Sunday, April 10, 2005
musicOMH.com | opera | Twilight Of The Gods @ The London Coliseum
Review of Siegfried, English National Opera
New Readers Start Here
1: The Controversial Bit
At the end of "Twilight of the Gods", Brunhilde rides Grane, her long-suffering horse, onto the funeral pyre of her lover, Siegfried. Siegfried's death seems to have restored her divine powers. She invokes Loge, the god of fire, and Wotan's magical ravens. The flames of the bonfire rush up to Valhalla. The Rhine bursts its banks. The gods are wiped out. The magic Ring is returned to its rightful owners. The old order has been swept away. A new era of humanistic love will emerge from the ashes.
Brunhilde's last words are "Siegfried! Here, husband, welcome your wife!" But are these lovers going to be re-united in the Undying Lands? With the gods incinerated and Valhalla destroyed it is doubtful that there is any after-life for them to go to. When they were in love, they kept saying that they wanted to merge together and become one person. ("I'm hardly Siegfried at all, I'm merely Brunhilde's will" "Apart yet still united, divided yet still as one.") But this can't really happen. Human souls can't become united; they can only communicate through symbols. And the same symbols with which we communicate also separate us. The Runes on Wotan's spear are the symbols of his power: but ultimately they render him powerless. The Ring, which Siegfried carelessly gives Brunhilde as a pledge of his love, is what ensures that they will be pulled apart. The only place they can be together is outside of language; outside of symbols; outside of the opera. By destroying themselves, they ensure that the idea-of-Siegfried and the idea-of-Brunhilde will always be united. Brunhilde isn't dying so she can be with Siegfried in heaven: her death, her consumption in the flames, is the consummation of her love. She is literally in love with death. And she dies by her own hand in such a way as to destroy a morally bankrupt social world.
Everyone who reads the arts pages already knows how Phyllida Lloyd interprets this scene at the climax of the English National Opera's brilliant Ring Cycle. Five hours of gripping drama has been summarized in a single phrase. "Oh, this is the one where they turn Brunhilde into a blankety-blank. Apparently, it was very controversial." You could easily think that this one "controversial" image was the most important thing about the opera.
As every review reminds us, Ms Lloyd specializes in modern-dress re-imaginings of Wagner that range from the astonishing to the impenetrable. What is less often said is that her greatest strength as a producer is that she knows when to shut-up. What I took away from Act III of "Twilight" was not any sense of shock about the Controversial Bit. (I didn't realize it was controversial until I read about it in Sunday morning's Observer.) I was far more impressed by the relative lack of stage business and "production ideas". We are, after all, dealing with most emotive music ever composed by a human being. I swear, every time I hear Siegfried's funeral march, I feel as if someone really has just died. It's Wagner at his most sadistic. Siegfried's death would do for the show-stopping final bars of any other opera; but it turns out to only be the lead-in to the funeral music, which, if I have counted correctly, has five separate climaxes. Every time you think the music is going to let you down and release you, it comes back even bigger and louder, and more painful. And when it finally subsides, Wagner starts building up to another, even bigger climax, Brunhilde's death. Very sensibly, Lloyd mainly let's the music speak for itself.
Act III mainly un-folds on an empty stage. I could have done without the Rhine-maidens being represented as pole-dancers, although I take the point that if you look at how they treated Alberich, they are more "lusty nymphs" than "innocent maids". There was no great "controlling idea" informing Siegfried's death. Hagan stabs him with a knife rather than a spear: a slight blunder because the operas have loaded "spears" with a large amount of symbolism which it would have been better not to muck about with. The mortally wounded Siegfried is lying on his back. He is lifted up by two of Hagan's vassals: first to a sitting position (as per Wagner's stage direction) but then onto his feet for his final lines. Once he is dead, the vassals crowd around him, completely hiding his body. The stage is dark. As the march proceeds, a few of the vassals emerge from the crowd with relics: -- his hat, his horn. (I can't help mentioning that I saw this on April 2nd, a little before the news-story from Rome broke...) They take his body back to Gunther's hall. After Gutrune's vigil, they again cluster around Siegfried's body. The quarrel over the Ring starts. And then the group parts as Brunhilde enters. ("I heard your feeble whimpering just like a baby who's lost his mother/ But I heard nothing, nothing befitting a mighty hero's fall"). We're already emotionally shattered by Siegfried's death and the funeral march, but this is another fantastically charged moment. Brunhilde is back in her black costume from Act II of "Valkyrie": no longer a victim of Wotan, Siegfried, Gunther and Hagan -- she's a Valkyrie again, commanding the stage. Brunhilde's simple entrance may have been the most dramatically perfect moment in the whole saga.
