed to reflect the gap between the illusion and the reality of Phil and Linda's situation, but it would have been good to see this story linked in elsewhere in the play. The cause of Phil's financial problems at the start of the play are never explained either. By having him already in trouble rather than just thwarted by ambition, his decision to succumb to Julie is less of a surprise, and the first part of the events that lead to his demise have been played out before we even see him.

Also as I write this review, I'm aware that I've got this far without even mentioning the character of Nan (Lesley Stone). Stone gives a good performance as Julie's rich nan who bankrolls Phil, but while she provides a narrative role, she doesn't add anything to the story, which questions the need for the part. A monologue scene where Simpson breaks the fourth wall addressing the audience after realising his dilemma and the unfair terms of the pact, could have been played out between Stone and Simpson and would have had a greater effect if it had been, but with this opportunity passed up on, the role feels more like a supporting device than something that is essential to the story.

That said, the play does succeed in re-setting the Faustus story as a tale for our times, and in showing the pact with the devil that was the national obsession with consumerism and feeding the desire to have all the latest must have items.  The play runs to 9th June.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Detroit at The National Theatre - Review

When a nice young couple move into your neighbourhood, how are you to know they're not what they seem, even when they do tell you that they are a pair of ex-junkies who met in rehab? That's the premise behind Lisa D'Amour's new play Detroit, which opened at The Cottesloe Theatre last week, and laments the destruction of the American suburbs and the way that we just don't communicate with our neighbours anymore.

The play was originally written for Steppenwolf Theatre, and follows the hugely successful August Osage County onto the National. In comparison to the grand scale of that play (13 cast, three-acts and over three hourslong, an entire house for a stage set, and a theme of the decline of all America) this is far smaller in its ambitions (5 cast, one-act at just under two hours, a back garden for a stage set, and a theme that is the decline of a smaller part of America over a shorter period of time) but there are still many things it does share with Tracy Letts muti-award winning play.

As with AOC, there's some excellent dialogue and sharp observation in D'Amour's script as the respectable suburbanites Ben and Mary (Stuart McQuarrie and Justine Mitchell) meet their new neighbours Kenny and Sharon (Will Adamsdale and Clare Dunne). Over a series of barbecues and late night meetings our perceptions of both couples alter as we find out more about them. Ben and Mary are homeowners, Kenny and Sharon are renting the property that belonged to their dead aunt. Ben left his job, and is using his severance pay to set up a website that will help people rebuild their credit ratings. Kenny is trying to hold down a job for 12 months so that he and Sharon can start to move up the social ladder. And of course, none of this would be complete without drugs and alcohol coming in somewhere, and Kenny and Sharon's initial refusal of alcohol at the first barbecue turns out to be the result of a battle to stay clean and beat their addictions, while the never addicted Ben and Mary can drink to excess without any consideration of the consequences. In drip feeding information about both couples, and confounding and subverting expectations, D'Amour makes this far more than just a story of neighbours with different backgrounds trying to get to on. Our alliegances switch between the four characters and our perceptions are challenged, but it's all done within the context of a great script that avoids heavy handed and earnest characters.

The cast are all superb. McQuarrie creates a convincing mixture of John Goodman style dumb suburbanite and doomed entrepeneur, Mitchell effortlessly and believably switches from respectable to histrionic via alcohol, and Dunne delivers the wild monologues that sound like the result of years of substance abuse and a few months of battling to stay clean, with a wide-eyed un-hinged intensity that brings her lines and character to life. Adamsdale has less in the way of dialogue, but still uses what he has, and the spaces where he isn't speaking, to create a naive, optimist who lives for the moment and feels rather than thinks. He is at his most effective in the long party scene where abstinence has come to an end, hedonism is the name of the day, and the world's of the characters are about to change for good.

It is after that point, that the play suffers however, as we get a final scene where Christian Rodska appears as Frank, the great-uncle who is renting the apartment to Kenny and Sharon. Rodska is very good, but for me, his character is unnecessary. As well as explaining who Kenny and Sharon really are (which could have been done some other way), his purpose it to deliver a sober reflection on what  the suburbs were when they were built, the hopes and fears of everyone who lived in them, and how their dreams have been subverted with re-builds and extensions, and no-one talking to anyone anymore. This puts Mary's early remarks bemoaning the lack of real communication about real things into a historical context, attempting to draw wider inferences from them, but the problem is that it doesn't work. It is tacked on, rather than in any way integrated into the plot.

