Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I take it back: Brown announces one good policy...

... and hold onto your hats: It's one of ours!

No sooner have I written a post slagging off the policy-free zone that is Labour than I look at the Guardian website and see this story:
Brown to close private equity loophole
Deborah Summers, politics editor
Wednesday September 26, 2007

The government will close a tax loophole that allows fat-cat bosses to pay less tax than their office cleaners, Gordon Brown said today.

The prime minister vowed to take action on private equity chiefs in the pre-budget report later this year.

During a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with Mariella Frostrup, the TV and radio presenter, at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth, Mr Brown said: "Whenever there is a loophole that shouldn't exist we take action. Since 1997 we have closed a massive number.

"Sometimes it is very difficult to do so because you have lawyers and accountants who are always trying to find these loopholes.

"But on this issue of private equity I can assure you that we will do so."

Private equity firms have been criticised for buying up some of the UK's best-known companies, stripping their assets and cutting jobs.

They also have been accused of using loopholes to pay too little tax, with the rate sometimes as low as 10%.

Mr Brown added: "We will deal with the issue when it comes to the pre-budget report."
There is more to the story, by the way, I have stopped where the substance stops; the rest is a fawning reproduction of a bit of personality guff from Brown.

So there you have it, folks, the first even slightly meaningful announcement to have come out of this conference, and it's a Lib Dem policy, announced using the exact same phrases we were using to argue for it ("a tax loophole that allows fat-cat bosses to pay less tax than their office cleaners" sound familiar?).

Needless to say, there is, as yet, not a mention of the Lib Dems in the Guardian's story.

Labour broadcasts televisual emetic

I'm sure I'm not alone in having cringed a little bit at the Lib Dem conference broadcast that was broadcast last week; the cheesy music, the slightly twee shots of Ming playing football. So I am incredibly grateful to the Labour Party for demonstrating just how much worse it could have been (a big cuddle for anyone who can find a link to Labour's video).

Where we approached a big issue and outlined actual policy to tackle it, Labour simply have Gordon Brown chuntering on about his personality, what kind of person he is, his values and the resilience of the British people. The closest he came to actually talking about what his government has been doing about any of the issues that concern the electorate was two statements of problems we face (housing shortage, and disrespect for NHS workers, bizarrely enough) swiftly followed by gnomic pronouncements that "we're changing that". And that's it. No suggestion of how. No new policy, no new ideas.

And who can blame them? The new policies they have announced recently to look as if they are actually changing things have been so lame it took the press less than five minutes to point out their flaws. Council tax rebate for servicemen and women? Yes, but it's out of the existing MoD budget. Annual "deep cleans" for hospital wards? Not going to help, daily cleanliness is far more important. And so it goes on.

I have never seen a clearer illustration of how personality driven our main parties are today (if the Tories' video is a vision of serious policy engagement, I will happily recant in their case, but I'm not holding my breath).

People accused Tony Blair of being presidential, but if that was the case, what on earth do you call Gordon? To see this video, you would come away with the impression that Gordon is the Labour Party. Why else would they spend so much time in their video selling Gordon as a person to us?

Simon Hoggart, grizzled old cynic as he is, has a useful rule of thumb for gauging the facile-ness (facility?) of political speeches: would the opposite statement be a completely outrageous thing to say? On this basis, Gordon Brown's broadcast says absolutely nothing of substance about anything, except perhaps about himself. He even has to write himself into his little illustrative vignettes of the things government must do ("I first saw the NHS aged 16... rugby accident...etc"). Essentially, the key planks of Gordon Brown's agenda we can take away from this broadcast are as follows:

1. The NHS is lovely, don't you think?
2. Educating our children seems like a good idea.
3. Things that people are unhappy about should be "changed".
4. Britain!

Labour activists are going to have a tough time selling a programme like that on the doorstep...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Labour minister praises Lib Dem tax plans?

According to the Big British Castle, treasury minister Angela Eagle is quite taken with our policies on tax. At least, that's the slant of the story. To be honest, it looks a bit fishy; the only direct quote in the article that I can see is not exactly prominently displayed and looks pretty ambiguous:

At a Fabian Society fringe event at Labour's conference, Ms Eagle was asked if her party faced a "challenge" from its opponents when it came to talking about the top end of the tax scale.

She replied: "Yes. And I for one hope we're going to do a bit of talking about that."

In addition, unless the lineup of Angela Eagle, Vince Cable and David Laws were at two fringe meetings last night, this is the very same meeting of which Linda Jack has already given us a fairly thorough rundown, without mentioning any interesting concessions to the Lib Dems from the esteemed Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury.

A bit of story invention from an otherwise pretty dull conference?

Oh, and while I'm about it, might I just question the illustration of the story with a picture of an Evening Standard billboard reading "Massive Council Tax Rise", captioned "The Lib Dems want to tax the super-rich"? Does this not seem like an unworthy propaganda manouvre to paint us as council tax raisers, and not abolishers? Just a thought...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Meme: Political Influences

I have been tagged by Nich with the political influences meme. So here they are. Since my political position is probably not actually final yet (indeed, I kind of hope it never is - I can't see how you can be certain you are right without closing your mind, hence the title of this blog), I have no way of really evaluating who is the most important, so I thought instead I would order the list roughly to tell the story of how I wound up with the beliefs I hold today.

1) Doctor Who – Liberalism

Before I had any interest in real politics, my political thoughts were very likely being shaped by Doctor Who. Indirectly, I suppose, this reflects an influence from my mother (a lifelong tribal Labour voter, irritatingly), who encouraged my interest because she preferred the programme to much of the contemporary fare on TV as I was growing up. Alex Wilcock has written (at typical length!) about what makes Doctor Who liberal, but for me, the values I got from it are not limited to liberalism, at least in a narrow sense. I also gathered a respect for science, a suspicion of religion and superstition, and a more general enjoyment of non-conformity. For political discussion within the programme, though, you can't do much better than the Doctor's argument with the BOSS at the end of the Green Death.

You might think this quite a frivolous thing to include, but I honestly do think I need to explain why, for instance, one of my earliest political memories (to slip into another recent meme for a moment) is of being in a Thorntons around the time of the '97 election. For the occasion, they were producing chocolate models of the heads of the party leaders. I was ten at the time, and had no real interest in politics, and yet I insisted for whatever reason that I wanted the one shaped like Paddy.

For a long time before I really thought about it, I had a kind of instinctive loyalty to the underdog, rebellious figure in the political arena. In explaining this, I can only really think of Doctor Who to point to.

2) Air America and Al Franken – Party Politics

American politics is so much more straightforward than ours. There is a Clealy Wrong Party and a Clearly More Right Than The Wrong Party Party. Perhaps for this reason, before I (definitively) picked a British party, I had picked an American one. For whatever reason, I got interested in Fox News (probably because they were available on Sky, and good for a laugh over breakfast), and through them, in the people who had opposed them. Foremost amongst them is Al Franken, whose very funny book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them taught me that not all political mudslinging is the childish bickering we are encouraged to take it for by those who would rather we just didn't pay attention to how we are governed. It showed me that sometimes, one side is just right, and the other side is not just benevolently wrong, but actually being quite slimy. As such, I suppose, it had the small but crucial effect of convincing me that taking a side wasn't an ignoble thing to do, and that signing up to a particular party was a good thing to do. Far too many people, especially on the left, like to maintain a lofty detachment from party politics, and it does nobody any good.

At the same time, people like Franken, Garofalo and Maron, all hosted shows on Air America for a time (and are all now sadly absent). I got quite into listening to their shows and therefore keeping abreast of the daily rythmn of US politics. They taught me that political discussion doesn't have to be dry and boring.