It's at this point we deviate slightly from the script. When Brunhilde orders the vassals to build a funeral pyre, Siegfried's body is taken off stage. This is fairly common when director's don't feel they can cope with an on-stage cremation. Brunhilde's eight sisters turn up, dressed as they were in "Valkyrie" Act III. This somewhat contradicts the narrative, states that the Valkyrie are at Wotan's feet, waiting for the world to end. But it makes dramatic sense for the choosers of the slain to be swarming around Siegfried's pyre.
Brunhilde sings her great "immolation" aria: "Send Loge to Valhalla/For the final Twilight now is at hand/So here is the fire/Valhalla, this is the end..." Waltraute, the Valkyrie who visited Brunhilde on her rock in Act II, straps some kind of waist-coat or breast-plate to her sister and hands her an object. The audience does a double-take. It's a hand-grenade. The waist-coat is explosives. Instead of exiting stage-right and throwing herself onto Siegfried's off-stage funeral pyre, as we might have expected, Brunhilde pulls the pin out of the grenade and throws herself into the crowd at the rear of the stage. Everyone mimes being destroyed in an explosion. A combination of lighting and silvery curtains indicates that the Rhine has flooded. We see Hagan and Alberich briefly embrace under the water, before being left with a more-or-less empty stage, representing the Rhine, the return to the purity of nature that existed before the Ring was stolen. The implication is that everything has been wiped out, a rather larger scale of destruction than Wagner envisaged. (His stage direction had "men and women watching the fire in the sky in great agitation" from the the ruins of Gunther's hall. The abbreviated stage direction in this translation simply says "The world is destroyed by fire and water.") But the music and the stage imagery clearly tells us that an old world has passed away and a new one will emerge from this wreak. I have no problem with Gotterdamerung being envisaged as "the end of the world" as opposed to merely "the end of the gods".
So yes. If you insist. Phylida Lloyd "made" Brunhilde into a suicide bomber. Or, rather, Phylida Lloyd observed that the psychology of the religious suicide bomber is very close to that of Brunhilde. I really don't think she is appropriating the "Ring" in order to "say something" about terrorism. But she is very cleverly using the idea of terrorism to illuminate the psychology of a character in the "Ring."
I heard no booing, jeering, cat-calling or anything else. I don't believe that this is something that British opera go-ers do, any more than they throw flowers or shout "bravissimo".
2: The Rest of the Opera
The controlling motif of this "Twilight" is cowboys and America. Siegfried has grown up a little since the last opera. In Act I, Brunhilde unceremoniously takes away his baseball cap and replaces it with a stetson. Brunhilde herself is dressed as a little wifey out of "Little House on the Prairie", all flowery pinafores and aprons. The lovers are discovered sitting at a table with a checked table-cloth and vase of flowers.
Now, backtrack and consider the plot. Wotan sentenced Brunhilde -- who we first encountered as a sort of macho biker-chick -- to be stripped of her immortality. She was to become the wife of any man who came her way. This is intended as a punishment. But it has not turned out that way because the person who found her was Siegfried, with whom she fell in love. This is brilliantly encapsulated in the stage image – Brunhilde pathetically reduced from warrior to "little woman" but happy. It also gives a sense that they have been together for some time. If you aren't careful, the opera can give you the impression that Siegfried met Brunhilde on Tuesday morning and got murdered in time for tea on Wednesday.
A sense of the passage of time was also conveyed by the clever back-projection sequence which accompanied Siegfried's Rhine Journey. While Richard Berkeley-Steele mimes walking and riding, a film of dusty roads, prairies, and rivers is projected on the backdrop. "Wild west", Marlborough country imagery slowly gives way to scenes of the big-city. This gives a good sense that Siegfried has been traveling a long time before he reaches the Gunther's hall; it also nearly sets up the fact that although he is a Great Hero he is out of his depth in Gunther's world.
I thought maybe Gunther's "hall" was over done. Some people thought that it was an executive health spa: I thought perhaps they were meant to be running a pharmaceutical company. It certainly conveyed wealth and sophistication. An anti-septic white room; Gunther and Gutrune in bath robes, on sun-beds, with lap-tops, and a big glass fronted cup-board full of drugs or medicines on the back wall – possibly recalling the Damien Hirst installation. Admittedly, a rather very unsubtle way of introducing the love-potion, but we'll let that pass...
One got a sense from the programme notes that the company was slightly embarrassed by Act II. There is no doubt that it's as close as Wagner ever got to writing straight opera. There is a chorus, who more or less sing a drinking song; there is a rousing three way climax where Gunther, Hagan and Brunhilde swear vengeance, not totally unlike Act II of "Otello". There is the magnificently declamatory section where Siegfried and Brunhilde swear oaths on the point of Hagan's spear. (Or, unfortunately in this case, dagger.) Where Siegfried's death makes me cry, the spear-swearing makes me want to cheer, and shout "encore!". I rather wished I could have watched Act II in a Glastonbury-type situation, where you could respond to the action without fear of everyone behind you going "shush"! Wagner being Wagner, he doesn't give us very much of any one of the "tune": the oath swearing is repeated twice; the vassals celebration is really only sung once. You feel anyone else would have milked them for twenty minutes.