Likewise Ben's desire to be British, which appears at different points, seems to serve no purpose other than to contrast between suburban living here and in the States. It doesn't naturally arise from his character or any point in the conversations, and it also suggests D'Amour has a misguided notion of what living in British suburbs is like, if it is something she can romanticise about.

It's interesting that the same observations were levelled at August Osage County, where dollops of American history, and the inclusion of a token Native American character to show the contrast to modern day america, were used to illustrate a theme that did not emerge naturally from the story. That was probably the main weakness of what remained an excellent play, and the same is the case here. If a grand statement can't be made without it feeling tacked on it's probably better to accept that what you've written is something that is very good without quite fully achieving your ambitions, rather than attempting to shoe-horn it in. At it's heart, Detroit is a great story, well written and well acted, about suburban living today. It does not need to pretend to be anything more than that, and doesn't succeed when it tries to.

Go and see it if you can, as the failings of the play are more than outweighed by its strengths, but be prepared to be a little disappointed when you leave the theatre.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Politics of Panic

A watershed moment was reached last Thursday when the Daily Mail ran the front page headline 'Pasties, Petrol and the Politics of Panic'. This was the moment when the strapline and the headline became one and the same thing.

The Daily Mail, alongside the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, has lived off trying to scare the living daylights out of its readers for years. Asylum seekers, illegal immigrants taking over our country, crime on every corner, and wastes of taxpayer money, are the staple subjects that make up the headlines. Factual accuracy is only a minor inconvenience if you can scare people witless. A couple of days before we all got obsessed with petrol and pasties, the Express ran a front page headline saying '£1 for a first class stamp' - this was the day after it was announced they were going up to 60p. It doesn't take a genius to see that the politics of panic and the politics of paper selling are the same thing.

And what of the accuracy of the headline? It's alliterative, another thing preferred above the use of facts, but is it entirely true? Outside of Ed Milliband and his two mates buying more sausage rolls than anyone would eat in one go,  I saw no long queues outside Greggs as people attempted to stockpile pasties (which of course would have been a stupid thing to do, as the pasties would have gone cold by the time they ate them and a cold pastie is a VAT free pastie), and there were no signs that it would be a week until the next steak and cheese slices arrived.

With petrol there was obviously panic buying going on, but at the same time, large numbers of people were answering polls to say the Government were getting people to panic buy. Did they not realise that when they queued for petrol or was it only after they had to clear out the garage to make room for the jerry cans? Were they hedging their bets 'I think they're whipping up fear for political gain, but I'll buy some just in case' or maybe they just wanted to join in with a national moment for fear of being laughed at by the neighbours?

The ethos behind the petrol frenzy is also interesting for what it says about community spirit. It does not say 'we are stockpiling petrol so that if it runs out we all have enough', it says 'I am stockpiling petrol so that if it runs out I have more than enough and everyone else can go screw themselves'. At the end of the day that is what people were doing, making sure they didn't suffer, trying to get more than their fair share, and being encouraged to do so by a Government that used to claim it wanted communities to do more for each other.

A week later and it's all blowing over, the only panic remaining comes from a Government whose real taxtation allegiances were finally exposed by cutting top rate tax and taxing grannies, grandads and pasties all in the same week. For that at least there may be some long term benefit to the rest of us.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

News online - why it won't kill the printed press

People are increasingly getting their news online, newspaper circulation is falling, therefore the internet will eventually lead to the death of the printed newspaper. That's the way the argument goes, but is it right?

Needless to say I don't think it is - if I did, this would be a very short post. The claim that more people get news online is true as is the claim that newspaper circulation is falling, but are they connected? No. To understand why you only need to look at where people access their online news content - in the office. Online news is the new big distraction from the working day, just as the internet as a whole is the diversion of choice when faced with a boring day in the office.  You can gaze to your hearts content as long as you're not breaching IT rules, or know you're not going to get caught.

Facebook or twitter would be first choice, but office systems have sussed this out and the famililar access denied icons pops up every time. Using smart phones in an office is a bit too obvious, so what are you left with? News sites. They're a great distraction, you can either keep up to date on the big topics, or just look at celebrity gossip. But this doesn't equate to a fall in newspaper sales. One activity is not displacing the other. Did you ever sit and read your paper while you were meant to be working? Of course not, you couldn't get away with it. Online news has replaced working, not reading the paper. Online news is not something you read on your way to work, and it's not something you read at home. At home you have more interesting things to do on your computer - it's leisure time after all.

