Friday, March 31, 2006


Dead Man’s Treasure – It’s Such Fun!

Tune in to BBC4 tonight at 11.30, or set your recording devices, for the last really great episode of the colour Diana Rigg episodes of The Avengers. It’s enormous fun, starting off like a standard Avengers – stolen secrets, agents murdered – but rapidly turning into larks in the countryside, as Steed and Mrs Peel just drive around enjoying themselves to fabulous music. It’s like a week’s holiday in the ‘ordinary’ Sixties instead of their usual fabulous world, complete with ‘Swingingdale’ village, sexual innuendo, Arthur Lowe and the most hilariously bad back projection you’ve ever seen. Some of it’s even deliberate.

The later colour Mrs Peel episodes are, as a rule, much less wild and less fun, with everyone seeming to have run comparatively low on verve and ideas (last week’s was positively turgid). That’s why watching this one last night made such an impression on me – everyone’s enjoying themselves, even the deeply useless villains, who seem to think they’re doing a live-action version of Dastardly and Muttley. There’s a more secret villain, too… Could it be the ditzy blonde? Surely not in The Avengers, despite the fact that her trail of outstandingly dead fiancés makes her sound like a serial killer. There’s even a scene at the end where Mrs Peel, incredibly, grows a – no, I can’t spoil it. Tune in, instead. If you watch this, you will enjoy it.

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Friday, March 24, 2006


Getting a Laugh at Conference

I was chatting to a lovely Lib Dem about Conference speeches earlier today, and I noted how difficult it is to get a laugh (and there must be a reason other than me not being all that funny, obviously). So I came up with three rules to guarantee getting a laugh, assuming it’s a session where there are more than half a dozen people in the hall:

1 - Mention John Prescott
2 - Be really funny
3 - Be Party Leader

Many members of the government inspire derision, but Mr Prescott's unique brand of ostentatious incompetence means he’s the only one that almost everyone just laughs at. I’m not too proud to admit that, preparing to speak against ID cards in Blackpool last September, I had several lines I thought were witty (each of which went down like lead balloons) and one about Mr Prescott that wasn’t. Richard liked the others, but suggested I drop it for time, and I argued that it would probably get the only laugh. It did, of course.

I suspect most of us who make speeches at conferences are never going to make it as stand-ups. Intermittent flashes of wit are very different to busking it in front of a crowd that want nothing other than to be entertained. No, I wouldn’t last two minutes, but good luck to anyone who’s actually talented. I fondly imagine that Conference-goers like a bit of content as well as to be amused, though, so that’s my excuse for not shutting up.

And we all laugh at jokes in Leader’s speeches, though I’ll not judge whether it’s because they’ve got better speechwriters, out of duty, or out of sheer relief that it’s going all right under the weight of expectation piled onto them.

The biggest laugh I ever got in a speech, incidentally, was when I pounded a lectern, the glass on it jumped, and a miniature fountain splashed across my notes. So I stopped, turned to one side and shared that with the Conference; witty remarks are one thing, but spontaneous slapstick is what people really want. The chair of the debate was less amused, and told me she’d nearly switched to the red light before I demolished the set. So you can’t please everyone.

In other news, I’m leaving my lovely Richard at home to go off to my parents for a few days for Mother’s Day (and, less happily, to go to the dentist). As my parents are high on my list of things not to blog about – though not as high on the list as Richard’s parents – and as they don’t have an Internet connection, and as I’m not really awake enough to engage with serious thoughts right now, I won’t be able to respond to the comments on my last couple of posts until some way into next week. Sorry about that, but I have read them…

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Thursday, March 23, 2006


A Laws Unto Himself

Tonight’s Question Time features David Laws MP for the Liberal Democrats. There – I saw you flinch. When that shameless stirrer Ken Clarke last week spun that some Lib Dems were really Tories, most Lib Dems will have laughed at the accusation about Ming, been bewildered by the mention of Nick Clegg, known from Vince Cable’s record that it’s untrue… And thought that, with David, Ken probably has a point. Rubbish. A partisan Tory's trying to split us for a laugh, but David’s undoubtedly a Liberal, if an idiosyncratic one – and I’ll examine The Orange Book to prove it.

A lot of people don’t like David Laws, and The Orange Book’s not the only reason why. Several of the reasons are more to do with things associated with him than the man himself – that Tory/Labour-supporting papers often look favourably on him, for example, either through genuine appreciation (for example, I've read stories based on his digging out facts about benefits simply because he does that very effectively) or a Clarke-like attempt to smother him in their embrace, or that before he became an MP he made a lot of money. Well, I’m not fussed about that, and I’m much happier with people making a lot of money and then deciding to go into public service than with people making lots of money as a result of their time in public service.

David Laws: Alex’s Reminiscences

As it happens, I like him, and have always found him easy to get on with – if not always to agree with. I had some dealings with him in my early years on the Federal Policy Committee, though his period as Lib Dem Director of Policy was while I’d stood down from the FPC for the first time. Unlike many, he always assembled a good case and could answer difficult questions on it, which is why I remember him winning me over for a new pensions policy in around 2000. It became the first time I’d spoken on the more conservative economic side in a Conference debate (though against several MPs and aspiring MPs, which was more in character), on the simple basis that I wanted a pensions policy that wouldn’t go bankrupt before I came to claim on it. Pensions and education between them were still by a long way our biggest spending commitments in the 2001 election, but we refused to promise to restore an earnings link that, a couple of decades down the line, there’d be no way we could pay for. I rate Steve Webb highly as well, but when a few years ago he brought populist proposals to the FPC that we do a complete U-turn on that policy, he simply dodged the question of what would happen a little way into the future. So I suspect I share with David – now our Pensions Spokesperson, ironically – a worry about our attitude to pensions provision, at least one Lib Dem dividing line. I also can’t help smiling at the memory of him telling me about canvassing for his first election in Yeovil, when an elderly family friend presented him with possibly the most terrifying question ever put to a Lib Dem candidate on the doorstep: “What do you think of Alex Wilcock?”

I was less impressed with David’s most famous printed contribution to Lib Dem thinking, though I wasn’t one of those who at the party’s 2004 Conference advocated putting him inside a giant wicker Orange Book and burning it on Bournemouth beach. At the time, I was Vice-Chair of the FPC, putting a lot of effort into the consultation process about the Pre-Manifesto, Freedom, Fairness, Trust, and thought some people trying to come up with a bundle of new policies at the last minute when the party would have no chance to vote on them before the election was, well, less than useful. I realised the rest of the party shared this view when I mentioned The Orange Book entirely neutrally at a packed fringe meeting on the Pre-Manifesto on the first night of Conference and the audience broke into spontaneous hissing, one of the few times I’ve been unable to stop myself laughing on a public platform. Feeling I should read the thing rather than just slag it off, I waded through it that week and so was able to slag it off from an informed position. For some reason, people seemed to think my criticism of the Tories when I summated in the Freedom, Fairness, Trust debate later that week was something to do with it: warning people to beware of imitations – yes, even before Mr Balloon, they were trying to sound like Lib Dems on tuition fees and long-term care, but without spending any money – I concluded that “It’s not the first time something’s been marketed as orange, but you’ve been sold a lemon.”

The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism

Surely the most controversial publication by any Liberal Democrats since the party was formed, The Orange Book is far more mediocre than its cheerleaders or its demonisers like to claim. Not as interesting as Passports to Liberty, by a very long way less persuasive than An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, its two main claims to controversy are its timing and, yes, David Laws. I mentioned some of the reasons people aren’t too keen on him earlier, but the timing and content of The Orange Book sum up perhaps the key ones, a peculiar mixture of naïvety and pig-headedness. His speech at Harrogate where he talked about cutting benefits to single parents caused a storm not just because what he said was perceived as right-wing, but because it was seen as dropping on the party from a great height - I should, however, point out that many years on the FPC have made it clear to me that he is far from the only spokesperson to make policy on the hoof (he’s either more brazen or just better-reported). The Liberal Democrats have a lengthy and deliberative process of consultation to create policy, at the end of which we get to vote on it. A spokesperson’s speech coming out of the blue, giving no chance for a vote, and grabbing the headlines over the issues the party was actually debating, is not the best way to start a discussion, still less make friends and influence people. It was, however, entirely in line with the painfully bad timing of The Orange Book.