The production pretty much dives in an enjoys itself. Gunther and Gutrune are marrying Brunhilde and Siegfried, respectively, not because they love them, but because they think that marrying a hero and an ex-goddess will confer status on them. They are trophy brides, this is a celebrity marriage. The wedding, done partly as a set-piece for benefit of their subjects falls apart when Brunhilde (Gunther's "wife") announces that she is already married to Siegfried (who, as a result of a plot device, has completely forgotten who she is.) Brunhilde faints. Everyone starts swearing oaths and vengeance. In the aftermath of the disastrous wedding, Brunhilde, Gunther and Hagan plan to murder Siegfried. It has aways seemed to me that this section of "Twilight of the Gods" represents a desecration of the last two operas. How can the dragon-slaying Siegfried have been turned into a puppet by such a silly Shakespeare-comedy device as a love-potion? How after that intense love-duet, can Brunhilde possibly believe that Siegfried has really betrayed her, let alone participate in a plot to kill him? (Why doesn't she say "Siegfried would never betray me. One of you must have enchanted him.") It's part of the genius of the opera that he completely regains his nobility in death. But it is really not very much to the point to say that the production of Act II reduced the characters status, turned them into figures in a melodrama or a soap-opera. That is pretty much what Wagner has already done to them.
After his strange dream-meeting with Alberich, Hagan calls his vassals together to announce the double wedding. It begins with a horn call, and Hagan's very dark theme, as he insinuates that he has called them together to go to war. The chorus appears in black body suits and silver helmets, looking like riot police or stormtroopers. There are even what look like nuclear missiles lined up at the back of the stage. This is slightly corny, almost a parody of modern-dress Wagner. But at the moment when they realize that they have been assembled, not for a war, but for a wedding and the the music changes the chorus all simultaneously rip off their black costumes, and reveal gaudy, modern, pastel colours underneath. The stage has gone from black to colourful in a about three seconds. (This was another moment where I wanted to applaud.) "Hollywood" style lighting and a big silver silver staircase are lowered from the ceiling, and Gunther and Brunhilde enter in a gaudy wedding dresses, followed by Siegfried in a sparkly white cowboy outfit. The whole thing has turned into the most vulgar of Las Vegas show business weddings. As Brunhilde accuses Siegfried of treachery, and the whole things threatens to degenerate into a brawl, the two sides of the "congregation" start waving their programmes and fists, for all the world like a Jerry Springer audience.
I repeat. Phylida Lloyd is not appropriating the "Ring" and using it to "say something about" show business weddings. Neither, I think, is she shoe-horning Wagner's material into inappropriate modern situations. She is asking the question "Who, in the modern world, most resembles these legendary characters". She wants us to approach "Twilight of the Gods" as human drama, not as an argument involving philosophical archetypes. A bride weeping in a dressing room while stripping off her expensive wedding dress has a pathos that is hard to achieve with animal skins and standing stones. A woman being given a hand-grenade by her own sister makes us perceive suicide as something brutal and nihilistic, rather than satisfyingly romantic.
Dramatically and in terms of production, "Twilight of the Gods" was the most successful opera in the E.N.O ring. It wasn't as gut-wrenching as "Valkryie", but that's really Wagner's fault: it only gets onto an emotional plateau in Act III. Act I is longer than most sensible operas, and with its long expository sections from the Norns and Waltraute, is always going to feel like a bit of a test of endurance.
So it's over, and there is now nothing to look forward to unless and until they do all four operas together as a proper cycle in 2006. Obviously, only a complete lunatic would sign up to a complete "Ring". 14 hours, four consecutive nights in the theater, ticket costs of around £300. I'll be right at the front of the queue.
3: By the way....
Ellen Collins e-mailed me to point out that in the E.N.O "Rhinegold" Wotan is discovered surveying Valhalla from his bath-tub. When it is agreed that the ransom for Freya will be enough gold to cover her, they put her in the bath to bury her. So the Fafner's bath, which which perplexed me in "Siegfried" is probably a symbol of the Neiblung hoard.
A letter on the website of the Wagner Society points out that the Woodbird tells Siegfried to go into Fafner's cave to get the Tarnhelm. If the helm is in the cave, Fafner is not wearing it; but if he isn't wearing it, then he isn't transformed into a dragon. So the idea that Siegfried fights and kills a giant is actually faithful to the literal sense of the libretto.