So what is leading to the decline in newspaper circulation? Simple, it's the free sheet newspaper. How many people read the metro every day. What did they do before? Read a book? I doubt it. Talk to their fellow commuter? Come off it. Buy a paper? Yes. On the way to work people used to get a paper and read on the train. But now they can get free ones, so they don't need to spend their money.

Is there any evidence to support this? There might be, and  if I was in a full time paid job, I might look for some rather than do proper work, but, as I'm not, the one immediate proof comes with the evening paper market in London. For years people bought the Evening Standard. Irrespective of whether they agreed with the politics, it was something to read. Free evening papers were launched, the Standard's sales nosedived. Why pay for a pasttime others are providing for free. End result, Evening Standard goes free. It's sales rise and the other free papers close because no one reads them anymore.

So fans of printed papers, rejoice! They are not being killed by the internet, but they might just need to go free to survive. Online news sites rejoice! You have a captive audience until the economy really tanks. And bosses everywhere - well don't rejoice, but admit what we all know anyway, which is that people don't spend all the time behind their desks working, and most of you are also looking at news sites or something else that lurks on the internet trying to get your attention.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Jackie Mason - Farewell or Good Riddance?

Jackie Mason is a comedy legend, he's doing his farewell UK shows, so you have to see him now if you're going to see him at all. So goes the logic which lead me to see Mason's Fearless show on 14 February.

Logic can be misleading, and far from a great night's comedy this was an uncomfortable evening that left me wondering what it says about UK audiences and reviewers that Mason has been able to achieve legendary status.

Don't get me wrong there was some good material and at times it was very funny, but at other times it was just plainly zenophobic, ill-considered and offensive. If an unknown UK young comedian did some of Mason's routine on a comedy club stage he would rightly be slaughtered for this, but make it a harmless old Jewish American and suddenly it's meant to be acceptable.

I'm not talking about the Jews and gentiles routines, which Mason has every right to perform, and delivers like a man whose been telling these jokes for half a century (because he has), I'm talking about some of the other material where ignorance and prejudice flow forward, and an audience who should know better laugh like BNP members at a Bernard Manning concert, suddenly relieved that they can reveal themselves as the bigots they are.

The lowlight of the first half was an extended vocal parody of Indian doctors, following on from the barely disguised racism lying behind a 'joke' that the doctors were also the taxi drivers taking him to the hospital. This was only the warm up, as the second half saw the parentage and colour of Barack Obama called into question; Greeks incorrectly stereotyped to a level that makes Jeremy Clarkson's comments about Mexicans sound like the work of an astute social commentator, because they dared to strike and  in the process wiped billions off shares owned by good hard working Republican voting Americans; and all Syrians being decried as murdering bastards whom we should not allow in to the Olympics.

Mason's bizarre views that it was almost heresy that John McCain was not automatically made president, and that  Obama or Hilary Clinton even thought they had a right to stand against him, tells you all you need to know about his politics. He is a staunch Republican. Put that togther with almost half of his material and you have all you need to know to say why a Republican presidency is a prospect the rest of the world (and the rest of the States) should worry about. Comedians can and should be political, but when you highlight the unpleasant underpinnings of your party's politics then you don't do you or them any favours. 

Of course, Mason gets excused as an old guy from a different time and a different country - there may be some truth in that, but frankly age should not be an excuse for pedalling the type of material that should have been consigned to history years ago.

I emerged at the end feeling uncomfortable at laughing at anything that was funny because of what the rest of the show said about the man making me laugh. I seemed to be largely alone in this reaction, and this is what was really worrying. A London audience living in a multi-cultural society, should not be vigorously cheering and applauding homophobic and zenophobic humour, but they did. Mason has an excuse, the audience don't.

The same go for reviewers who excuse all the offensive material and clamour to praise him. Like The Aristocrats movie were a whole lot of comedians told a lousy joke and everyone proclaimed it the best joke ever, because they didn't want to be the odd one, there is self denial at play. There is also double standards. See past the man, and see into the material. Some of it is funny, but much of it is just offensive, and you let yourself down by excusing it, let alone celebrating it.

Farewell Jackie Mason and good riddance.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Welcome to my world

You have to blog to be seen, and you have to be seen to blog. Is this true? I have absolutely no idea, but having read that blogging is the thing to do, I've set up this site where I will basically write whatever occurs to me and share it with anyone that happens to be passing, which could of course be no-one.

It will have reviews of things I've seen, read or listened to, and have comments on anything else that winds me up enough to make me feel like venting my spleen to a world that may or may not be listening, but in all likelihood probably isn't.

Welcome to my world...