3) Lawrence Miles – Cultural Politics

Within Doctor Who circles, Lawrence Miles is well known for his lengthy interviews, as well as his excellent books. Much time in these interviews is given over to cultural analysis of one sort or another. Often, his interviews contain huge amounts of guff (as does his blog), but some of what he says is fantastically perceptive and, for my money, brilliantly right. For instance, a few years ago now (long before Doctor Who came back):
Looking at TV and literature right now, I think the idea is that we're supposed to be ashamed of liking anything that goes beyond normal, everyday professionalism. We're supposed to feel that we're sad wankers for wanting to get away from the kind of stuff that grinds our lives down to nothing, but as far as I'm concerned if you've got a story about Character X ripping out Beelzebub's heart with a pick-axe and saving the universe then it's a story worth telling, whereas if you've got a story about Character Y going to work every morning and bravely doing the filing then you can frankly piss off. And somehow we've reached the stage where the only drama programmes that get made at all, on British TV anyway, are about twentysomething law students sharing a flat and arguing about the Hackenschmacher case as if anybody really gives a toss. For a while we at least had stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but now even Buffy's gone down that "soap opera is good, fantasy is incidental" path and started slagging off anyone who's got a vaguely alternative kind of lifestyle. And while I'm in mid-rant I'd also like to question the long-term effects of children's movies like Toy Story and Monsters Inc, which seem to be designed to turn things that used to be astonishing and remarkable into things that are crass and ordinary. In Toy Story, all the toys magically come alive and then… hold bureaucratic meetings about paint erosion. In Monsters Inc, it turns out that monsters aren't actually strange and fabulous beasts but bored clerical staff who spend most of the day hanging around the water-cooler at Monster Head Office. These films aren't made with children in mind, they're made by "professional" adults who want to feel good about their own petty lives, and as a result the next generation's being primed for clerical work from birth ... There was a time when we were proud to do things that were new and interesting and eccentric, the whole point of Doctor Who as a TV programme was that it was the victory of the fantastic over the mundane, and yet now all of a sudden we're being asked to side with the mundane and being told that you're "naïve" and "unprofessional" if you don't. The day I start being "professional" is the day you've got permission to murder me in my bed. So I think we're starting to forget the point, overall. To actually look for that kind of life, where you're stuck in an office job and acting like it's a great heroic victory… it's a kind of living death, I think. To be so badly messed up that you can't even imagine anything better.
Of course, much of this probably appealed to a slightly teenage nonconformist sentiment, but I do still think he was onto something. Thankfully, I think we probably have moved on from that, thanks in no small part to Doctor Who's return.

4) Noam and Anarchism – Anti-authoritarianism

Fairly straightforwardly from interest in the American left came a reading of Naomi Klein's awesome No Logo and from there, The Corporation by Joel Bakan (available as both a film and a book). Both are excellent, by the way, especially The Corporation. The guy who made the film of The Corporation, Mark Achbar, had also made a documentary introducing Noam Chomsky, called Manufacturing Consent, so I thought I'd watch that. Though overlong, it serves as a great introduction to Chomsky generally, and acted as a springboard for me to read some of his stuff.

I don't necessarily subscribe to everything he says, and I do find his view occasionally slightly dogmatic. What concerns me perhaps more than anything else about him is that his view of the world doesn't seem to have shifted at all in the last fifty years. Anyway, I think he does offer a very insighful analysis of the media, especially the corporate media that until blogs had more or less a stranglehold on the politics of the US. His analysis of US foreign policy is hit and miss, though it hits more often than it misses, and I have always had some sympathy for his side of the argument because the people who "rebut" his arguments in the MSM very often seem to be distorting or wilfully misunderstanding his arguments.

Anyway, I think the single most important principle Chomsky passed to me is the anarchist maxim that all forms of authority must justify themselves; sometimes they are legitimate, but we must always question them.

5) The Lib Dem Blogosphere – Rounding off a few rough edges.

Blogging in general is quite good for getting feedback on one's views. A lot of the policy discussion on the aggregator has had a real impact on my thinking, or at least made me alive to a few weaknesses in both sides of a particular argument or other. For instance, Jock has probably convinced me on LVT. More widely, I don't think my position in the social-economic divide, mythical as it partly is, has changed much, but if I were to rewrite the post I wrote on the subject back when I started this blog, I would hope to be able to make it a little more bulletproof.

Anyway, I should now tag some more people for the meme, so:
Alex Wilcock (any opportunity to prod him to blog more), Paul Walter, Jock Coats, and (just to be cheeky) Iain Dale.

Another day, another article on the apathy of youth

So JSP has expanded on her eloquent remarks the other night on Question Time. Which is nice, since it gives me something a little bit more substantial to try to take apart.

Fighting to impose his authority on his party at the end of their annual conference last week, Ming Campbell confronted the age issue head on by asserting that his 66 years make him a better leader than David Cameron (40) or Gordon Brown (56). Utter bilge – Ming's reasoning is as out of date as his jokes.
First off, note that as far as the MSM are concerned, Ming was "stamping his authority on his party", not responding to endless smearing in the MSM, like it looked an awful lot more like he was doing from where I was sat. Also note the standard of debate here: Ming's argument that his experience makes him better qualified to make difficult judgments is rebutted here by... an ad hominem remark about Ming's age (not even a particularly cutting one, at that; anyone who saw the speech acknowledged that the jokes were actually not bad at all).
Although one opinion poll gave the patrician Scot a two-point lead over the Tory toff, does anyone really think that this chap has the charisma to sort out Britain?
Erm.. the people who voted in the poll obviously feel he'd be a better bet than Cameron. Which is the only point that anyone has tried to make off the back of it.
But age is a big issue and Ming was forced to bring it up because a clutch of so-called "young turks" (all white, middle-aged, middle-class males, by the way) in the Lib Dems have let it be known to anyone who'd listen that they'd like the top job.
We have made age a big issue and forced Ming to bring it up, by reading meaning into a clutch of so-called "young turks" (both white, middle-aged, middle-class males, by the way) in the Lib Dems letting it be known to the reporters who asked them about it that one day they would like the top job.
Back to JSP:

They might have spent a decade or two less on the planet than Ming, but this doesn't mean that they are more in tune with a younger generation or any more able to resolve the problems society currently faces dealing with people who haven't even got the vote yet.
Actually, this is probably true - because Ming is actually pretty well placed to deal with all thosee things. After all, we have made proposals (pdf) a damn site more concrete than anyone else has to reform the political system meaningfully. And as JSP rightly points out, the age of the person making the argument is immaterial, it's what they have to say that matters.
Politicians are obsessed with age, and by focusing on his seniority, Ming is acknowledging that. Whether he likes it or not, youthfulness is seen as an asset by a lot of people, not least our previous Prime Minister. Which is surprising, given that we have an ageing population, and the first generation of persioners (sic) hell bent on making 60 the new 40. (I'm proud to be one of these grey baby boomers.) You'd have thought Ming shouldn't even have to bother discussing age as a possible impediment to doing anything, as his successful contemporaries such as Richard Branson, Terence Conran, Paul Smith and the Rolling Stones would find the concept laughable.
Yeah, you'd have thought, wouldn't you?
Even Clement Freud was talking about sex at 70 on the radio the other day before he was ruthlessly cut short. Some things are best not dwelt on too long.
Oh. Apparently some age discrimination is acceptable after all.
Given that they make age an issue, it's interesting that politicians of all parties have not really connected with the younger generation, preferring instead to come up with a variety of solutions to what they see as a breakdown in society – all of which seem to identify a large section of our population (mostly those under 21) as a "problem". Drinking, antisocial behaviour, gun and knife crime, gang culture, lack of employability, illiteracy and drug use do blight a disgracefully large number of these people whose energy and passion could be our biggest asset, but we are never going to get anywhere unless we stop identifying them as a special group purely by age.
Actually, this verges on making some sort of actual sense.
Whenever the next election is, whether it's next month, next spring or a couple of years away, the biggest issue Ming, David and Gordon have to face is how to get a large disenfranchised, uninterested group of people who have never voted to be part of our democracy. These range from young people who commit petty crime to the new generation that has benefited from university education under new Labour. There are 20-year-olds with massive credit card debts – totally uneducated about money – and school leavers who can't read and write properly.
Watch it, Janet, the argument's getting a bit skewed here. I'm sure you'll get back onto the straight and narrow shortly...
It doesn't really matter what age a politician is to me – you can be sympathetic to the problems faced by the young at 95 – they have to start the process of reaching out and engaging with this generation that has been left outside politics. For years politicians never really bothered with first-time voters, believing that it took a huge mortgage and a family to get people to the ballot box where self-interest rules.
...well done, now into the home strait with a call to arms for young people to prove them wrong...
Twenty years down the line, the number of people who feel politics is nothing to do with them is larger than ever before, and the consequences will be disastrous.

How can we have gone from the student protests and political uprisings of the 1960s to torpor and apathy 40 years later? Young people sign up for causes – like the painfully obvious Make Poverty History campaign – but few have any intention of voting. Paradoxically, a new survey shows that it's the over-60s who now behave the way the kids used to do all those years ago, placing having fun and adventure and getting more sex at the top of their wish list.

...Yes! Yes! Go on...

Oh. No, that was the end, apparently. It turns out that Janet didn't particularly feel like making any kind of point today, or putting forward any kind of constructive suggestions, so much as simply taking a quick ramble around the general situation. After all, she has important comments to make about the chuffing Blue Peter cat.

Incidentally, most of the time I feel that my age has absolutely bog all to do with anything, and indeed I hate it when newspapers patronisingly include someone's age after a letter they print (it just seems like the print equivalent of a pat on the head). But just to bolster my credentials to speak for the young (at least, those who can vote), I should point out that I am 20.

So what to make of this? What's frustrating is that she comes so close to explicitly putting her finger on the real issue: Politicians think we as young people aren't worth the effort. They believe that the people who go out and vote are mostly above 30, and the people almost certain to vote are retired.

Can you blame them? They're right. Those are the people who vote. And nobody should expect politics as a system, even the Lib Dems, to make much of young people's issues until young people put themselves on the market, so to speak. Sure, we have policies that address young people's issues: we oppose age discrimination in the minimum wage, we have a whole bunch of proposals on the environment and other things young people are concerned about. But we won't be putting them prominently on leaflets we put through doors when we could be talking to the people who do vote, about 4p off income tax and decentralising the state so that the kind of people who take an interest in local politics can exert real influence over the running of their services. And that means pensioners more than anything else.

The people who keep writing this crap have got things arse-about-face. They make an argument that goes something like:

Young people are disengaged
Politicians must change
Young people will engage.

Whereas in truth:

Young people are disengaged
Young people must re-engage
Politicians will change.

Power has never been interested in bending or retreating because it sees an inherant inequity in the status quo. It has been made to bend by people who suffered from those inherant inequities deciding to do something about it. (If I'm sounding like a socialist or something, sorry, but I've got my Democrat hat on today, not my Liberal hat.)

And politicians have thick skins; so thick, in fact, that for the price of listening to the occasional sound of a whiny young person telling them they don't feel engaged, they are quite happy to have one fewer categories of people to try and appeal to. Whingeing as a way of achieving real political change has never worked, certainly not unless it was something that the establishment kind of wanted anyway, or unless it was clear that this would not be the end of matters if the whingeing was ignored.

Young people need to get out there and hit the system where it hurts. Even if there isn't someone they particularly want to vote for, they need to demonstrate simply that they are not a category to be ignored, by achieving some kind of real shift in the electoral arithmetic. Quite honestly, I don't know what that would be (although I'd love it to include electing some Lib Dems, obv). Only then will main parties start campaigning with them in mind.

I will stop banging on about this subject now.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

How much do I trust Iain Dale?

Iain Dale has posted a distinctly gnomic post predicting some kind of significance attached to Gordon Brown writing in the News of the World. I suppose he may be onto something, but I also suspect he's being slightly unforthcoming to promote his appearance on News 24 tonight. After all, if it turns out that what's being announced is that there will be an election next year, then I guess most people would probably be quite happy to go to bed.

Anyhoo, I guess its worked, because I for one will probably be watching. Git.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Strategy for Dealing with the Media

A big theme of my first vist to conference was the dawning realisation just how wide the gulf is between the real conference and the one in the media's parallel world. But something that intrigued me was looking at the Guardian's coverage. Each day, there would be a big article on leadership guff, more or less. But the stories that surrounded them were what caught my eye. It seems that, the more interesting to the Guardian the subject of some debate or fringe event is, the less personality gloss is required. So, for instance, on the fighting of the war on terror, Paddy was able to get what amounted to a massive advert for a speech with huge chunks simply reprinted. Charles Kennedy getting some warm applause was enough to get a report on the tax and benefits policies debated into the paper.

Noticeable all week was the general rule of thumb, often alluded to by Michael White, incidentally ("It is true the media loves this sort of speculation"), that the more the story can be bookended with personality politics, the easier it is for the political hacks to sneak some actual substance into the paper. So I propose that we feed the press personality-driven dressing for serious policy when we send out press releases. The personality value of this dressing needs to be in inverse proportion to the press interest of the substance.

So the war on terror, Iraq, green issues and tax probably need very little. A story about Education, Health or somesuch worthy major area might be accompanied by some drivel about, ooh, say Steve Webb standing for leader on a platform of making it our only policy. And if we want to get constitutional issues and PR into the papers, all we need to do is stage a heated argument (perhaps over whether or not AV is an acceptable intermediate step) between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne which inadvertently blows the cover on a long running affair they've been having in the process.

OK, so maybe I'm being cynical about all this. Paul Walter urges us today to "work with the media rather than constantly belittling them". I know he's right, but it's just so hard when they persist in taking such risible reporting decisions.

Janet Street-Porter wants a knee trembler. Apparently.

Tonight's Question Time came from Brighton, where, amongst others was Paddy, looking, to my mind, noticeably laid back whilst John Redwood made unfounded and ridiculous predictions of a "big tax shock" from the Lib Dems. Frankly Redwood was just nauseating in his slimy disingenuous hypocrisy throughout.

But anyway, what really had me wanting to throw things at the TV was a "young person" announcing his general uninspiredness with the leaders of our parties. Now, curiously enough, I have just the other day written of my general feelings on this kind of whinging. This particular chap, at least, made his feelings known in an articulate way, wrong-headed as they were. Sadly, though not entirely surprisingly, Janet Street-Porter chimed in to agree:
Self Identified "Young Person": I don't think it's an issue really of the age of political leaders, I think it's more a question of how inspiring they are, to all age groups; and at the moment, with all the parties fighting for the centre ground, I'd say there's a lack of identity and a lack of direction in British politics which comes across to me as a young person coming up to voting age. I find none of the parties' leaderships particularly inspirational.