Had The Orange Book been published for, say, Harrogate Conference this year or Blackpool last year, there would still have been plenty of internal gossip about what this faction ‘meant’, but far less rancour. It would also have meant that fewer people might have bought it, but perhaps more would have read and agreed with it, or at least starting a debate within the party rather than most Lib Dems hurling it into the outer darkness and its band of supporters bleating what martyrs they were. Published just before a General Election and with absolutely zero chance that the new ideas in it could make it to a Manifesto already near completion, all it did was set itself up as an alternative manifesto – and not only did that wind everyone up so much that they wouldn’t listen to what was in it even if it had been brilliant (pretty much the definition of ‘self-defeating’), it just wasn’t up to the job. Paul Marshall’s ‘Introduction’ explicitly tries to make a manifesto of a series of disparate essays, to the obvious later embarrassment of some of its authors, and his attempt to tie them together falls flat. It doesn’t help that it’s by a long way the most dull and poorly written piece in the book, and the fact that Mr Marshall’s apparent financial abilities are in no way matched by literary ones probably meant a lot of people started at the beginning and didn’t make it any further. That’s a shame, less because they’ve missed out on something wonderful than because they were therefore unable to take the heat out of the internal party row by a massed chorus of “Oh, is that it?”

The Orange Content

Few people can now remember most of the essays the book contained on various policy areas, whether the likes of Ed Davey on localism, Susan Kramer on using the market to protect the environment, Paul Marshall (yawn) on pensions or Chris Huhne on international institutions, which was probably the one I most agreed with at the time but also where I saw potential for a row to erupt that didn’t. Steve Webb’s piece is the authoritarian odd one out, thinking the state should have more power – over families – but ducking away from a head-on collision with the pro-marketeers. Even Mark Oaten’s piece was relatively persuasive, despite dropping the really dodgy proposal into his ‘Conclusion’ (sigh). But, be honest, you don’t remember any of those, do you, nor Nick or Vince? No, it’s David Laws’ essay on health that was the radical, pig-headed, naïve and doomed one. His advocacy of a national health insurance scheme has been described by Joe Otten in an excellent demolition as pulling a rabbit out of a hat, which rather sums up David’s tendency to come up with magic solutions that surprise but don’t delight. Not only was it tactically unwise to say the party should dismantle the NHS immediately before a General Election, but the proposal had already been considered by Chris Huhne’s Public Services Commission and roundly rejected. In other words, if the consultation doesn’t work, just pretend it’s never been mentioned before and that it’s a brilliant panacea no-one in their right minds could disagree with. Unfortunately, the party concluded almost to a member that David wasn’t the messiah, but a very naughty boy.

There are two reasons why my blood didn’t boil about David’s health proposals, other than the obvious one that I think he was trying to do some good. Firstly, I knew they’d already been rejected and that, by attempting to bounce them on the party in this way, he’d ensured they were not just dead but buried at a crossroads with a stake through them. Secondly, wonk though I am, I’m still more interested in the big picture than in individual policies, and I thought everyone was reading the wrong chapter. If you want to know what makes David tick, ignore the self-immolating health controversy and turn to his essay applying Liberal philosophy at the beginning. It’s really rather good. Well, up to a point…

David’s Philosophy

David Laws’ first chapter – ‘Reclaiming Liberalism’ – is by my lights roughly 75% good, 20% all over the place and 5% out of place, but in any case easily the most interesting thing in the book. Anyone who believes he’s a Tory should read it. No, anyone who’s a Liberal should read it. You won’t agree with all of it, but I’ve never found an essay on Liberalism yet that didn’t have things I could disagree with in it, even in John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor or in Conrad Russell. David Laws’ personal creed has plenty that I wouldn’t go along with, but I can’t see how it’s possible to read it and not recognise that he’s a Liberal. Lib Dems familiar only with the caricature of David might be surprised by how much and how well he writes on how social liberalism is needed to make freedom meaningful, or how inspiringly he writes on liberal internationalism or personal liberalism. You might be slightly bemused at his detour under political liberalism, but ‘How liberal are the Liberal Democrats?’ is entirely the right question to raise for this sort of analysis, even if I don’t agree with all the answers. His pet phrase is to argue that well-meaning liberals don’t always practise their beliefs but instead choose “Liberalism à la carte,” a persuasive critique of the blind spots that all politicians can develop. Perhaps his holier-than-thou attitude would have been more influential, however, if he’d asked someone from a different school of Liberal thought to read through it and give an honest appraisal of what his own blind spots were (I suspect I’d often do better if I did the same).

Probably the essay’s biggest failing is its complete inability to see that there are ways of meeting the same Liberal principles with different approaches, instead taking every policy in grand dogmatic sweeps, and this is most true of economics. David really needs to make a little more effort not to act as if he’s unquestionably right all the time. When Charles Kennedy wrote in the foreword that “Not all of the ideas… are existing party policy, but all are compatible with our Liberal heritage,” it was as good a warning to the writers as to the readers. David dismisses Liberal economics all the way from the 1930s to the 1980s as a corporatist cop-out, seeing the Liberal Democrats as only just starting to head back in the right direction in the 1990s. I’m sure that, like the Tories, the Liberals had elements of ‘me-tooism’ about then-exciting, then-modern socialism, and he’s right that the Alliance’s obsession with putting itself in ‘the middle’ was difficult to base on solid principle. However, David’s essay seems to make market solutions a dogmatic imperative, without stopping to consider when they might not deliver the best value to the taxpayer, whether there are alternatives or even if they’d work at all. For example, in the ‘corporatist’ 1970s he dismisses so entirely, there was a distinctively Liberal policy (now all but withered to dust, one of my few large regrets in mostly the best policy landscape for us post-war) of industrial democracy and worker participation, bridging political and economic Liberalism and the absolute opposite of soggy socialism – anti-state, non-unionised, bottom-up. If I’ve been aware of it for a good many years, David must be, and I can only think that he fails to mention this inconvenient fact because it would get in the way of his ‘us or them’ thesis. He mentions opposition to monopoly and 1930s market failure, but that brief aside merely draws attention to this as his biggest blind spot. While many Liberal policies over the years have been directed against private monopoly, he fails to address other monopolies than state ones, or what to do in the event of other market failure – as well as raising the question, if he admits the market failed in 1930s (and that’s the only point at which he’s prepared to admit any such thing), does he have any alternative answer to such catastrophic failures or would he just have shut his eyes and hoped it would go away?

Bizarrely, ‘Reclaiming Liberalism’ lets the Tories get away with ‘economic liberalism’, and commits one of the worst essayist’s sins: producing a highly contentious and unsupported new assertion in his conclusion. At the time, it was the bit of the essay that really leapt out at me, and, yes, Post Office privatisation has since become a bit of an issue in the Lib Dems. Well, I read it here first. One of the reasons that I was sorry to miss the Harrogate Conference was that I’d have liked to hear the debate, as - some way from the ‘if you have anything to do with privatisation you must be a Tory’ earache - Richard Gadsden’s argument against was quite persuasive, but so were some of the arguments in favour. Less impressive were those along the lines of ‘we must be disciplined / send a signal / win over Rupert Murdoch in one bound’ rather than on the policy’s merits, and unfortunately its sudden appearance in David’s essay was just such a piece of willy-waving. No justification was supplied for suddenly springing Post Office privatisation as one of ten ‘minimum’ items for a Liberal programme, and it’s far more specialised than any of the others, making it stand out still further. There are Liberal cases for and against, but not all privatisations have been the best option – compare Telecom, mostly good with some bad features, with rail, mostly bad but with some nice trains – and again his naïve cheerleading for private ownership fails even to mention other Liberal economic alternatives such as mutualism. Notably, the version of this policy that finally made it through a Conference was after assiduous consultation, rather than David’s habit of ‘bouncing’, and by combining it with a return to the workers’ participation he overlooks. His authoritarian tone on single parents (yes, that was in there too) also sits poorly with his excellent piece on personal liberalism. And his list of illiberal measures by Lib Dems excludes councils who’ve banned drinking in public, perhaps an oversight but I suspect because there are several signs that his own ‘à la carte well-meaning illiberal instincts’ emerge on law and order.

