Monday, October 13, 2008

 

Best of the Last Sixty Years – Any Ideas?

Last weekend’s Any Questions was extraordinarily pleased with itself for having hit the show’s sixtieth anniversary. It wasn’t a spectacular edition – I’d rather they’d repeated the famous 1955 edition where, due to the ‘Fourteen-Day Rule’ then preventing discussion of anything too topical, audience and panel revolted when no questions were allowed on Suez and it was taken off the air – but one question intrigued me. Shirley Williams, Harriet Harman and Oliver Letwin each came up with persuasive candidates for the best thing that’s changed in the last sixty years, and each was clearly stamped with their philosophical base.

It’s quite rare that I can agree with all three panellists – quite often I don’t agree with one. And, yes, technically there were four on there, but the academic who answered last just agreed with the others and didn’t count. Shirley Williams, Harriet Harman and Oliver Letwin, however improbable, all came up with something memorable. They were actually asked for both the best and the worst things of the last sixty years; I can’t remember what each of them attacked, but what sprang to their minds as something good was has stuck in my memory.

The Day I Agreed With Shirley Williams, Harriet Harman and Oliver Letwin

Called first, and not sounding entirely happy to be, was Shirley Williams. Now, I’ve long had rather mixed feelings about Shirley – great speaker, many good things in her record, but plenty of things she says that get on my wick as well – but her answer was both unexpected and spot-on, impeccably Liberal and internationalist. She nominated the massive growth of internationalism and communication made possible by the Internet.

Harriet Harman – about whom I don’t have mixed feelings at all – went next and, to my surprise, I was happy with her choice, too: the NHS. Of course she said it shared a birthday with Any Questions (three months out, but at least she got the year right; the smarter among you will have noticed that puts it slightly more than sixty years ago, so technically she didn’t answer the question) but, yes, a great institution, and certainly one that’s made a huge difference to my life, if not as much as I’d like.

And Oliver Letwin rounded up with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War. Again, something I’d wholeheartedly agree with as a good thing.

But though each panellists came up with a thoroughly good thing for their answer, it’s striking that each came up with an answer that also so strongly reflected their philosophy. Mr Letwin the Conservative said – we beat the communists! Ms Harman the Labour Minister said – celebrate a British state organ of doing good that we, the Labour Party, that’s the Labour Party, the nice Labour Party, voted through Parliament! And Shirley Williams gave that Liberal, decentralised answer: that people talking to each other all over the world and doing things for themselves is the best the world has to offer.

My Best Thing?

I found myself nodding with each answer, and though none of their three would have been what popped into my head first if I’d been put on the spot, I was glad to find something from each politician that I agreed with, and to find that Shirley was speaking from the same sort of core that I have. What would I have picked? Well, it’s more amorphous, but the first thing that came into my head is that in so many countries, including (mostly) both of mine, the last sixty years have seen such an incredible degree of socially liberal movement, that people are so much more free to choose their own lives – most obviously and particularly, but far from exclusively, if they’re not male, not white and not heterosexual. I wouldn’t change my life with Richard for any time in the past; let’s hope for just as much progress in the next sixty years.

Now I have a question for the panel. How has Any Questions lasted so long when the tedious and self-satisfied Jonathan Dimbleby has been droning on as chair for a third of that time?


The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Day of the Clown

Hmm, what’s the best thing about today? That I’ve just had an e-mail from Thornton’s announcing that it’s National Chocolate Week and offering me 15% off? No – it’s got to be that top Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures is just about to come on. Obviously, Doctor Who was the other thing that sprang to mind as the best thing in the last sixty years…

We saw Part One of The Day of the Clown on the CBBC Channel last week, and it’s just about pop up on BBC1 in ‘proper’ transmission, with the conclusion later (which, incidentally, looks like it’ll have a prop that’s a visual reference to near-namesake Doctor Who story Day of the Daleks. Keep your eyes peeled). So far it’s been one of the best pieces of TV all year: stylishly frightening, and unsettling kids and parents enough with stolen children; just funny enough; taking a myth and twisting it; great performances from the regular cast and great new regulars; Bradley Walsh making an absolutely superb villain… And, yes, it’s at least the fourth ‘creepy clowns’ story that Doctor Who’s done, but when it’s shaping up to be the best of them, why complain? Delightfully, it’s directed by Michael Kerrigan. Not only is he only the second director who worked on Doctor Who last century to ‘come back’, but he was easily the weakest of those at the helm in 1989 with Battlefield. Now he’s deft, stylish and just right. Gosh. The Day of the Clown’s a great day to sample the series if you haven’t yet. Go on, then.


Update: I forgot to mention something else excitingly Whoish (though not quite as exciting as The Day of the Clown) from BBC1 earlier today. Daytime soap Doctors featured Sylvester McCoy playing… Well, an unsettlingly fourth-wall hybrid of Sylvester McCoy and Jon Pertwee, an ageing actor famous for the 26 (cough) episodes of children’s sci-fi show The Lollipop Man in the late ’80s and keen to fly to Australia to make new episodes. Sylv was superb, and his companion wife was even played by the lovely Aimi Macdonald, who I remember being menaced by a giant robot in The Avengers. Sylv gives the impression of enjoying his Doctor Who DVD cemeteries commentaries rather more than the one he was called in for today… Now, ideally ITV’ll repeat Press Gang: UnXpected in the next few days so I can bung them both on a DVD together (I could do with a copy of that to take clips from). If you want to watch it without borrowing it from me, though, it’s available on iPlayer.

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Comments:
I'm with Shirley all the way. The internet brought me my Mat, and also lots of really lovely friends (your good self included); what more could I ask of it?

Dimbers should be replaced by Sandi Toksvig. She ticks all the boxes. She's female AND gay AND an ethnic minority (if Danish counts), and, more importantly, she's got more wit and intellect in her diminutive body than a million Dimblebys.
 
Re: the Update. Haven't watched Doctors since sexy Doctor Ben Kwame left. Don't get me addicted again!
 
I've been racking my brains to come up with something different to the excellent suggestions from Alex and Shirley, without much success.

If we were going back 90 years, I might suggest quantum mechanics: an area of scientific research that seemed obscure and pointless at the time but is now at the heart of most technology.

Or perhaps the huge advances in medicine. Whilst alternative therapies remain as useless as ever, real medicine has conquered TB, dyptheria, smallpox, polio and for the first time in our million-year history, at least in the West, made premature death a rarity rather than an everyday occurance.
 
Good call, Jennie, particularly on Sandi – I’d listen much more often. Perhaps they could stick Dimblebore on The News Quiz instead; that’d soon bring him down a peg or two. And Doctors was rather good yesterday, you know, but mainly because I found myself fast-forwarding through the regulars ;-)

Quantum mechanics and non-quackery medicine are excellent nominations, too, Mr Quist. Nice to have proper science.
 
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