4: And finally....
I have had a number of requests... but I decided to do it anyway:
Friday, April 01, 2005
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Monday, March 28, 2005
BAD NEWS. Bryn Teflon, who was supposed to be singing Wotan, lost his voice, so we only got Act I of Valkyrie
EVEN WORSE NEWS: Michael Portillo, who was doing the introductory talks, didn't lose his voice. At least he resisted the temptation to say "and you know, Alberich renouncing love for the ring is very like, when, as a member of John Major's cabinet, I..." which is his normal idiom.
GOOD NEWS: Bryn Teflon, whose Rhinegold was presumably recorded in advance, was as good as everyone says. He managed to put nuance into his singing and his gestures at the same time. (Sieglinde, for example, could only manage one at time. One noticed her hands wandering down to her abdomen on the high notes, and then remembering what they were supposed to be doing and reaching for a goblet.) He made you feel that "acting through music" is a natural, rather than a very strange and artificial, form of expression.
BAD NEWS: Deeply incoherent production of Rhinegold I thought. I am, as you know, very relaxed about radical and weird versions of the Ring. But. When the producer explained that the Gods were going to be Victorian but the Dwarves were going to represent a sort of industrial and scientific revolution, I started to get sinking feelings. When did you last see a production where the gods weren't Victorian? In fact, Valhalla seemed to be a random collection of unrelated items -- a telescope, a sofa -- and the Dwarfs realm was, for no reason that I could understand, a mortuary or vivisection lab. Alberich and Mime spend a lot of time moving dead bodies around the stage. The niebelungs themselves are either victims of lobotomy experiments, or corpses revived a la Doctor Frankenstien. The producer suggested that this was because the Ring represents the misuse of science and genetic modification, which it doesn't. And for some reason Donner and Froh were in dressing gowns or smoking jackets. Donner is the god of thunder. He has a hammer. The one time he is center-stage musically involves him calling the thunder down -- one of the most macho moment in the whole cycle. What is the point of making him a dandy?
GOOD NEWS: Loge was brilliant and stole the show, totally mischievous and understated and enjoying himself the whole time.
ALSO GOOD NEWS: Erda the Earth-Goddess was an old lady in a veil; possibly Queen Victoria herself. She is asleep in an armchair and wakes up for her big moment. Mr Portaloo's comments over the curtain call suggests that she was actually sitting in the armchair for the whole opera. At any rate, nice image, nice characterization.
CATASTROPHICALLY BAD NEWS: One of pundits at the beginning of Valkyrie explained that, in between the two operas, Wotan goes to Erda, learns from her, and as he later admits, seduces or even rapes her. He evidently hadn't seen last nights production. While the other gods were climbing up ladders to Valhalla, Wotan is shagging Erda in her armchair. I am trying to work out what new interpretation of the opera this was pointing us towards. I suspect it was the version which says "Our non-German speaking audience will not be following the sub-titles, so perhaps if we spell everything out in a really, really unsubtle way, they'll be able to follow the plot. (In Valkyrie, Sieglinde's line "I gave him a drug in his drink" is foreshadowed ten minutes in advance by a bit of business in which she opens what appears to be a packet of lemsip.)
GOOD NEWS: I have been told by two people who are not particularly Wagner enthusiasts that they were captivated by the production. So I am probably being over-critical.
GOOD NEWS: There was less rubbish on the stage in Valkyrie, although I still had no-idea what anything meant or was supposed to symbolize. But it gave the performers a fairly empty space to sing and act in. There were some nice little ideas. Siegmund has a big fur coat which is associated with his father, "Wolf." When Sieglinde starts to realize who he is, she unwraps a brown paper packet which contains a similar coat.
GOOD NEWS: Hunding is the unexpected scene stealer in this. Remarkable diction (I don't speak German, but I could pick out words with the sub-titles) and very charismatic action. Too often he is just the cardboard villain from the moment he comes in. Here, there seemed to be a convincing camaradarie with Siegmund in the brief moments before he realizes that they are enemies.
BAD NEWS: But the Nazi imagery of the coat was overdoing it, wasn't it?
BAD NEWS: Why oh why does that sword drive producers crazy? Siegmund is meant to pull the sword from the tree, brandish it aloft, and run into the woods with Sieglinde. As dear sweet Germain said, the symbolism is not exactly rocket science. So what is going on when Sieglinde takes the sword from Siegmund, and they go out into the woods with her holding it in front of herself?
GOOD NEWS: Singing all very good indeed, particular when the duet gets going. (I believe that Placido is going to have a go at Siegmund later in the run, if both he and Bryn can get their throats in working order simultaneously. If you want tickets for that one, Covent Garden will accept the soul of your first born in down payment.)