His ten-policy ‘minimum’ list for a Liberal programme seems less a rational set of the most important issues than an attempt to dissociate himself from other parts of the party and claim they aren’t Liberal if they don’t follow his precise prescription – like those Green Party spin doctors who say what the Lib Dems must do to be ‘green’ in their view by setting out differences, not looking at where any party would start from (incidentally, you may have noticed that independent groups like Friends of the Earth said the Lib Dem manifesto last year was greener on a number of issues than the Green Party’s, so don’t think that because they’re small and dogmatic their prescription must be stronger). If you rightly want to seize the environmental agenda for the Liberal Democrats, however, David isn’t much help to you. His essay ignores the environmental aspects of modern Liberalism, so in the complete absence of that development of the last couple of decades and the participatory agenda of a couple of decades before, and having rejected the ‘corporatism’ developed in the earlier part of the last century, he’s in the rather striking position for a ‘moderniser’ of leaving his philosophical innovation stalled somewhere around 1908.

I like David, and though I often disagree with him, when he sounds thoughtful he can be very persuasive. It’s just when he tries to lay down the law out of nowhere that he gets my back up. I hope he won’t shoot from the hip too much on Questionable Time tonight, and that when he gives his own views rather than giving the party line he decides to be thoughtful rather than prescriptive. Equally, don’t assume that because he doesn’t share some of your own prescriptions for Liberalism that he isn’t a Liberal too. Both David and his detractors would do better to recognise that asking questions and having arguments rather than just accepting a revealed truth is pretty much what Liberals do.

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Politically Intolerant, Economically Blinkered, Historically Illiterate (but not all bad)

A number of self-styled ‘economic Liberals’ claim that the Liberal Democrats should return to ‘pure’, ‘free market’, ‘small-state’ Nineteenth Century Liberalism, and that if Mill or Gladstone were to hear Liberal Democrats advocating income tax rises (say) they would spin in their graves and take their votes elsewhere. I’m not an historian, nor especially well-read in history, but I have sufficient awareness of my own perspective to be careful of claiming that similar-sounding policies from the period would have had the same effect, or have been advanced with the same aims in mind.

Economics and a Sense of History

John Stuart Mill was a strong advocate both of individual freedom and the free market, but was absolutely clear that these were for different reasons: the former on principle, and the market simply because it worked. William Ewart Gladstone constantly wished to abolish income tax, but – in office – only sometimes lowered it, sometimes raised it to new highs, renewed it for longer than his predecessors and, when he made a final stand against it by leading the Liberals in a sudden pledge to get rid of it altogether, was comprehensively defeated at the next election and never tried it again. Gladstone also constantly wanted to cut public spending, but again comparing this directly with a ‘minimal state’ approach has no sense of history. Like Radicals who supported free trade because it would help the poor but are associated through an historical prism with the greediest of international capitalists, Gladstone’s desire to cut spending was heavily related to where the money was then spent, and it wasn’t on schools, hospitals, pensions and benefits. He wanted to pare down money spent on defence, and disapproved on moral grounds of much public spending because it was to feather the nests of the rich at the expense of the tax-paying poor. To claim that if Gladstone was suddenly to appear on today’s scene he would certainly call for vast slashing of spending on the poor to save money for the rich and that anyone who disagrees is therefore diverging from the pure flame of Liberalism is historical illiteracy of the highest order. Looking at Gladstone’s record, it might be true, or it might not. Looking at Gladstone’s record, he might strongly support one course and then swing through an equally passionate 180-degree turn, because he frequently did. And looking at Gladstone’s record, a great mass of perfectly sound Liberals of the time would disagree with him either way, because they frequently did, and we have every right to, as well. Because Liberals are like that.

Oh yes. And on the notion of ‘public ownership bad, private ownership good’, one issue on which Mr Gladstone kept being tempted towards whether he was a Tory or a Liberal was railway nationalisation, which he considered several times in several different forms. He saw it as a pragmatic and not a dogmatic issue, in common with most of the more sensible modern Liberal Democrats.

I suspect the people who most annoy some in the free market fetishist faction of the Liberal Democrats are not their polar opposites in the party – between whom they can happily trade fruitful insults like ‘Socialist!’ and ‘Tory!’ – but those of us who follow the historically more Liberal trend of taking a pragmatic view on economics. Liberalism is much more about power than money, and if the Twentieth Century was defined by Marxists and anti-Marxists who took mirror-image positions that economics was more important than anything else, well, that century’s over now.

I’m happy to listen to and debate with the self-styled ‘economic Liberals’. If what they propose sounds like it’ll work better, I’ll even vote for it. But to those of them whose contribution to the debate consists of ‘If you don’t agree with my precise economic prescription you’re not a proper Liberal like Mr Gladstone,’ I have three suggestions. First, you have a choice between persuading and haranguing people, as you evidently aren’t capable of both. Second, listen to other people once in a while and you might find other approaches might be equally valid. And third, after opening your mind, please open a history book and stop making bloody fools of yourselves.

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The Iron Chicken was Robbed

Riots broke out today on a small, dustbin-lid-covered planet at the news that Rainbow has been voted the favourite series for very young children. A Clanger spokessock claimed, “Woo oo oooh. Ooo hoo ioooooh!”

In a separate statement, Zippy said: “Exterminate!”

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Doctor Who: The Scripts (Going Cheap)

No, I’m not flogging my collection. The other week I spotted Doctor Who: The Scripts 1974/5 in discount bookshop The Works, knocked down from £16.99 to £2.99. Bargain! If you have a Works nearby, pop out and pick up the full scripts for Tom Baker’s first season. I’m not on commission; it’s simply that these are terrific scripts, the stories that got me hooked on Who at an improbable age, and (unlike many cash-ins) this handsome hardback has a lot that’s of interest in its own right. Detailed introductions, notes on script changes, photos and Genesis of the Daleks. What more could you want? Well, personally I want at least the next two seasons’ worth available in the same splendid format, but as it was released in 2001 and clearly sold so poorly that it’s now being remaindered for next to nothing, I doubt I’ll get them :-(

It’s solid and well-produced, with a fair choice of black and white stills and the odd design sketch, but as you’d expect of a script book, it’s mainly about the words. There are five stories here, with details of many of the changes to the lines as they went along (probably the biggest of many improvements on the showier but less interesting book of scripts for the 2005 series), footnotes, transmission details, audience reaction, even notes on stories that were nearly made, but weren’t. All that, and surprisingly readable. The cover shows off not just a Dalek and a Cyberman – both back in the new series, along with Sarah Jane Smith, who accompanies the Doctor here – but an impressively boggling shot of Tom Baker, the same one familiar to all visitors of the barking mad but irresistible tribute site to Tom’s voice (and thanks to Will for letting me know about it).

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At the time, I enjoyed Doctor Who because it was unlike anything else, I loved the inquisitive wanderer as lead character, and, no bones about it, it was terrifying. Novelisations and DVDs are often easily to hand to enjoy these stories again, but (at the risk of sounding utterly decrepit) when I first watched them, that was all you got. I can still remember the recurring nightmares three of these stories gave me. You might think that's a bad thing, but in the days before video players nightmares were the only way to see Doctor Who again, and they were brilliant!

The stories of Doctor Who's twelfth season printed here have unusually strong connections to each other, not just through linking scenes but shared themes. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, then the new producer and new script editor, were determined to make their mark with a year all about new birth and cold science. On screen, this is echoed by a stark monochrome, with the Doctor’s bright red jacket often the only splash of colour. Despite the appearance of sterility, every story features blasted worlds (from putative nuclear holocaust to one so long-dead it’s alive again) and some form of rebirth. Each script explores some form of rule by elites who believe science is the way forward, pitting alien / machine logic and intelligence against human instinct from many different angles. It constantly raises the question, does humanity deserve to survive? Is the survival proposed by faceless technocracies worth it? Each story is naked in portraying antagonists as fascists, and though fascism’s the defining opponent in British sci-fi television, they aren’t just clichés; added to the repeated motifs of torture, horror and rather phallic missiles, this is the season of Doctor Who if you want impressive speeches. You’ll find well-crafted set-piece speeches in most of the scripts, but the two that stand out in equal conviction but opposite morality are the Doctor’s soliloquy about humanity in The Ark in Space and Davros’ scenes in Genesis of the Daleks. Rarely has a script dared to make a fascist so compelling…

“There’s no point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
The first story here is Tom Baker’s debut, and it’s often dismissed as very much a children’s serial – there’s some truth in that, with a lighter tone than the other scripts and a strong resemblance to a ‘Junior’ Avengers plot (while the novel based on it was indeed rewritten for younger readers as ‘Junior Doctor Who’). There’s more to it than that, though. Superficially similar to various Earthbound stories for the previous Doctor and (again) dismissed as the last shot of the outgoing producer, it gives the whole format a kick in the pants. On screen, you get the obvious impact of fantastic swirling title sequence and Tom Baker giving more sheer energy than you’ll ever see again, but it’s there in the script too. The Doctor’s energy is not just physical but intellectual, as his firecracker brain works out the plot, bewilders old friends and sweeps the villains before him. Add to that the dark side of the green parables often told in the previous few years, with a bunker full of establishment eco-fascists willing to bring down nuclear destruction on the world to ‘save’ it (I don’t think proto-Thatcher Miss Winters can be that concerned about global warming), and while it still has a strong moral sense of humanity and remains huge fun, it’s already pointing to a more dangerous series.