Janet Street Porter: You know when Ming Campbell started droning on today about his age, I thought "He's really lost the plot." Because, frankly, it's ageist to talk about your age, isn't it? Haven't we just passed all this legislation about going on about your age all the time and... it was pathetic and also to refer to these other two people as "young turks" when they're about as exciting as a plate of tapioca [LAUGHTER, god knows why], I mean, that young lad up there is completely correct [smug nodding from young lad], I mean, what politics needs is some excitement, and somebody that when they speak your knees start to tremble, and quite frankly, when Ming Campbell speaked (sic) today, his jokes were so old - it was so old -

David Dimbleby: [interrupting] I don't know what makes your knees tremble; does David Cameron make your knees tremble?

Janet Street-Porter: No no no no no, he's, er, he's...

John Redwood: {some old shit about Mourinho}

Janet Street-Porter: I think the fact of the matter is that politics needs to be ... does need to be inspirational for your generation of people to vote, and at the next election, whether it is in the next eight weeks or early next year or in four years, our problem is that we have one of the lowest turnouts in Europe, and I don't see any sign of that changing with these particular group of people leading our parties, so the idea of choosing between Ming Campbell and these other two "young turks" is like choosing between frozen peas or.. custard. Forget it.
You can find the relevant bit of the programme at about 49:45 on the play again thing on the website.

The first thing that comes across loud and clear to me about JSP's comments is that she has clearly not actually seen Ming's speech. Now, I don't think everyone should be made to listen to Ming's speech - I wouldn't be much of a liberal if I did - although it would be nice. But if you're going to go on Question Time and profess to knowledge about the world in general, maybe you should actually know what you are talking about.

How can I tell this? Well, because, having sat in the conference hall and listened to Ming myself earlier, I am quite aware that the "young turks" in question were not the leaders of the other two parties, as she seems to imply at the end of her rant, but Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. I am quite aware that very little of Ming's speech was about his age; about two sentences in a 45 minute speech hardly counts as droning on. I am quite aware that several of his jokes were actually quite original (at least, they were new to me, and I watch a fair amount of political humour). I can't help but think that in all likelihood, what JSP has watched is the five minute round-up of the speech from the news.

But what depresses me is the idea that this somehow passes for informed commentary (and incidentally, it's only when you sit and transcribe this stuff that you realise that, whilst this young guy in the audience spoke in perfectly formed, if long, sentences, Janet Street-Porter speaks in a stream of fragments not a million miles away from the rhetorical style of John Prescott).

"Because, frankly, it's ageist to talk about your age, isn't it?" Er.. not particularly, no. And anyway, how are you supposed to answer your critics, who, the media tell us, are attacking Ming for his age (not really true at all, when there even are critics, but sod the actuality), without mentioning your age? This seems to smack of quite obscene double standards; people are allowed to slag off Ming for being "too old", but when he refutes that, he's being ageist?!

"Haven't we just passed all this legislation about going on about your age all the time..." Er.. no, Janet dear, we haven't. We've "just" passed some legislation outlawing discrimination by employers on the basis of age. As far as I'm aware, fuckwits the world over are still quite free to "go on about your age all the time", much as I wish they weren't in the case of Ming. Incidentally, Charles Kennedy on This Week made the very valid point that if cartoons as disgraceful as some of what the papers have printed this week on the subject of Ming's age were instead about race, sex or religion, there would surely have been complaints to the Press Complaints Commission, a statement Andrew Neil seemed to agree with. A suggestion for a line of agitation?

Anyway, getting back to JSP (sigh). I do wonder why exactly people are quite so keen on being lead by someone who "makes your knees tremble". Personally, I want to be lead by someone intelligent, a good leader, who I would trust in a crisis, and who believes in something I believe in. On all these counts, I think Ming does pretty well. I absolutely do not want to sweep a politician into office on the grounds that they "make my knees tremble". This just seems like a perfect articulation of the wish to submit to authority figures. Are we really a nation of political BDSM enthusiasts? I want to be encouraged to select an MP and to vote for a party based on a rational evaluation of the interests of the country from my point of view. I would hope I wouldn't ever vote for someone purely for their rhetorical skills.

At the end of the day, who exactly does JSP have in mind? Dimbleby made an attempt to get an answer to this, but none came. Thatcher? Not to my mind. Churchill? Possibly. But politicians of his stature only come along every now and then, and, in line with what I was just saying as a generality, I would frankly like to think that were I voting in 1950 I would not be terribly keen on Churchill, grizzled old racist that he really was.

To my mind, what the support for this sentiment from JSP indicates is that people really can't be bothered to have to actually listen to what politicians say and work out which one they agree with. They want charisma and rhetoric to make a decision for them. Surely that's not a healthy desire?

In the end, this comes back to what I said on Wednesday; sadly, politics is something you have to put some intellectual effort into to get anything out of it. This yearning to be led is a window-dressed version of the facile whinging that we need to be "engaged" better. My advice to all of these people is:

Grow the fuck up. Poltics is about issues. We live in a country where the gap between rich and poor is widening, where our government wants to waste our money encroaching on our liberties, where we are lied to over signing up to an illegal war, where endless schemes are conceived to wastefully shovel public money into private companies, and where the two main parties agree on more than they disagree on. In short, we have problems. We don't have time to sit around whingeing that we don't feel inspired enough.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


So fringe things I went to today were: Chris Huhne's new waste strategy thing (excellent free food), the ERS's "Ed Davey answers no questions and Alastair Carmichael answers slightly more" (dull) and Steve Webb and Will Howells's thing on campaigning on Facebook, which was really quite interesting. I won't go into too much detail, but I was impressed to see how much time and effort "Steve Webb and Steve Webb alone" had put into developing his strategy, and there was some nice advice on campaigning.

As I remarked earlier in the day, as I stopped by the Lib Dems Online stall and was encouraged to go along to the latter fringe meeting, Steve Webb seems to have been doing a Fringe meeting on this kind of thing just about every day. The response I got was "Yes. You'd almost think he was trying to make some sort of point, wouldn't you?"

I hope it's been getting through to people who need convincing, is all I can say. The meeting I went to tonight seemed well populated by people already on Facebook. When we were asked at the end how many had changed their status during the course of the meeting, as we had already watched Mr. Howells do, about 5 hands went up.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Young People are Rubbish

The other day I attended a Fringe event about young people. At the age of 20, I probably count as one myself, especially in the context of conference. The listing in the fringe guide was as follows:

MTV and Electoral Reform Society
Are you listening?
A panel of young people take politicians to task.
18.15 – 19.30
Old Ship Hotel, Gresham Suite

And that would indeed be a fairly accurate description. But the trouble I had here is that I felt completely at odds with the young people on offer. The politicians in question who were being taken to task were Simon Hughes MP, Norman Baker MP, and Mark Gettleson (chair of LDYS). All of whom I felt much more affinity with than the "young people".

The trouble I have is that increasingly, I think politicians in general are getting into a bit of a business of self-flagellation on this kind of issue. Yes, we have a problem that young people, even those who are really quite interested in "Issues" are not connecting with the traditional party process. But increasingly, I am convinced, the problem is basically that these young people are simply infuriatingly self-centred. They claim to be interested in politics and in issues, and yet, most of the ones I have ever spoken to have never been sufficiently interested to actually, ooh, I dunno, find out what the different parties' policies on their particular issues are and support one.