BAD NEWS: Got to wait til May 7th to see Acts Two and Three, at which point (you can bet) Mr Portillo will not be able to resist some political analogies.
Below my window there’s an apple tree in blossom. It’s white. And looking at it — instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s a nice blossom’ — now, looking at it through the window, I see the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be. The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.
Can anyone think of another use of that particular turn of phrase "blossomest blossom" "daisy-est daity"? Or is it possible that Dennis Potter was a closet Doctor Who fan? (His posthumous play was "science fiction", after all, and he did describe the BBC managers as a bunch of croak voiced Daleks.)
Saturday, March 26, 2005
2: Friends started ringing within three minutes of the closing credits, and I said "go away", let me get my thoughts on-line first.
3: Nick is staying with me. .There were no crumpets to be had in Tescos, not ever for ready money. To get the full experience, I even laid on a DVD of Basil Brush. (It was crap.)
And the verdict is.
Stunned. Desperate wish to see it again. Desperate wish to see next week's immediately. Strange interstitial territory between a completely new series that I think I would be very interested in from cold, and odd sense of familiarity.
Sense of entering story "in media res." The Doctor is already involved in an adventure. Rose blunders into it. We see "The Dcotor" from the outside. "The Doctor" is portrayed as mysterious and Other. Ecclestone is very Bakerish, going from impishness to occassional moments of seroiusness. (Not enough of the latter, I felt, maybe too much sense that he (the Doctor) ) was treated what was going on as a game.) I loved the way he seemed to have contempt for these stupid humans, except that he was risking his life to save them. Maybe too frenetic, too much rushing between scenes, not enough pausing to take in the atmosphere.
Rose very believable as a character. Felt to me a bit "like something out of Eastenders", but that's probably good short hand for "ordinary mortal." No attempt to make her an old school "screaming girl menaced by baddies", of course, but still very recognisable as a Who companion.
Had some doubt about re-design of TARDIS interior, although the set itself was very impressive.
Like the fact that the Doctor was "an alien" with no backstory. Liked the conspiracy theorist hunting him on the net. Liked all the London landmarks. Me and Nick laughed out loud at the London Eye gag.
Thought the CGI looked a little phony; and had a tendency to make the aliens look like cartoon characters. When one of the Autons "morphs" its plastic hand into an axe to attack the Doctor with, I thought of Bugs Bunny.
Opening sequence and theme music very dynamic. As one final nod of the head to nostalgia junkies, the announcer made innane comments over the clsoing credits, so we couldn't hear the new theme tune.
Paul McGann was a character who was definitely the Doctor in something which definitely wasn't Doctor Who. Chris Eccleston is a character who is probably the Doctor in something which is definitely Doctor Who.
Again again. Again again. Again, again.
You're gone for ages,
You're still here,
We haven't even met yet.
Every great decision creates ripples
Like a huge boulder dropped in a lake.
The ripples merge,
Rebound off the banks in unforseeable ways.
The heavier the decision,
The larger the waves,
The more uncertain the consequences.
Life's like that.
Is just to get on with it.
My voyage dissects the course of time
"Who knows?" you say
But are you right?
Who searches deep to find the light
That glows so darkly in the night?
Towards that point I guide my flight.
Do you know what he pointed at?
One of those little weeds.
Just like a daisy it was.
Suddenly I saw it through his eyes.
It was simply glowing with life
Like a perfectly cut jewel.
And the colors were deeper and richer
Than anything you could possibly imagine.
It was the daisyest daisy I had ever seen.
I'm very fond of bumblebees
There are worlds out there
Where the sky is burning,
And the rivers dream;
People made of smoke
And cities made of song.
Somewhere there's danger,
Somewhere there's injustice,
Somewhere else the tea's getting cold
Come with me and I will show you all this
And it will be, I promise you,
Be the dullest part of it all.
Or stay behind
And regret your staying
Until the day you die.
He's been to the past and future,
But whatever he may do.
He'll always be a friend of mine.
Told me the wisest thing to do
Would be to open my mind
And accept what had happened.
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Sylvester once compared the Doctor with Jesus.
It's that classic tale of the little man against great odds. That, and the other classic story of someone from outside our world coming down to help us. That makes it very attractive to human beings. I don't mean to be sacrilegious, but Jesus came down from outside the world to save us and it's that kind of area. Science fiction has a quasi-religious quality to it. People who are attracted to sci-fi are often not religious in other ways but are attracted to this idea of hope for the future, so it's a kind of religion in that way.'
He's not the first person to have spotted that fans can treat the object of their love with a devotion that borders on the religious. When Michael Grade was preparing to kill-off Doctor Who he remarked that the only people who cared about it were the fans, who treated watching it as something akin to "attending High Mass."