The script, borrowing freely from Frankenstein, King Kong and James Bond but pre-empting Isaac Asimov with a twist he didn’t come up with until a decade later (it’s pretty clever, you know, this show), has the disadvantage of not showing us a real masterpiece of design in the titular robot – the stills don’t do it justice – but also the advantage of missing out the robot's less than convincing on-screen growth to giant size. It’s to the script’s credit that it’s much better-structured than the special effects, and surely every IT tutor has at some stage reassured students with the Doctor’s line that computers are “very sophisticated idiots”. Well, I know I have. Either Part Two or Three was the first Who I ever saw, too, and I’m still watching 31 years later, so I never look kindly on reviews that say it’s not very impressive. It made a hell of an impression on me.

The Ark In Space
“It’s almost too horrible to think about.”
Robot was fun, but this is startling. Suddenly everything’s done with utter conviction. Pop the DVD on and you’ll find some towering lead performances, hugely memorable design, beautiful music and modelwork that’s… dreadful, but there’s new CGI to cover it up. Even the monsters really shouldn’t work, but do, largely because the script supplies characters that you believe in when horrible things happen to them, in a story that revels in having everything they do to make things better make things worse. Writer Robert Holmes has a love of language, contrasting humans 15,000 years in the future with the Doctor’s companions, down-to-Earth journalist Sarah Jane and endearingly Boys’ Own Harry, and creating a first episode that’s practically a two-hander just to delight in dialogue. It’s so good that it flows as if the scenes were full of people, and on screen pulls out of Tom Baker perhaps the best acting he’s ever done. Part of it’s that, in a story all about humanity, the Doctor here reasserts an alien point of view. After years when the previous Doctor was exiled to Earth constantly to save the place and harangue us into looking after it, the new regime starts off with a future where the Earth’s been destroyed and the Doctor doesn’t bat an eyelid. Subtle.

Focusing on the sleeping survivors of a global catastrophe, it’s more complex than a simple paean to humanity, despite the Doctor waxing lyrical on his favourite species. You root for the last remnants of Earth to survive, but not because of their natural charm; in order to survive, they’ve become uncompromising techno-fascists, and for a story where humanity triumphs over the insects, the humans themselves have insectlike specialisations (though the Doctor, of course, encourages them to reach beyond what they’re ‘meant’ to be). This whole season has an uncanny number of echoes in the plots and ethos of the 2005 series, and The Ark in Space most of all… Clearly a great favourite of Russell T Davies. The ending – where the monsters are destroyed despite no longer being a threat – has always disturbed me, and I suspect it was deliberately revisited in Coronation Street-beating The Christmas Invasion. At the close of that story by Davies, Harriet Jones, High Prime Minister, also blows up a retreating alien ‘threat’ and the Doctor turns on her for it; it’s usually been called a ‘Belgrano moment’, but I suspect the 1975 echo was just as influential, as was the Tony Martin-style murder of ‘shoot them in the back when they’re running away’. There’s much to admire in the human struggle here, though, with the character of Vira magnificent, especially as Holmes’ brilliant writing was usually tempered by an inability to write decent parts for women (though the script’s mixture of races contrasts with the on-screen casting, where the Doctor’s line “All colours and creeds finally forgotten” suggests they ‘forgot’ to include anyone who’s black, or blond, or who disagrees with them).

This was the first Doctor Who story that gave me those nightmares, but even the monsters that lived on in my head were less terrifying than the concept behind them, as they infect the human leader and he gradually becomes one of them. Ian Marter's novelisation towers above most of the series, expanding on the ‘body horror’ and taking as its single purpose to scare you out of your wits, which is probably why I read it so often. On screen, the half-transformed actor is suitably repulsive (if his acting’s variable, unlike most of them), and if anything he’s more poignant in the script, where he begs to die in a scene thought too disturbing to be transmitted. If that’s influenced by The Quatermass Experiment, the other strain is later borrowed by Alien, as the creatures grow within the sleeping humans in an unsettling twist on vampirism, feeding on the sleepers' intelligence as well as their bodies: “You mean Dune’s knowledge…” “Has been thoroughly digested, I’m afraid.” The cold, clean, clinical whiteness is just begging to be corrupted, as though maggots have taken over a hospital. There’s also much religious imagery, suggesting the Rapture (and horrid green corruption in Heaven is even more disturbing than in hospital). It’s such a confident change of direction for the series that it reads like a manifesto for a new and scarier show. Twelve years in, and Doctor Who is hitting its stride.

The Sontaran Experiment
“While you were dozing away, our people kept going, and they made it. We’ve got bases all across the galaxy now. You’ve done nothing for ten thousand years while we made an empire!”
This creepy little story is the shortest by far of the ’70s, as if to point out all the padding in its predecessors, and though its two episodes make up about the same length as a modern Who story, it uses its brevity very differently. Seen on TV, the most memorable elements are the remarkable performance and mask for the alien, and the blasted wasteland of Earth that’s almost a character in itself, but the script uses the landscape for the supremely eerie first episode much better than it constructs a rushed and lightweight conclusion (while the new series generally misses out on the ‘mysterious’ build-up in order to have a more satisfying main body). Despite being a very action-based, outdoor script, there’s some lovely byplay between the Doctor, Sarah and Harry, and after the last story made the sleepers vital, it’s a great twist that they’re as irrelevant a legend as Atlantis to the humans who’ve come back from out among the stars and aren’t taking any of “that ‘Mother Earth’ rubbish.” You can see that there’s going to be a clash when Earth is resettled between the pioneers who got their hands dirty and the rigidly pure sleepers who’ll see them as deviant scum.

The villain is a Sontaran, one of the series’ best-known aliens (shiveringly revealed at the cliffhanger, though the title is just a bit of a giveaway - Richard suggests ‘The Human Experiment’, more appropriate in many ways), and almost everything comes together to make him work. The actor is superb, the mask is alien and expressive, and the characterisation unnervingly references Dr Mengele in his experiments to see what makes humans tick. Despite this grim conviction, the script really doesn’t know what to do with him, and the ending hurtles towards a cop-out, as this feared military race back off from invading purely because the Doctor’s polished one of them off, giving them the impression of being remarkably cowardly or ludicrously bureaucratic (he didn’t get a chance to send back his paperwork). I love stories set on the fringes of great events, but this lacks proportion, as if an invasion of a country was called off because a small child in a tiny village there complained about a money-spider in her bedroom. Still, before all that lets it down it does a great job of building worlds, not just the howling, barren Earth in front of the camera but the culture of the humans who’ve returned to it evoked in the script.

Genesis of the Daleks
“Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory, something contagious and infectious, that killed on contact, a virus that would destroy all other forms of life... Would you allow its use?”
If you’re only aware of one Doctor Who story, it could easily be this one, the most-repeated, most-merchandised of all the original series, including books, videos, CDs, LPs, cassettes, this script book and, soon, a DVD, meaning some fans of a certain age know much of it word for word and can’t help using lines like “Thank you, that’s what I wanted to know” or “This seems an opportune moment to end this session” in conversation. Yes, I’m like that. There’s also a chicken-and-egg connection to it being regularly voted among the series’ greatest stories, as the Doctor is sent back to a terrible war in order to prevent the creation of the Daleks by the wizened, half-Dalek-wheelchair-bound scientist Davros.