Today it has never been easier for parties to make their policy available, unadulterated by the necessities for simplification and spin that the media and campaigning have generally imposed, freely on the internet. And so, they have. It's really quite easy to go on our website, or that of any other party for that matter, and find out what their policies are. When these precocious whingers who claim to speak for young people admonish us that we are not "engaging" them, they are effectively throwing their rattle out the pram screaming "I'm not interested in you! MAKE ME INTERESTED IN YOU!".

Frankly, it's not our job to. If young people can't be arsed to actually engage in the political process, then what are we meant to do about it? As Zoe Williams wrote a while back now:
Nobody is being entirely straight with these young putative apathetics. Nobody wants to look fusty, so everybody's trying to think outside the box. Bored with politics? Try an internet poll! Try a survey on your mobile! ...

It's dishonest: the correct answer is, bored with politics? Shut up, then. Get used to your economic status. Bored with middle-class men? Vote them out. They're only there by mandate, they have no superhuman powers. Bored with tax solutions? Well, they are boring. But they're also the only solutions. Why do you think people got so fired up about them in the 70s? It wasn't because they enjoyed being bored. Nobody likes teenagers more than I do, but when they say they're not interested in politics, they shouldn't be indulged, they should be grounded.
I couldn't agree more. I really wish these bawling whiny cynics would just grow up. Because at the end of the day, we were all "interested in politics" once, and we weren't party affiliated, and we enjoyed the freedom of maintaining our own lofty position of independence of thought from any of the main parties, and proclaiming that "oh, they all screw it up in the end" or somesuch cop-out drivel. And then some of us grew up, and recognised that no, the system isn't perfect, but if you want to see some changes then you can bloody well grow up and engage with it. And you can start by picking a party acceptably close to your views and signing up to march under its banner. Because that's how it works. Sorry.

Everything else about today's world may have been atomised into a world of meaningless personal choice, a smokescreen of democratic rights and expression of attitudes you somehow exercise through buying a t-shirt and "having it your way" at Burger King. But if you want to make real changes, if you want to see people who really represent you in positions of authority, then you can just knuckle down and get on with it, can't you?

There is no alternative. We'd have come up with it by now if there were. The internet may provide some useful campaigning tools, and empower genuine grassroots movements like it has in the US. But don't expect the fundamentals of the business of governance and democracy to change all that much.

Friday, September 14, 2007

If Gordon had any sense...

Well now. Ming has done the right thing. Not that he ever did the wrong thing, as such, but he's made it a bit more apparent than it was last time, in line with the Stephen Tall school of thought. I link to the GU story and not the BBC one because it contains the following fascinating comment from William Hague:
William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, was not impressed.

"This proposal is a clear sign of desperation from Ming Campbell, whose party is so split on this issue," he said.
Steady now.

Frankly, if, as one might be forgiven for thinking, Gordon Brown's number one priority for the bettering of our country is to finish off the Tories (not a priority I am especially opposed to), he could do a lot worse than to go along with this.

Every party stands to make hay from this apart from the Tories. Labour can play its traditional "we may not be wholly convinced about the EU, but we are the government, and government means taking the tough but correct decisions" line in supporting EU membership. The Lib Dems know exactly where we're at on membership of the EU, despite Hague's rather pathetic politic-ing. But the Tories might very well have a bit of a meltdown. The people who would stand to gain most from that are UKIP, and don't they just know it:
UKIP leader Nigel Farage welcomed Sir Menzies' call for an "honest debate" on British membership of the EU.

"I have believed for some time that the only referendum that Gordon Brown will ever consider would be one with the new Constitutional Treaty as continued part of our EU membership.

"Brown believes that this is the only referendum on the EU that he can win.

"The parliamentary arithmetic means that if the Lib Dems support such a move it would give the British people their first chance in over 30 years to determine their own futures.

"I would be interested to hear which side in such a referendum Mr Cameron would support."
So I would say: Go for it Gordon. The appearance of bowing to dissenters on this might be uncomfortable, but it's more than worth it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

EU Referendum: meh

Apparently, some Lib Dems are thinking about quitting the party over Ming's stance on the EU treaty. Now, I have to say, if forced to take a stance, I probably agree with the people who argue that a referendum is not necessary. Or, to state it a little more accurately, that it's a bit late now if one is necessary. If you want to know my view, here it is in small writing (because it's not the point of this post, particularly):

We as a nation have passed any number of treaties similarly signing away some power in the past without referenda, and holding one now would simply allow Eurosceptics to stir up a kick in the shins for the government. I would also go further than Ming in arguing for a more fundamental referendum, if we must have one. After all, if the answer to "Do you want to be in the EU?" is yes, then the answer to "Do you like this treaty?" is to some extent immaterial. If we want to play the game, we have to follow the rules and put up with some compromises, or the whole thing will never get anywhere.

Frankly, once you've decided that you want to be in the EU (an institution inherantly of compromise) and participate in it fully, then short of sending the whole British public to negotiate in Brussells, we frankly have to accept that it is part of a representative democracy that we send people in to do this for us and accept the outcome. If we don't like the fundamental decision, fine, lets have an "in or out" referendum. But what is the UK supposed to do with a "no" vote on this treaty? The EU needs to be reformed, on that I don't think anyone is uncertain. If every time it makes an attempt to move forward, some country somewhere blows the whole thing out of the water, we're fighting a losing battle.

Anyway, that stuff said, my main point is this: I just don't actually care about this very much. I know I should, but I find this whole debate a bit tedious. I know there are arguments on both sides, and I know this is an important issue. But I also have to say, I find all calls for referenda slightly bizarre in the context of a representative democracy - the burden must be on the people who argue that this is a special case to demonstrate that it is. Constitutional change is all very well, but when you have an unwritten constitution, it's pretty hard to say what changes it, and how fundamentally. I mean, technically, we are still under the ultimate rule of the crown, subjects of Her Majesty, not citizens of a republic, like I might like us to be. I find it hard, therefore, to get terribly worked up about signing away of our constitutional power; we never fought and won it conclusively in the first place, so why should I feel terribly concerned about it being transferred?

I guess that's an attempt to rationalise what is fundamentally an irrational feeling towards this whole debate, so don't read all that much into it.

Putting this treaty to a free vote of parliament, that's something I could get behind. Bitching about the outcome of that vote because the makeup of parliament is a fucking joke which we should all be ashamed of, that's something I could get behind. This? I don't care all that much. Sorry.

Edinburgh Reviews: All Done!

Thank god for that, now I can get back to writing drivel about politics...

Apologies for the hiatus in the middle of those, but I went to Portugal.

Normal service will be resumed shortly, I would imagine with my thoughts on conference, which I will be going to (some of it, anyway).

Edinburgh Reviews #18: Simon Amstell

Simon Amstell: No Self
Company: Mick Perrin for Just
Venue: Pleasance – Grand
Date: 25 Aug '07

Enjoying unexpectedly high demand for his show, Simon Amstell and Pleasance decided to shove in a few extra dates at lunchtime in the Pleasance Grand (not, if truth be told, the ideal stand-up venue, as Amstell admitted) in addition to his regular evening slot. A move I appreciated, and stayed in Edinburgh a day later than planned to take advantage of. I have never seen Amstell do stand-up, but the good reviews and his chairing of Never Mind the Buzzcocks were enough to persuade me that it might be worth sticking around for.

I wasn’t disappointed. Amstell’s show is probably the most intelligent stand-up I saw. Where Reg D. Hunter’s title attached only to a pretty loose theme of “consequences” and a “Fuck You” punchline, here “No Self” genuinely does indicate a show about something. Amstell places himself here firmly in the school of stand-up comedy that wants to do more than make you laugh; it wants to explain its take on the world to you. It’s a genre that makes me think, before anyone else, of Bill Hicks. Interestingly, Amstell did in fact lift Hicks’s line about “one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively” towards the beginning of the show.