"Fandom" is a group of people who are bound together by their love for a particular story, which they have imbued with a special significance. That could be one working definition of "religion". They hold festivals in which they re-tell and celebrate that story in various ways. They dress in peculiar clothes and wear badges with symbols and insignia on them. They venerate holy relics. They have schisms and excommunications. We have got used to people describing Doctor Who and Star Trek as examples of "cult" TV.
Above all, fans have a body of holy texts which they revere. These texts are often discussed in language which is borrowed from religion. Sherlock Holmes fans describe the forty or fifty stories which Conan-Doyle wrote as "the canon". Holmes fiction by other hands is therefore reduced to the status of "apocrypha". Star Trek fans similarly distinguish between canonical and non-canonical stories. In that case, the limits of the canon is slightly more contentious. I believe that canonicity is generally resolved by an appeal to apostolic authority. If an episode of Star Trek was written by, or under direct inspiration from, Gene Roddenbury, then it is canon. If not, then it is blotted from the book of life, or at any rate, erased from the Captain's log.(I think this means that some of Season 3 of the original series, all of the cartoons, and one of the films is excluded.) To push the analogy slightly too hard, there is a large body of Star Trek and Star Wars apocrypha – novels and comic strips and what-not – that fans regard as worth reading, but insufficient to establish any doctrine. For Star Wars fans the Clone Wars TV series is deutero-canoncial: outside the canon, but not contradicting it; the Star Wars Christmas Special is both apocryphal and heretical.
I have on at least one occasion heard this analogy used the other way round. A discussion broke out on an RPG newsgroup about the status of "Apocryphal" New Testament – the stories of Jesus' boyhood and life of Mary Magdalene. (And why not?) "Oh, they are basically just second century fan-fiction," said someone. Which is precisely what they are.
When Doctor Who was on TV, there was very little substantive extra-canonical material. There were children's "annuals" with short-stories, a Doctor Who comic strip, and a separate strip featuring the Daleks without the Doctor. If anyone ever asked what relationship this stuff had to the TV series, the answer was obviously "none at all". The comic strip featured a character called Doctor Who, for goodness sake, and his companions were a nephew and niece called something like "Topsy and Tim". The Dalek stuff was more interesting and much better drawn; it illustrated how Terry Nation envisaged his creations, and what he would have liked to have done with them if special effects budgets had allowed. But there was no sense that they shared a universe with the TV series. The comic strip had a character called the Dalek Emperor; but when the Dalek Emperor eventually appeared on the TV, he looked nothing like the comic-stip version. The comic strip said the Daleks were created by someone called Yarvelling; but when the Daleks' origins were shown on the TV, their creator turned out to be Davros. Everyone knew we were dealing with separate fictional worlds which happened to have been based on a TV show. They were not part of the canon, and they had no pretensions to be. (In fact, the "nephew" and "niece" in the comic strip might have been put in with the express purpose of signaling to the reader "This is NOT the TV Doctor, but a different one.")
But since the Gradian axe fell, there have been several bodies of work which have tried very hard to present themselves as continuations of the TV series. Virgin Books "New Adventures of Doctor Who" sequence began publication within months of the series coming to an end. For many years, Doctor Who TV stories had been written-up as novellas, at first by "Target Books", and then by Virgin. So the "New Adventures" were in effect saying "Doctor Who hasn't come to an end at all. All that has happened is that where stories used to exist in two forms, book and TV, they now exist as books alone." Given that some of the novels were being written by active Who script-writers, probably based on stories that they might have tried to get produced had the series continued, the "New Adventures" claim to be a continuation of Doctor Who was actually quite strong. They went out of their way to be consistent with the TV series, and with each other. In that sense, "canon" is less a fan's list of approved texts, more an attitude which a particular book has to itself. It was possible to read a "New Adventure" and ask "Is this real? Is this canon?" without being thought totally mad. You could hardly have asked the same question about the 1975 Doctor Who Annual.
Inevitably, because novels have more story-space than 100 minute TV shows, and because the books were catering primarily to adult "Doctor Who" enthusiasts, the character of the Doctor and the Doctor Who universe began to develop in ways that were quite unlike the TV show. A recognisable "New Adventure" genre emerged. The Doctor became darker, more meddlesome, more morally ambiguous. Ace became increasingly psychotic. Some fans bought into it in a big way. Others didn't, either because they felt that what was being established had very little to do with the TV show they loved; or simply because they didn't have time to read two 75,000 word novels a month. (The books became increasingly unintelligible as stand-alones.)