Well, I’ll spring no revisionist surprises; it really is good, and though the lead actors, music and dark direction for the story as produced are all outstanding, the script’s rock-solid – though this book reveals much of the grim war-movie style was added by the director, the Nazi parallels are all in here, and a 2006 perspective may find something additionally disturbing in the way Davros essentially kills off his own people to stop them setting up an independent tribunal over his weapons of mass destruction. It’s deeply grounded in the morality of the story, rather than just giving glib satirical asides, and it focuses on the character of Davros. On screen, he’s superbly realised by mask and actor, but he succeeds still more through perhaps the best script given to any Doctor Who villain as he orchestrates both his ascent and his own destruction in a cleverly truncated portrait of a fascist’s rise to power. It’s like an historical thriller in the Bunker. Davros is a frighteningly plausible and often audacious political operator, unlike the stereotypes who usually pass for politicians in Who. I’ve given quite a lot of speeches, and his oratory is so well written and delivered that you could imagine it working on a platform or in quiet debate to persuade people. Er, if you were a fascist megalomaniac, obviously (though that gives an unfair impression; most of the time he’s terribly calm and in control, which both makes him appear serious and gives plenty of room to go a bit further towards the end. A young general who raves on, by contrast, is someone nobody takes seriously). After centuries of nuclear and chemical warfare, his race have been turning out the resulting mutants, yet Davros experiments to find where the mutation is leading – yes, all right, writer Terry Nation had some strange ideas about evolution going in a straight line to a set ‘goal’ – and then creates a tank-like machine to protect them and enable them to exterminate their enemies…

Despite a great number of action scenes, including an unwise one with some giant clams better read than watched, the story turns on its dialogue and moral arguments, and perhaps the most compelling in all Doctor Who is one where the Doctor teases out of Davros what he really wants the Daleks for, whether it’s survival or power (and if elements seem familiar from The Brothers Karamazov and Bride of Frankenstein, why not borrow from the best?). There’s a slow-burning moral message running through it that all the characters who are absolutely certain in themselves do terrible things so doubt is fundamentally vital, a more Liberal message than most normally see in it. I’ve always thought the Doctor’s agonised questioning himself over whether to commit genocide even of the most evil monsters, “Do I have the right?” was crying out to be a cliffhanger instead of the predictable threat to his life that was used, and it’s interesting to see here that it was scripted that way (I suppose it’s too much to hope for that the DVD might have the ‘proper’ cliffhanger edit as an extra?). The Daleks themselves are conditioned to obey unquestioningly and to hate every creature that is different, and – appropriately for a war story where the living beings within them are so central – both in the script and in superb photography come across more like tanks than ever before. Whichever way you encounter it, it’s a stunning story, and hurrah for a moral dilemma from Terry Nation more complex than ‘Bang bang bang! And hey, kids, war is hell.’

Revenge of the Cybermen
“I wanted to free them from this tyranny of dark, dripping rock.”
Another iconic Doctor Who monster, another desperate fight for survival at any cost, another face-off between competing political heavyweights… Everything went so right with the previous story that you’d swear it has a picture of this one in its attic. Watch it and you’ll find the oddly piece of stylishly clunky Seventies design, but tired actors, poor music, a kebab impersonating a planet and some of the worst matches between footage shot on location and in the studio that’ll ever completely fail to fool you, but even if the production had been firing on all cylinders it would have had a job to conceal such a feeble script, though there are moments where it’s so steeped in death it almost grabs you. This script book reveals the many hoops it jumped through before it got into such shape as it finished in, but even Holmes and Hinchcliffe fumble this one. I once wrote a long review that’s both a send-up of the story itself and a send-up of the way fans find elaborate excuses when something doesn’t turn out as well as it should, along with, I admit it, that old chestnut ‘how I’d have done it better’ - both alien races in this one should be a perfect fit for the survivalist themes, but the writers don't seem to have noticed - and the moral is simply that anyone can have an off-day.

The devious infighting among the scared aliens hiding underground is hardly John le Carré; the script makes little of potentially interesting clashes between security and liberty - or at least trade - and while the leader’s actions against his rival are rather like sending in the army on the Mayor of London, the parallel’s less striking when he looks like Father Christmas, the rest look like Godfrey from Dad’s Army, and none of them are doing much acting. I’ll never forget the sinking feeling on returning to it as an adult as the usually reliable Kevin Stoney delivers the line “It’s going to hit!” not with the screaming panic of the novel, but in a tone of faint disinterest. The only two watchable characters are the only two who aren’t desperately bland, Vorus the bombastic nationalist who’s a sort of alien David Owen and Kellman the twisty double agent (I remember once writing a story about a traitor for whom I combined the names of two Doctor Who characters who sold out to the Cybermen to call ‘Kellway’. How I laughed when the bastard candidate who defected and derailed our Euro- and by-elections in 1994 was a Cllr Kellaway). Even the regulars aren’t as sparky as usual, with the Doctor acting out of character with oh-so-convenient bits of technobabble instead of clever solutions – the transmat as cure-all, suspiciously not used that way in The Ark in Space – or callously torturing Kellman.

The story’s ultimate failing, though, lies in the Cybermen. When a tale’s just an excuse to bring some old monsters back and it makes a terrible hash of it, there’s not a lot left. They’re very badly acted, but then, they’re useless in the script. Highly logical half-man, half-machines kill off a load of humans instead of turning them into spare parts, flounce about histrionically, hatch absurd plans and don’t listen to problems with them, and even manage to develop an allergy to gold. Initially they were a technological horror, mummy-wrapped zombies from a vampire planet, but here it’s forgotten that they’re basically dead men walking and the toxicity of gold isn’t there as a vampire allegory, but for sheer convenience. Sigh. Oh, and at the finish most of the interesting characters are dead and it’s all resolved by two different sets of people playing Atari games, which is exactly as exciting as it sounds. The ‘climax’ is so abrupt it’s more of an embarrassed stop. I was so enthused when I first saw this that it retains a special place in my heart and I never fail to enjoy watching it, but even its Mum would have to admit that it’s rubbish.
“My colleague is a doctor of medicine, and I am a Doctor of many things...”
I was coming up to three and a half when I saw all this, and I’ve got no idea what my life would have been like if I hadn’t. Tom Baker’s first three seasons are written through me like a stick of rock, and the Doctor, Harry and Sarah seem as natural a team as I could imagine. Season Twelve here is usually portrayed as the poor relation of the next two, but it got me hooked and has a lot of strength on its own, not just as a jarring change from the previous Doctor and ‘the start of Hinchcliffe’, with only one story really failing its potential. On screen, it's the cold, monochromatic style that hits you, but the design theme reflected the scripted themes of fascistic elites placing survival at all costs over what makes us human, and this script book does a great job of putting them all together: the nuclear blackmailers out to ‘reform’ society on scientific lines; the chosen survivors set to resettle a world; the alien mechanically testing humanity to destruction; the ultimate form of scientific ‘progress’ overwhelming individual feeling and decision; the battle between humanity and its half-machine ‘descendants’. I love this period. It scared me as a kid, inspired me growing up, and I still find new ideas in it today. What more does a television series need?

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Went The Day Well? with Lady Chatterley

Still distinctly under the weather, but thanks to Jonathan Calder for noticing that the superb Went The Day Well? is on Channel 4 this afternoon. Still briskly made and quite gripping, it’s the original ‘What if the Nazis secretly invaded Britain?’ turn, done many times since – for fun in The Avengers, with great length and self-conscious worthiness in The Eagle Has Landed – but never bettered. Parts of it can shock me more than 60 years after it was made; I’m always aghast at the businesslike way one character deals with a hand grenade. The violence is more shocking for being dealt with so curtly and rarely fully shown, as if suddenly being killed or having to kill is just a fact of life and people have no time to dwell on it – Jonathan’s description of it as “Dad's Army reshot by Sam Peckinpah” catches the ethos rather than the directorial style, which is quietly intense rather than ostentatious. It’s a clear piece of propaganda, but with surprisingly little direct tub-thumping (compare it with, say, the Churchillian soliloquies that close half the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies). Though, as in The Most Dangerous Game, Leslie Banks is a fabulously hissable villain, most of it’s far more down-to-earth than you’d expect in a film of the period. The style is naturalistic, every character rings true, and there are good parts for all ‘classes’; not quite ‘kitchen sink’ a couple of decades early, but if you think every British film of the forties was nothing but frightfully posh people being frightfully stiff-upper-lipped to each other, you’re in for a shock.