So how to describe Amstell’s premise? Essentially, he examines the concepts of self and personality, arguing that they are largely illusions which we concoct to keep ourselves entertained against a background of meaninglessness – he sees us as being in fact little more than “stimulus-response machines”. Of course, this is comedy, not a philosophical talk, so he does so by examining the things that make up (or don’t, as the case may be) his own “self”; it’s basically a vehicle for some stories that represent his personality.

Another thing that struck me in passing: in Rhona Cameron’s show, homosexuality was a very definite Issue in and of itself. Amstell marked himself as being of a younger generation by treating it as simply a facet of his life that is mentioned where necessary and not before, nor with any particular fanfare. A single throwaway remark about his mother was the only thing in the whole hour that even suggested there was any kind of Issue there. I thought that was nice. That’s all.

So yeah, essentially, Amstell’s stand-up is a bit like Hicks (from me, high praise) with much of the anger removed and replaced by a kind of whingeing-ness (if I had a single criticism, it would be that as a sound technician I felt sure his voice could be EQed in a slightly kinder way – perhaps this was because he wasn’t in his regular venue). It is very funny, fresh, and challenging in places, but in a way that doesn’t invite you to be impressed by it, because it’s not just thrown out there for affect; rather, it makes up a part of the larger worldview of which it is born. I look forward to seeing Amstell again.


Edinburgh Reviews #17: Reginald D. Hunter

Reginald D. Hunter: F**k You in the Age of Consequence
Company: Mick Perrin for Just
Venue: Udderbelly – Pasture
Date: 24 Aug '07

Returning to the Fringe for his third year in a row, Hunter explained to us that he was under a great deal of pressure from his management not to include the word “nigga” in its title; his previous two shows were entitled “Pride and Prejudice and Niggas” and “A Mystery Wrapped in a Nigga”. To this end, he considered naming this year’s show “Reginald D. Hunter: At Last A Show Without Nigga In The Title”. Instead, he wound up with “Fuck You in the Age of Consequence”: “Age of Consequence” because it’s a Churchill quote and the show addresses the idea of facing the consequences of what you do, and “Fuck You” to make it sound edgy.

This bit of routine perhaps gives you some idea of a) how memorable certain bits of his set were, that I can reproduce them so far after the fact, and b) how keen Hunter can seem to court controversy. Giving the race angle a rest this year, he nonetheless includes bits on that could be called anti-semitic and misogynist, amongst other things. He is keen to explain that he doesn’t think he is any of those things, but it certainly hasn’t stopped him using the material. The key word is “edgy”. He seems to like the feel of maybe a third of the audience not being sure about him.

One down side of this for me is that I was sat in the row behind a smirking git-wizard who, whenever anything remotely controversial was discussed, didn’t just laugh at the jokes, but instead looked round at the friends he had brought with him with a big stinky smirk across his face that asked “Man! How shocking is this?!!!!!!!”. And that’s the trouble with this sort of comedy: if, like me, you get irritated by other people in an audience not enjoying it in a way you approve of, you might find it a problem.

On the plus side, though, Hunter’s show was genuinely funny, and never did the material itself offend me in the slightest. Hunter is a charismatic and confident stand-up (at one stage he hilariously mocked the suggestion that his show was “flawed because he didn’t show enough vulnerability”, by attempting to show us what his show might look like if he tried to insert “vulnerability”). The important point here is that by no means is Hunter just about shock; the Churchill quote in the title reflects a genuine interest in ideas and sharp worldview that permeates the show, and although as a running theme “consequences” is pretty woolly, that doesn’t change the fact that Hunter’s comedy is very thoughtful.


Edinburgh Reviews #16: Rhona Cameron

Rhona Cameron
Company: Gilded Balloon Productions
Venue: Gilded Balloon – Dining Room
Date: 24 Aug '07

I was going to go and see Stewart Lee, but the Udderbelly weren’t going to release any more tickets until half an hour before the show, which I couldn’t be arsed with. If I am organised enough to sort myself out in advance, I don’t want to be penalised by the venue just so some random punters can roll up on the spur of the moment. So I decided to go see Rhona Cameron instead. That’ll teach them. I haven’t subsequently seen Lee’s show, so I can’t say whether that was a sound decision or not.

But enough about that. Cameron’s venue was really pretty hot and humid, which was a shame. It was also noticeable walking in that she had a markedly more homogenous audience, or at least, an audience made up consistently of two homogenous groups: lesbians, and people generally a bit more middle aged than your average Fringe audience. I don’t know if the latter is significant. The former certainly is. Cameron explained that as a lesbian, she has frequently read that her material contains a lot of stuff about being a lesbian, even when it didn’t, so she thought she might as well put some in. In no way did that really alienate the rest of us, though, and much of it was very funny and accessible to the uninitiated (for instance, her observation that lesbians collect ex-girlfriends as parts of their lives, and that the obvious rows of lesbians in the audience probably all had one woman in common, was instantly understandable).

This was also, I would argue, her better material. The rest of her set was composed mostly of some pretty standard seeming stuff: nut allergies and excessive health warnings surrounding them, flip flops, shops where the music is too loud, voice recognition technology on the phone, and fair trade – at times, some of this material felt, for me, to be playing to a slightly mean, whingeing old git demographic in her audience (now you see why I wondered about the significance of the other half of Cameron’s audience).

I found it revealing that amongst the funniest material was an apparent surreal improvisation at the beginning, off the back of the ubiquitous “chat to the front row of the audience” bit. To my mind, Cameron is a naturally very funny person, and has it in her to perform stand-up very well. It was all the more disappointing, therefore, that some of the material just felt, well, cynical, and intended for an audience who wasn’t me. No, I don’t find the embarrassment of saying “no, I don’t want Fair Trade” in Starbucks such a massive problem, mainly because I wouldn’t ever do so. No, I don’t think nut allergies are fictional, and yes I have met someone with one, and yes, I do know of an incident where nuts have found their way into a foodstuff where they weren’t meant to be. When you find yourself sat in a comic’s audience thinking this kind of thing to yourself, it’s not actually all that heartening that you are surrounded by people laughing their nuts off.

So Cameron: yes; cynical demographically targeted material: no. Alternatively, that may actually represent the most interesting material Cameron could come up with, in which case she is a much more banal person than she seems.


Edinburgh Reviews #15: Coat

Company: Overcoat Productions
Venue: Underbelly – White Belly
Date: 24 Aug '07

Next up on my tour of Cambridge’s presence at the Fringe was Coat, starring three people, at least one of whom I am going to be working for as a sound designer next term. It’s just as well that I thought it was pretty good, then! The acting was strong, the script good, and the production inventive on a small budget. Each of the three actors had several little “solos” where they got to shine as performers, frequently getting a warm round of applause at the end of a particular monologue. The dialogue was snappy, the performance even more so – perhaps slightly more than would be ideal, probably the result of an attempt to get the show’s running time down as required without cutting it?

Essentially, the play flicks between two storylines, one based on The Overcoat (one of Gogol’s Petersburg Tales), the other a contemporary romantic comedy type thing. This seemed to work pretty well, both stories fitting together in tone if not particularly in subject matter; the show’s website claims Gogol’s adage that “if you look at something funny for long enough, it eventually becomes sad” as the driving force for the show, and if so it manages what it sets out to do. My only real reservation was that the play felt as if it might have a slightly more defined message of some kind, but never actually made one apparent, choosing instead to end on a glib non-message, which felt a bit disappointing. That doesn’t much diminish the show, though, since the writing is generally very accomplished.