Later on the, the license reverted to the BBC themselves, and they started a series of Eighth Doctor novels. The process repeated itself. The first book was intended to be thought of as a direct sequel to the McGann TV movie: an attempt to show what would have happened in the next episode, had they made it. Scores of "BBC eighth Doctor" novels followed, with the same faith in themselves as part of the canon. The novels were consistent with each other, but also with what had gone before. But this raised the question in some fans minds: what had gone before? Did the "BBC Eighth Doctor" novels regard themselves as continuing a TV series that ended in 1987, or as following on from a long series of "New Adventure" novels. The BBC books had to decide whether the Virgin books would be regarded as "canon" or not. (The answer, as I understand it, was "maybe.")
To further complicated matters, a group calling itself "Big Finish" arrived on the scene with a license from the BBC to make "new" Doctor Who stories, featuring the original cast. This started off very much in the realms of pastiche, wheeling on, say, Peter Davison and Mark Strickson to do a Fifth Doctor / Turlough story pretty much in the style of that TV era. But then they also persuaded Paul McGann to come into the recording studio and create, to date, three "seasons" in which he plays "his" eighth Doctor character. And, of course, in the audio stories, his character develops in a way which is different again from the BBC stories. The last time I looked, the Doctor had been permenantly exiled from our universe into a "divergent" world where no-one knows what "time" means. And he's lost the TARDIS. Again, these stories go to great length to present themselves as "canon" with respect to the TV show. But how does the "Big Finish canon" regard the "BBC novels canon". Did the BBC novels "really" happen? (The answer seems to be: "our stories take place straight after the TV movie, and are continuous with each other, so from our point of view the BBC novels haven't happened. But that only means they haven't happened yet. If you want them to be "true", then you just need to have faith that the eighth Doctor evenutally returned from the divergant universe, and then had all those decades of adventures documented in the BBC books, before eventually turning into Christopher Eccleston.")
Concern about canon can get carried to insane levels. Jean-Marc Lofficier's book The Nth Doctor documents various script treatments that were rejected before the Paul McGann movie finally got made. After each section, he lovingly demonstrates how this un-made story could have been treated as consistent with the canonical stories and with the other stories which were never made! But there are reasonably good, non-fanish reasons to be at least slightly worried about "canonicity" and "continuity". If you are writing a script for a new Star Trek TV show, you presumably want to stay reasonably consistent with previous stories, and therefore, to know which previous stories to be consistent with.
But for some fans, "canon" becomes an over-riding concern. When they hear that RTD is remaking the series, their first question is not "Will it be any good?" but "Will it be canon?" with the subsidiary questions "Will we see a Paul McGann turn into Christopher Eccleston" and "When the Master appears, will they refer to all the "Master" adventures that there have been in the New Adventures, the BBC Novels and the Big Finish Audios." When they get the obvious reply "No, of course they won't, you twit; it's unlikely that RTD has heard of them, and his target audience certainly haven't", some go as far as to respon "Well, in that case, it won't be Doctor Who."
One even comes across a few extremists who think that anything released with the words "Doctor Who" on it must be regarded as having "really happened". This group got very angry about the Comic Relief skit featuring Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor. Since the comic climax to the sketch had the Doctor running through five regenerations in as many minutes, and since he is limited to twelve bodies, the skit was a revealed as an evil plot by the BBC to prevent the programme ever coming back. Once you have said something about Doctor Who, or even thought it, it becomes true.
And let's be honest. The reason that I am very excited about the new series, but can't quite be bothered to read any of the novels is that I believe that something which goes out on Saturday nights, with a theme tune and opening credits, is "real" in a way that no book (however good) can possibly be.
No new series can possibly introduce an inconsistency so extreme that fan ingenuity will not be able to explain it away. You can bet that, in a year or so, there will be a CD or a novel or a comic strip that bridge the gap between one of the Paul McGann canons, and the new Eccleston texts. Almost any explanation will do. You can say "The Peter Cushing movie took place on a parallel earth where Doctor Who was a human inventor who built a TARDIS in his back garden." You can even (I imagine someone already has) write a piece of fan-fiction in which it turns out that the Time Lords were deleted from existence by an evil deleting-time-lords-from-existence-ray, and that nature, abhorring a vacuum, caused a human Doctor to come into being because the universe needed a champion to defeat the Daleks and the Cyberman. (Eventually, the human Doctor Who confronts the War-Lord and, in the course of the struggle, discover an device that will un-delete the Time Lords. His purpose having been fulfilled, he is returned to his house a few moments before Roy Castle turns up with a box of soft-centers. You see how easy it is?) But what you can't, on the whole, do is say "Oh, the Paul McGann audio epsidoes / the Richard E Grant Cartoon / the Peter Cushing Movie ....were all just stories that some guy made up and we're going to ignore them." "Stories that some guy made up" is the one thing which Doctor Who can never be allowed to be. The basic object of faith in the fan religion is that these stories really happened.