If you miss it, there was a DVD out in a box set along with the extraordinary horror stories of Dead of Night; it looks like it might have been deleted, as only one site lists it as still available, but try rooting about in the sales at the likes of HMV.

Meanwhile, last night we watched the first episode of Blackpool on DVD, which I’ll return to in a later post but was terrific on first impressions – David Tennant and David Morrissey were both spellbinding, particularly together, though as I first saw Mr Morrissey in The Deal, part of my brain is deeply disturbed at Gordon Brown doing a big dance number. Anyway, we followed it with The Chatterley Affair on BBC4, which was much better than we'd been expecting, and far more uplifting than last week’s Fantabulosa! – despite an impressive lead performance (from the actor who played Tony Blair in The Deal and has also played the author of Funland, a series showing an even darker side of Blackpool and co-starring yet another member of the League of Gentlemen, for readers who like daytime TV-style links), that was consistently depressing, and the Kenneth Williams Jackanory they showed afterwards was much better value, though sadly it wasn’t an Agaton Sax. The conceit of the piece was to intertwine a dramatisation of the trial with a naked intertwining of two remarkably attractive jurors, which informed and entertained in a satisfying way but not one of which Lord Reith would have approved. It was also a prime cast for squealing ‘Ooh, it's her / him!’, though we were still surprised by the sudden appearance of David Tennant. Always ever so good (and always intriguing to find which accent he’s wearing this week), but, goodness, when he’s filming Doctor Who for most of the year, where does he find the time to do all these roles? Does he not sleep?

Next week it’s A for Andromeda, which we’re really looking forward to. An early BBC sci-fi drama long since chucked on the bonfire, they’ve remade it as they did Quatermass, though this time not ‘live’. Opinion seems to have been mixed about The Quatermass Experiment last April, though we thought it was terrific, particularly the TV-shy David Tennant and the climactic scene where Jason Flemyng’s Professor Quatermass appeals to the shades of his lost crew, which was as gripping a piece of TV as any I saw last year. It seems to be the last in BBC4’s Monday night drama mini-season, and I hope they’ll do more of them. All have been conspicuously ‘1960s’; Richard has a theory that they’ve built the channel’s entire identity around The Avengers, which – though admittedly they’ve had The Prisoner and Sixties weeks in previous years – seems strangely persuasive. I’d love to know if their ratings are improving. Hope so.

Switching to Newsnight straight afterwards, we were, as usual, annoyed. Well, I say ‘we’. Richard was comparatively mild, so it was my turn to be Mr Shouty at Michael Crick. They do a number on Labour and the Tories for their borrowed millions, but fail to mention the Liberal Democrats at all – presumably because, er, we declared all of ours and even declared the interest as gifts. We’ve had a few scandals recently (though, as Millennium says, if they have to bring up Lloyd George we’re probably pretty clean) that got plenty of reportage, so what’s the problem with reporting an absence of scandal when they’ve looked for it? Political parties acting dodgily has done a huge amount to damage public confidence. But deliberately omitting any evidence where parties have acted honestly – and more so than the law requires – in order to keep sneering that ‘they’re all the same’ is just as poisonous to political culture.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Ooh, I Do Feel Queer

The big ‘Ides of March’ story was whether Mr Blair could count on his sworn enemies to vote for more education power to be exercised direct from Whitehall – Labour MPs did vote against him, of course, so he had to rely on the Tories – while I wrapped myself up, made some chicken soup and looked for something appropriate to the day to watch muzzily from under a duvet. Carry On Cleo was tempting but obvious, so I looked up some TV anniversaries. I was delighted to find that the splendid Doctor Who story The Caves of Androzani had first been shown on the Fifteenth of March, 1984 (the third part, at least), so I pulled out the DVD. As that episode’s most memorable scene features the murder of a President by his leading industrialist backer while pretending to warn him of an assassination plot, this seemed so perfect it must be serendipity.

It’s an unusual story, in that the Doctor doesn’t want to sort out the small war and large political intrigues he lands up in, finding each side as bad as the other (pretty much everyone in the story’s a monster, amoral, greedy and self-centred), just to get himself and his friend out alive – but his mere presence starts a chain reaction that brings down everyone involved, and costs him his life. It’s Peter Davison’s last and best story in the lead role, and he gets his teeth into it so strongly here that it makes you sad to see him go. Amid moody, atmospheric music and direction, the cast really run with a great script, and you can spot here Robert Glenister of Hustle fame, though you won’t spot Christopher Gable, who spends the story masked as a Phantom of the Opera-style obsessive; he’s so stunning that normally he’d have stolen the show, but not when John Normington’s cynical, murderous businessman / politician is around. At the time I thought of it as putting an edge of Dallas into the series, with a similar mixture of archness and ruthlessness, but after House of Cards it’s impossible not to see him as Francis Urquhart. Was Andrew Davies watching this? The anti-hero here is so similar he even has asides direct to camera, too.

Both of these irresistible villains also have in common that stories making you guiltily root for them do exactly the reverse of promoting citizenship and civil society. Thank goodness.

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Ill-informed and Far From Entertaining

I started off yesterday growling at the Today programme (not shouting, but only through a sore throat meaning I can barely speak). For a change, rather than being irritated by an interviewer or a politician – or even Dim-Witted Platitude For The Day – it was a news story that really wound me up, and one about the BBC at that. In their continuing mission to tell us all how to think, the government has come up with new ‘aims’ for the BBC that go way beyond ‘to inform, educate and entertain’. Now the BBC must promote ‘citizenship’, an ideological aim that sounds far too much like it gives the government an automatic way in to say programmes with attitudes it disapproves of are against the new BBC Charter, and sustain ‘civil society’, which sounds far too much like it gives the government an automatic way in to say programmes criticising the government are undermining instead of sustaining it. At some point, I might have a go at the third new aim of ‘building digital Britain’, too, but it’s the two unprecedently political directives that ring the biggest alarm bells.

Some people might call me paranoid not to give the government the benefit of the doubt. But quite aside from the sensible Liberal maxim that you shouldn’t give an open-ended power even to people who are beyond reproach because the next lot might not be so nice, as the current government’s record is that they can’t introduce a new power without abusing it, my reserves of doubt are quite low.

The BBC is possibly the greatest British institution, and like most great British institutions I feel a mixture of instinctive loyalty and sheer exasperation for it. You’ll not be surprised that I have rather greater regard for its Doctor Who than its journalists, and I’m often driven to distraction by its ‘news agenda’ or the way Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson daily expects us to be surprised by his fair and balanced view that Mr Balloon has done something smashingly wonderful. Just last weekend, I got into a row about the way the press – not least the BBC – make everyone think all politicians are crooks who are only in it for themselves. But residual loyalty becomes considerably firmer when the BBC’s main enemies are the government and the Murdoch Empire, and the BBC is better-placed than anything else to keep both of those dangerous beasts in check. Even hardened sceptics of the BBC might feel warmer towards it on reading the self-serving vitriol against it in the Murdoch papers.

Tessa Jowell has now said entertainment should lie at the heart of the BBC – well, d’uh – but instead of being one of three aims, it’s now one of six. On hearing the new ones yesterday morning, Richard disgustedly observed it was like clipping management speak onto poetry. But I think it goes further than that. I suspect very few people would disagree with ‘to inform, educate and entertain,’ and the BBC has found its own way of using the third to get people to watch programmes that do the first two. The new ‘aims’ are qualitatively different. They aren’t aims that the BBC can find its own way of expressing, but targets that the government of the day wants delivered, in the way it bosses around everyone from local government to hospitals to those of us who don’t take ‘enough’ exercise. That is wrong in principle, and gives a government that never refrains from flinging its weight around yet another opportunity to do so in practice. With such specific new aims, who is going to judge whether they are being delivered, or whether series featuring anti-social characters the audience loves or journalists not treating ministers with proper respect work against promoting citizenship or civil society? I know who my money’s on.