Edinburgh Reviews #14: Stephen K. Amos

Stephen K Amos: More of Me
Company: Stephen K Amos
Venue: Pleasance – Beyond
Date: 23 Aug '07

Something of an old favourite at the Fringe by now, and deservedly so, Amos is a natural stand-up. He can do audience interaction, but doesn’t go overboard with it, his material is not only funny but genuinely interesting or affecting, and his style and technique is perfectly pitched.

The show was opened with a bizarre little character segment, where Amos donned a wig and pretended to be an American evangelical for a bit. I don’t really know what it added to the show, to be honest, despite his later assertion that it serves as some sort of warm up. In my experience as an audience member for comedy at the Fringe, certainly after 9pm, comics probably don’t need to do a lot of warming up the audience, at least not so overtly. People have likely already been to several shows by that stage in the day, and are quite ready to sit down and engage with a performer in whatever way is required of them. Or maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, once we got the real Stephen K. Amos, the show really got underway, and very good it was too. I would certainly have liked to see more (always a problem in the 1 hour slots given to many Edinburgh shows). I haven’t a lot more to say, really. Amos wasn’t revolutionary, or even particularly evolutionary, but his comedy didn’t feel old either. It’s just very accomplished.


Edinburgh Reviews #13: Into the Hoods

Into the Hoods
Company: Zoonation
Venue: Pleasance – Grand
Date: 23 Aug '07

When I was in Edinburgh last year, this was the hottest ticket in town, both in general and amongst my friends from Shrewsbury School (well, we had been up two years before with the original Into the Woods). I couldn’t get a ticket, but all the reports I heard were that the show was amazing. This year, it’s back, and now it’s in the Pleasance Grand, so everyone can see it.

And yes, it pretty much was. Essentially, this show is a hip-hop ballet taking the plot of Act I of Into the Woods as the basis for a trip to a tower block, and meeting the characters who live there. The witch became the landlord, the giant a drug dealer, the baker and his wife two young kids, and so on. This process of translation was used to make a few witty little jokes to those who know the original show, but you wouldn’t miss much if you knew nothing of the plot’s origins.

Technically, the show was excellent. The dance was consistently impressive and the choreography relatively unrepetitive and inventive, the soundtrack (and it probably does have to be called that) was varied and interesting. A video wall projected on a white cloth at the back was used to particularly innovative effect, both in playing with dimensions and the contextualisation of movements on stage, and as a method of integrating entrances into the scenery. All the soloist dancers were well cast and very polished. The costumes were simple and very effective. The lighting was very slick, making a feature of itself where it added to the action, making itself unobtrusive where it didn’t.

If I have any reservation, it is that the concept of the show was inherently pretty shallow. Into the Woods is a show all about asking “what happens after Happy Ever After?”, which comes at the end of Act I, and about highlighting the deficiencies of a story which takes such a definitive resolution. So in taking only Act I as its inspiration here, Into the Hoods is implicitly acknowledging that really, it hasn’t got a lot to say; it is no more than a fairy tale, when the show that lends it a basic structure aspires to more.

None of that can take away, however, from the fact that it is a very impressive show, and in terms of its implementation and format, it does indeed bring some new stuff to the table.


Edinburgh Reviews #12: Footlights

Footlights: Wham Bam
Company: Cambridge Footlights
Venue: Pleasance – Cavern
Date: 23 Aug '07

Next Cambridge show up was the annual Footlights excursion to the Fringe. These shows can be interesting to watch evolve, or not as the case may be, as they go from an initial run in Cambridge in May Week, then off to the Fringe, then on a tour of the country before returning for a final run back in Cambridge in Freshers’ Week. Sadly, I didn’t see the show in Cambridge this year, but heard mixed reports about it. I was therefore looking forward to the opportunity to reach a verdict.

The show is undoubtedly funny, and by a long way the most intelligent and original set of sketches that I saw in Edinburgh. It felt a little bit let down by slightly tatty production values, however, and the actual performances were, whilst certainly energetic, not the most polished I saw. But that’s probably hypercritical, since I am always disappointed when Footlights shows don’t live up to their best work (a very difficult task indeed).

There isn’t really a bad sketch in it, although “Real Life”, a parody sitcom complete with canned laughter for things which weren’t funny, felt a little tired by its final appearance. All the sketches ran to a decent length, whereas some revues like to fill up their time with throwaway one-gag bits, and as such they had to be concepts with enough life in them to sustain a full sketch. I guess what I’m saying is that the Footlights deserve an awful lot of credit for being by far the most skilled practitioners of their format I saw. Trouble is, I just didn’t actually laugh as much as I did at, say, WitTank’s show, and neither did the respective audiences. If for no other reason, then, I can’t say the show was excellent.


Edinburgh Reviews #11: The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Company: Cambridge University ADC
Venue: C – (+3)
Date: 23 Aug '07

At least part of my purpose in going to Edinburgh was to see several shows featuring people I knew (ie. personally, not in the sense of following their work). This is the first such show, a CUADC production of Adrian Mitchell’s adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It’s a slightly bizarrely written show, one of those with songs in but which often doesn’t feel like a musical because it can go for such stretches at a time without a song. It’s also a children’s show, was listed as such and did indeed have a mostly young audience. It’s fair to say I likely wouldn’t have seen it had it not been for my wanting to be supportive of the ADC generally, and of Lowri in particular (who continued her so far unbroken record of being a talented character-actor).

So those things being said, what did I make of the show more generally? Well, this being an ADC show, and having many big names within Cambridge theatre involved in its production, I was not at all surprised to see that the lighting was exceedingly accomplished, the music very professionally rendered and the direction and choreography suitably impressive. There were really no weak performances anywhere on the stage, special mention probably having to go to Megan Prosser’s White Witch and to all four of the children. The children in the audience all seemed pretty engaged throughout, and, whilst obviously I was not the target audience, I certainly didn’t regret watching it.


Edinburgh Reviews #10: Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins
Company: Gilded Balloon Productions and Regular Music
Venue: Gilded Balloon – Debating Hall
Date: 22 Aug '07

Henry Rollins called his show a “spoken word show”, presumably because there weren’t enough jokes to call it “stand-up comedy” without disappointing people. The only trouble with this is, I now have very little to judge it against; what am I to expect of a “spoken word show”? There don’t seem to be many others who self-define this way – indeed, Google the term and the first result refers to Henry Rollins. I suppose the best thing to think of it as is a piece of agit-prop theatre, except without any kind of façade. This is simply a guy talking at an audience.

Well anyway, whatever else it was or wasn’t, Henry Rollins’s spoken word show was an engaging hour-and-a-bit. Its primary purpose was simply for Rollins to introduce us to his worldview, and to tell us a few stories. He is an American, best known as frontman of Black Flag, but equally importantly to this show he is also quite political, and has been known to appear arguing his corner on American telly.

So having introduced himself, he tells us about his experience of appearing with his musical heroes The Ruts (or at least, The Ruts D.C.) in aid of cancer research, and then he tells us about a trip to some officially evil countries of the world (Syria, Iran, etc.). What connects these two? Rollins, basically. Both stories are shot through with his openness to life and willingness to go do things, and do them properly or not at all, yet at the same time being slightly socially awkward and occasionally surprising us by confounding our expectations of him.