I'm in favour of good citizenship and a strong civil society, but teaching one of those concepts in school is quite as far as a government should go in forcing its own conception of it onto us. There's an obvious conflict of interest when they're giving orders to the BBC, and looking at which of them has done a better job of building civil society suggests the government's got it the wrong way round. Quite apart from anything else is the crassness of yet another piece of Labour thought policing; I'd argue that the BBC plays a major part in holding together the idea of 'Britishness', and far more than the pound or the flag that certain ludicrously wealthy Australian-Americans like to champion in their newspapers. Ordering the BBC ostentatiously to uphold society seems to be not just missing the point but, well, rather un-British.

The BBC is never going to be perfect, and as a viewer I’ll happily give it a rocket from time to time. But give the government a back door key into what it’s supposed to stand for, and I fear it’ll just be to inform (on scroungers), to educate (into the correct way of thinking) and to entertain no thoughts of opposition.


Whoops, Missed a Week

Due to an interesting but impractical mix of being unwell and being out and about more than usual, I’ve not been at the computer much. So before catching up – delightful comments to respond to, ideas for posts rattling round my head – and while today’s painkillers are still useful enough to concentrate with, hello. Curiously entertaining moment last week: meeting up with Mum, Dad, Grandad and a priest for a meal out and, following my introduction to said priest, some of Mum’s greatest hits of stories about me as a boy, including ‘Alex learns to read,’ ‘Alex in hospital’ and ‘Alex and Doctor Who’ (all of which are related, for bonus marks). I won’t relate them all in detail, but had the satisfaction of dating one of the stories more accurately than Mum, despite being so young I only remember it from her telling, purely because of the Doctor Who story on at the time – which she remembers as ‘Doctor Who and the Ladies in Pink’. Answers on a postcard. Mum and I also had a lively discussion about an issue of the day on which, unusually, we came down on opposite sides. I’ll have a think about whether it’s too cold a piece of news to blog about, but first…

Monday, March 06, 2006


In Another Place...

After suggestions from a couple of friends, I've started a LiveJournal account - I doubt I'll be posting much there immediately, but I quite like the 'community' idea. So I may explore that later... Still feeling rather zonked today.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Actually, You Can Spot a Fake Liberal

Experiencing withdrawal symptoms from not being in sunny Harrogate and a bout of my usual ill health, I’ve been catching up on my reading instead of moving about much. Despite having several books on the go, I found something worth reading in today’s Guardian (unlikely as that sounds). Ming asserts that ‘We are the real liberals’ on the page following a mischievous attempt to prove all parties are the same – though Richard and I both easily spotted which ones weren’t Liberals, the two conservative parties were more difficult to distinguish in the Manifesto-mixing ‘Whose line is it anyway?’ (a typically original headline). Admittedly, we were helped by a few of Mr Balloon’s phrases being in the news this week before they sink without trace, which largely left the Labour ones to ring the serious ‘scarily illiberal’ bells. I know, you’re not very surprised, are you?

On the other hand, I’ve been perked up considerably more by The Goodies making a welcome return to BBC2 this evening. It’s the only Winter Olympics coverage we’ve watched. I rather fancy a walrus pie now, though that probably isn’t what Richard’s cooking (he’d better switch the oven off after whatever it is, though. Bit of an early warning about global warming).

Anyway, give The Guardian’s spot-the-difference competition a go; I won’t spoil them for you, but it was a relief that the ones I agreed with were generally Liberal Democrat, the vacuous ones generally not, and the objectionable ones generally from our lovely government. One in particular had me nodding and thinking, ‘ooh, that’s quite right’ – see if you can spot it – while the booby prize went to a definition of “the liberty of the individual” that owes more to Lewis Carroll than to John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor.

The whole piece had rather the opposite effect to the ‘they’re all the same’ proof they intended, despite their careful quotation of sections on similar policies: it’s still easy to identify who’s paying lip service to Liberalism. It’s very like the superficial analysis of the mid-‘90s; after 18 years of Tory government, Labour moved to adopt a bunch of Liberal Democrat policies. You’d have to be pretty dim to assume that meant they were Liberals, so that was most of the press, then. Now, with very little economic argument between the parties but after a long period of Labour government that’s bossed people around, failed the environment, crippled human rights and centralised power, it’s no surprise the Tories have moved closer to our policy headlines, if not our policies (but to be fair, they don’t have any other policies either). It’s because the differences between two naturally authoritarian parties are less pronounced than the differences between a Liberal and an authoritarian party that the out-of-office authoritarian party reaches for Liberal ideas to distinguish itself. Yet even a glance at the rhetoric still shows who's come up with the policy from first principles, and who's reaching for the sticking plaster.

There’s an enormous difference between reacting against the most obvious failings of an illiberal, overcentralised government and adopting a Liberal philosophy. I imagine that if the Liberal Democrats had been in power at Westminster for a decade, Labour and the Tories would have very similar policies to each other – yes, I know, how very unlike today – because every party has its own blind spots, and we’d make Liberal mistakes. Of course we would. It’s just that there hasn’t been a modern Liberal government to fail, so we don’t know what they’d be. After the others’ long periods of illiberal failure, Liberal solutions become the obvious ones even to illiberal Oppositions, but without a Liberal analysis behind them, they’re never going to provide a Liberal government.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Hail Ming! Emperor of the Universe!

Congratulations, and well done!

The lead candidate with something like 45%? Blimey. Shows what I know ;-)

Sadly, I'm not able to get to Harrogate this weekend, but I imagine it'll be terrific (I notice Ming's speech isn't due to come up on BBC Parliament. Bah. Let's hope for News 24). Do get in touch with all the gossip...!


It’s Today

Everyone loves to make historical parallels. But before we say “It’s just like Blair / Portillo,” “He’s not as good as Paddy / Charles,” or find ourselves missing Conrad Russell even more than usual when there’s no-one to point out the very similar event “In 1659…”, take a deep breath and remember that history doesn’t always repeat itself. This is our Leadership, today, and if 2006 isn’t (sadly) 1906 there’s no rule that it’s another ‘false dawn’ Liberal revival either. Whoever wins, give them a chance in their own right instead of making instant comparisons. I’ve already been proved wrong on my guess of a low turnout, and I’m delighted that 72% of members voting means our history of disappointing participation for internal elections hasn’t been repeated today.

There are obvious dangers in the ‘year zero’ approach – especially in a country where the Prime Minister wants to chuck out thousand-year-old liberties because they don’t go with his new combats – but what I’m advocating is keeping an open mind and to forgive, not to forget. There’s a difference between learning from the past and wallowing in it. For my part, I will indeed now shut up about who did for Charles, and why, unless it becomes appropriate to draw parallels down the line if people start gunning for today’s victor (please don’t). I think I’ve said quite enough about the contest, anyway, though – while I don’t agree with every word they’ve written – Iain Sharpe and Andy Darley each have rather persuasive round-up pieces, even if Andy’s makes me blush (I wanted just to thank him by e-mail, but the addy listed in his profile bounced. So here’s a more public ‘gosh!’).

No doubt the press will attempt to push today’s result into the box of previous contests, but that won’t be because it’s the same. It’s because they’re lazy, and dismissing an event as something that’s already happened means they don’t have to think through the implications of novelty. Mr Balloon is appealing now to this tendency with his attempt to present his recipe for apple pie as his “Clause 4 moment”. It isn’t, and the way it sank without trace after such a big buildup from Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson suggests even lazy journalists can sometimes spot when history isn’t being repeated (as even Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson has subsequently admitted).

This is the 2006 Liberal Democrat contest, and tempting as the comparisons may be, the candidates do not include Charles Kennedy, David Cameron, Michael Portillo or Tony Blair (or, for that matter, Nick Clegg, Susan Kramer or Phil Willis). Rushing between shops in the downpour before the final hustings last week, I bumped into a leading member of one of the contenders’ campaigns in the doorway of HMV, and we went off for a drink and a gossip to get out of the rain. It was a fun and informative couple of hours, and, no, we couldn’t resist the ‘history repeating’ game either. Perhaps, it was suggested, there was ill-feeling towards Chris from others of ‘his generation’ because he’d decided to change the ‘understanding’, like Tony and Gordon in 1994. No, I replied; it’s not 1994, but 1992. Chris is greeted with the outrage for being a young upstart that Tony or Gordon would have been met with had they had the bottle to challenge the ‘establishment right-winger’ who everyone expected to win rather than just backing him and leaving the contest to the ‘established left-winger’ who everyone expected to lose. I thought it sounded very plausible at the time, but maybe it was just the hot chocolate talking: a contest that hadn’t finished yet, just like a contest that never took place? Well, if you’re going for a spurious historical comparison, you might as well make it original.