The show was pretty good, and I was pleased that it attracted the audience it did, even if it was only on for a few days (it attracted possibly the biggest line of people waiting to see it of any show I saw, with the exception of Into the Hoods). It could have been improved in some senses quite easily, by pushing it in the direction of any number of more commonly understood formats. None of these, however, would have been as pure of purpose, and as an exercise in simply serving up Rollins on a plate for our consumption, it pretty much flawlessly did this. How one reacts then comes down pretty much to what you think of Rollins as a person.


Edinburgh Reviews #9: Company

Company: Kenmac Productions
Venue: C – (-1)
Date: 22 Aug '07

Sondheim shows are typically not simple to put on, and any company doing so earns instant respect from me if it doesn’t sound awful. This was actually a very slick production; no terrible acting and quite a lot of excellent performances. As Edinburgh shows go, it was of a very high standard, with every department of the production turning in something they can be very proud of.

Nonetheless, I was slightly surprised to see a few 5 star reviews going to it; there were a couple of little niggles which for me kept it irritatingly not-quite-perfect. All musicals have to really try very hard to avoid the odd technical gremlin in Edinburgh; having someone else use your venue throughout the rest of the day and the very short get-in times mean you really have to be extremely competent to avoid them. Sure enough, the traditional occasional radio mic cut-outs and pops and clicks were in evidence, and the lighting rig looked as if one or two of the specials were not quite focussed where they were meant to be by the time I saw the show.

Such things go with the territory, however. What were less forgivable were a few directorial oddities. The blocking throughout was rather too self-conscious for my taste, and gave me a similar sensation to the one I get watching Tarantino films: one of being all too aware of the presence of the director. The worst thing about it, though, was the final song, “Being Alive”, being delivered for much of its duration to the back wall thanks to the blocking of the scene. Whilst the arrangement of the cast on the stage was very pretty, I personally would much prefer to be able to see the face of the lead character during his pivotal final song. To deny Antonio Mcardle the opportunity to act this song fully seemed perverse, and a shame since his performance throughout was beautifully pitched and subtle. Some of the acting seemed a little strange in places, too: occasionally, lines were said with intonations that, if not actually wrong, jarred a little and seemed out of character.

Still, the above is nit-picking to justify not lauding the show from start to finish. The fact remains that what we got was a highly polished show. The wardrobe and orchestra can be paid the ultimate compliment: that they carried off their roles so flawlessly, I rarely noticed them as anything other than an extension of the characters. The lighting and sound design were similarly understated and effective, hiccups notwithstanding. Despite some of the direction, the acting was consistently good throughout. A very strong production of the show.


Edinburgh Reviews #8: Thermøstaät

Newcastle Review: Thermøstaät
Company: NUTS
Venue: C – baraka
Date: 22 Aug '07

A laudable attempt from a student sketch revue to actually tie together an hour’s sketches under something other than the loosest umbrella title, this show takes as its theme a trip by a team of scientists to the Antarctic. There they meet penguins and the like. Quite a nice idea, and enough diverse ideas are taken from this jumping off point to make the show funny. In addition, the show has a charming cheapness about it, making a virtue out of its relatively low production values by poking fun at itself with masks made of paper plates and the like.

A few of the sketches seemed a bit obvious, chief amongst them the throwaway:

Voiceover: The Arctic is a very desolate place. Often, nothing happens.
Nothing happens.

But for the most part it was suitably amusing. As with most shows of its type, it was successful more because of the performances than because of the script. Nonetheless, in a highly competitive field, it felt like it had probably the least creative energy of the three revue shows I saw. Having said which, it did have some ambitious and for the most part successful use of music and even a spot of choreography, for which it deserves bonus points.

That sums the show up, really. It tried hard, and didn’t actually fail, but somehow it just felt a bit… lacking.


Edinburgh Reviews #7: A Different Kettle of Fish

A Different Kettle of Fish
Company: WitTank
Venue: Rocket – Roxy 2
Date: 22 Aug '07

Despite the show I was in Edinburgh with being in the same venue as them, and despite several members of our cast telling me it was very good, I completely failed to see WitTank’s “Pop goes the iCulture” last year (when, as a holder of a Rocket Venues performer pass, I would have been able to do so for free). Which, on the basis of this year’s effort, is a shame. WitTank’s was probably the most polished and consistently funny student sketch revue I saw. The sketches come thick and fast enough that you don’t notice the ones that aren’t so special, and there are enough of them that are genuinely interesting ideas, professionally carried through into a sketch.

Nonetheless, what really carries this show is not the material but the performances. The group have developed an affected, overblown style of delivery which, whilst not feeling very original, certainly makes a lot of otherwise-just-quite-good material into actually-laugh-out-loud-funny. Worth a special mention here are Mark Cooper-Jones and Naz Osmanoglu, both very talented comic performers. I suspect that India Rakusen also has the capacity to be funnier than was really evident here; often she was left to play the relatively-straight-man in the middle of a bizarre situation, or came across that way because of the exaggerated performances surrounding her, but a couple of bizarre scenes featuring her alone as some sort of French thing-in-a-white-overall allowed her more understated performance style to shine. Kieran Boyd and Guy Corbett, meanwhile, were perfectly good, but nothing amazing. (I obviously cannot attribute the quality of writing to any of them individually, though, so in no way am I intending to judge anyone’s overall worth to the group, just to review what I saw.)

I would have to say, though, that as much as I liked the show, the funniest thing by far was a bit of kind-of-deliberate corpsing towards the end where one of the cast literally stuffed his mouth with cake over the course of perhaps a minute. As funny as this was, it felt cheap, and served to emphasize the failure of the rest of the show to have us in hysterics at any point. As good as the show was, then, I couldn’t honestly say it was brilliant.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Edinburgh Reviews #6: The Oxford Imps

The Oxford Imps
Company: Oxford Imps Productions
Venue: Gilded Balloon – Sportsmans
Date: 22 Aug '07

I am probably not the person to see this show, because I remain sadly unconvinced about improvised comedy as a genre. I enjoy anyone who can make me laugh, full stop. If they can do that off the top of their head, then good for them. But to frame a show in the way that this show and others like it do just seems attention seeking, in a bad way. It is a format that asks us not simply to laugh at the resulting improvisations, but to be terribly impressed by the whole process. Which is just as well, because if what they do isn’t all that funny, then at least they have the “impressive” thing to fall back on. I’m all for stand-ups who can do the whole talking to the audience thing, or adlibs in almost anything (corpsing has an amazing ability to make me laugh at the stupidest thing), but a show like this one (there are say ten of them, and an MC, who picks out a few of them for each segment and asks the audience to shout out ideas for the sketch/song/something else, which the improvisers must then improvise around) is just making the format more important than the content.

That said, how does this show do? Well, yes, I laughed, but not as much as I did at most other comedy, which is the problem really. It was all a bit Oxbridge for a start (and, as a Cambridge student myself, I don’t think I am automatically averse to things from Oxbridge): the longest section, the finale, was an improvised play in the style of Shakespeare; many gag-lines were very pseudo-intellectual, classic examples of the “take something silly to its logical conclusions” recipe for comedy; one section asked three different performers to alternately add to one common story, each of them in their own literary style. You get the idea. And yes, it is very impressive that they can do these things off the top of their heads (though sometimes I did wonder how much was stock bits floating around their heads), and no, I can’t fault much about the performers themselves or their stagecraft, but in no instance was there a sketch or bit which I thought was as good as something pre-written and rehearsed might have been.

I think the people who enjoy shows like this must be going in the hope that the performers fall on their arses, or simply to marvel at the mental agility of the performers. As comedy, I don’t see any great worth in it.