So when I say that the leadership result is today, I mean that today inevitably leads to tomorrow. Not yesterday. Good luck to the victor; make your own mark.

I can’t resist one last slightly indiscreet leadership contest observation, though. Overheard at the London hustings last week, as a Ming supporter attempted to sway a waverer with the promise of a ‘caretaker’ leader: “A Ming is for life, not just for Christmas.” “I know… And that’s what terrifies me.” If you win, Ming, Chris, or Simon, the very best of luck to you, and may your reign be long, be inspiring, and make it to the history books for the right reasons!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Three Cheers For Susan

Newsnight has just followed a naked piece of anti-Liberal Democrat spin – I’m sorry, I’ll read that again, a report of the Leadership race – with a studio piece in which Gavin Esler questioned Nick Clegg, Susan Kramer and Lembit Öpik. Nick and Lembit were perfectly competent, but Susan wiped the floor with Esler so comprehensively that Richard and I have yet to wipe the grins from our faces. Instead of following her brief to 'speak for Chris’ she did exactly what should be done at this stage and spoke for the united party, forcefully asserting support for whoever gets elected.

I’ve rarely seen one of our MPs on better form; assertive and assured enough to override a rattled interviewer without seeming aggressive, sticking up for everything that unites us and showing Newsnight up after a ridiculously partial scene-setting that thought minuscule ‘scandals’ are worth gloating over but Dunfermline isn’t worth mentioning, and that all Lib Dem activists hate people for being financially successful. Nope, wrong party (one alternative party listens only to them, while members of the other either hate or fetishise them. Liberals just don’t see it as the most important thing about someone). While no Leader should be obeyed without question, whoever wins will deserve everyone’s support. But whoever wins should also promote Susan Kramer.

Gavin also has a nasty new haircut, Richard notices. No wonder he looks glum.


Life On Mars

Strange though it may seem, Richard and I don’t watch that much TV. That is, not that much (other than news) as it’s transmitted – a large collection of DVDs and videos means there’s quite enough to fit in. However, in the last couple of years that’s swung back slightly, and we’ve watched much more new TV. Suddenly, television drama is just more interesting again. 2006’s highlight so far by a long shot has been Life On Mars, which finished on Monday after keeping us gripped for two months. The final episode appropriately resolved two mysteries running throughout to reward regular viewers, but left the biggest one dangling so we stay tantalised and tune in when the series returns next year (so if you’ve not watched it yet but are going to, don’t read the final paragraph of this piece or it might spoil a couple of plot twists).

Life On Mars didn’t just come out of nowhere. Richard and I both love interesting TV, and it’s been depressing how dull and formulaic British drama has been for – well, most of the time we’ve been together. Cop show, doc show, soap, cop soap, doc soap, playing it safe. But thank goodness, signs of life are showing. Spooks has been running about four years, and gradually inveigled Richard, as well as drawing me in from time to time. The real breath of fresh air for us was from the same production team, Kudos, when Hustle started up in 2004. I love The Avengers and many of its freewheeling ITC cousins of the ’60s and early ’70s, and Hustle has such entertaining plots and is such purely joyous TV to watch that it could fit right in with them, albeit having a bigger budget and even more stylish direction, neither of which I’m complaining about. Stars like Adrian Lester and Jaime Murray are every bit as talented and charismatic as any you could imagine being cast if it had been made in 1969 as ‘The Hustlers’, and it’s even got Robert Vaughn in it. The same company’s behind Life On Mars, and in twenty years’ time there’ll be twenty- and thirty-somethings saying, ‘Oh, do you remember those programmes Kudos used to make? They were dead exciting,’ in just the same way people remember ITC now.

In case you think I’m on a retainer from Kudos – chance’d be a fine thing – there’s kudos (sorry) due to another organisation for making it happen. It’s such an enormous relief that the BBC has stopped just playing it safe and started making or commissioning drama to surprise and delight the viewer again, and of course that includes their jewel in the crown, the most-watched non-soap last year, Doctor Who. Obviously I love it and am busily trying to avoid all the plot details whizzing around for the new series coming up in about a month or so, but this time I’m talking about some of the impact Doctor Who has had on television rather than the series itself. By being so good and such a big hit, Doctor Who seems to have given the BBC the confidence to do two things: it’s rediscovered family programming – shows complex enough to satisfy children and amusing enough to distract adults, with high hopes soon for a new Robin Hood – and it’s no longer afraid of series that step outside ‘the real world’. Even ITV had a bash, though their recent Eleventh Hour – not trying to cash in on Doctor Who at all, oh no, with a lead named ‘Professor Hood’ – didn’t quite work for me, or the ratings. I suspect it’s because while on paper the mix of charismatic, established sci-fi star (Patrick Stewart) and paranoid Noughties take on the ’70s series Doom Watch (scientists investigating dangerous science) sounded like a winner, the scripts were leaden and the style was like every other dreary ITV cop chow, so failing to enthuse anyone wanting something different. With its possible explanation of time travel, as well as ’70s nostalgia and a number of sly references, Life On Mars has several nods to Doctor Who, a series that surely paved the way for it. Though its first season has just concluded, like Doctor Who it's been successful enough to have already been given the go-ahead not just for a second series but a third. Hurrah!

If you missed it, you’ll have gathered that Life On Mars was something special (and while the DVD’s not due until the end of the year, you can catch a repeat run in the Monday night / Tuesday morning BBC1 ‘Sign Zone’). In it, modern DCI Sam Tyler is transported back to 1973 after a car accident. Or is he? We still don’t know if he’s a genuine time traveller, insane, in a coma – the character’s belief – or in some yet more bizarre alternative. Is he now the number two in a real 1970s Manchester police division, or is everyone he works with just an aspect of his own mind? And what do the sinister sock puppets have to do with it? Well, I suspect there’ll be no answers to any of that for at least a couple of years, but in the meantime it’s an exhilarating Ford Cortina ride.

John Simm gives a great performance as Sam, a sensitive and logical police officer of today in the world of The Sweeney, simultaneously more straightforward and more corrupt (and it’s interesting to see what level of racism, sexism and homophobia the producers think they can get away with without alienating a modern audience. They’re toned down very much in that order). Despite Simm’s superb performance, usually calm and reliable, often vulnerable, sometimes desperate, his 2006-style ‘realistic’ character is regularly blown off the screen by the larger-than-life ’70sness of DCI Gene Hunt. Philip Glenister – strangely enough, brother of Hustle’s immensely dependable Robert – gives in Hunt one of the most scene-stealing performances of the decade, hugely likeable and very funny, but more than solid enough to avoid becoming the comic relief. One of the more off-the-wall possibilities for the series is that Gene may be real and Sam his conscience, which may be intriguing but which I wouldn’t dash down to put a punt on (though nice policewoman Annie could be there just to tempt our hero). In any case, the clash between their personal and policing styles has really made the show, to such an extent that they even kept me interested the week the plot was about football (and I spent my entire childhood being bored sick by City-United arguments). It’s that good.

Last week’s penultimate episode really racked up the tension, with a death in police custody being covered up, but perhaps because I knew it would be back next year – and assumed he wasn’t going to suddenly wake up in the ’80s instead – the season climax didn’t keep up quite the same pressure, because I didn’t expect it all to be resolved, and it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean it was a let-down, with the running storylines of what happened to Sam’s dad and his fragmented memory of a Don’t Look Now-style red dress both finally paying off. Richard and I may have both guessed the ‘Keyser Soze’ twist, but there were the usual entertaining details like the coppers’ bet that made me laugh, and the final confrontation sent shivers up my spine. It might have had that effect anyway from Simm’s stunning, desperate performance, but the reason it spooked me is that the police track Sam’s dad to Woodbank Community Centre and then chase him through the woods next to it; I recognised the name and building and, whether they actually filmed the wooded scenes in the park next to it or not, I used to play in Woodbank Park in Stockport when I was the age of ‘young Sam’, probably just a couple of years later than this is set (I’m only a couple of years younger than he’s meant to be ‘now’). I suspect few readers will get quite the same buzz, but it’s certainly worth a go. And of course the episode was accompanied by a trailer for the new series of Hustle, so TV continues to look bright.

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