And this is what was so weird about the presence of Sylvester McCoy in the TV movie. The movie contradicted established continuity in every way possible. It was unlike Doctor Who in detail, in spirit, in letter. It's one and only redeeming feature was Paul McGann's luminous performance. But it had Sylvester McCoy in it. We saw the Old Doctor turning into the New Doctor. And that said to us fans: this is not a new series based on Doctor Who, or a remake of Doctor Who. This is a continuation of the old series. This really happened.
That Phillip Siegal felt the need to include a regeneration scene in his Doctor Who re-launch shows that he was thinking like a fan. That RTD doesn't shows that he isn't. And that's several points in the new series favor.
But one day, the famous comedian fired him.
(People say that the famous comedian fired all his cleverest colleagues, because he wanted everyone to see that he could be funny all by himself without any help from anyone else. When he died, a few years later, some people feared that he might have taken his own life.)
The clever young writer phoned his agent, to see if he could find him a new job. And the agent said "Would you like to write stories for children's TV?" At first, the clever young writer thought that this was a bit beneath him, but then he decided that any work is better than no work at all. So he agreed. But he asked for a clause in his contract that said that he would own all his stories forever and ever and ever. And the children's TV people agreed.
So the clever young writer hammered out a TV script. It wasn't very original. It was a fairy tale about land populated by beautiful people who were good but had once been bad; and ugly people who were bad but had once been good. But it was quite a good story. And the children's TV people liked it.
They gave the script to a clever young designer, and told him to make costumes for the evil ugly monsters to wear. But he said "I am sorry, I am much too busy today." He got on a boat to a place called Hollywood where he made movies and lived happily ever after. (Years later, he made a movie about a monster with acid for blood that popped out of people's chests and said "boo". It was very, very evil and very, very ugly.)
So they gave the script to a different clever young designer. And he went away, and read the clever young writer's descriptions, and used some imagination, and made some costumes.
And they were very good. Children all over the country loved the evil ugly monsters and ran up and down the playground saying "We are evil ugly monsters! We are evil ugly monsters!" So the children's TV people went back to the clever young writer and said "Write us some more stories about the evil ugly monsters." And at first he said "That's a bit of problem, because they all died at the end of the story" and then he said "Oh, what the heck," and he wrote a new evil ugly monster story, that wasn't as good as the first one, and third one which wasn't as good as that, and then some more which were really very bad indeed. But provided they had evil ugly monsters in them, the kids didn't mind, so the clever young writer kept himself in work for the rest of his life.
One day, a toymaker, who may or may not have been celestial, came to the children's TV people and said: if I made toys that looked like the evil ugly monsters, I am sure that all the children in the world would by them, and play with them, and be happy, except for the ones who leave them in their original packaging and sell them on ebay at a fat profit in twenty years time. So the children's TV people signed a contract with the Toymaker, and he kept himself in work for the rest of his life making evil ugly monster toys. And because the clever young writer had a piece of paper that said he owned all his stories for ever and ever, every time the Toymaker sold an evil ugly monster toy, a shiny sixpence magically dropped into the clever young writer's piggy bank.
The years rolled on, and the clever young writer died of old age, and the children’s TV people stopped making the children’s TV programme. And the years rolled on some more, and the children’s TV people decided to start making it again. And they decided that the evil ugly monsters should be even eviller, and even uglier and even more monstrous than before. But the family of the clever dead writer waved their magic piece of paper at them and said "You can't redesign the ugly monsters without our permission. And if you don't let us approve the new designs, we won't let you use the ugly monsters at all." And the children's TV people thought about it, and said "Get stuffed." And then they thought about it some more and said "Oh, all right then." And a funny newspaper that was full of pictures of naked ladies claimed the credit for this, which no-one quite understood.
So the family of the the clever young writer got a say in what the evil ugly monsters looked like; and every time the Toymaker sold a toy, a shiny new sixpence dropped in their piggy banks, which were by now very fat indeed. And the clever young designer, who had decided what the evil ugly monsters looked like, sometimes wondered why silver pennies never dropped into his piggy bank. And they all lived happily ever after.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
I still can't bring myself to watch "Carry on Sergeant" or "Brighton Rock". Seeing "grandfather" in a different role would be too much like finding out that Father Christmas doesn't exist.
Nothing against Jon Pertwee. Jon Pertwee was the first Doctor I met. For a couple of years, he was just "the Doctor." When you said "Doctor Who", you meant "suave space traveling buccaneer with a slight undercurrent of buffoonery." It took me a while to get used to the guy in the scarf. But Pertwee, with his flashy cars and gadgets, with girls who were referred to as "assistants" (rather than "companions") and a chorus of square jawed soldier-boys... If this was "the Doctor" then none of the others were. Much as I like the UNIT episodes as episodes -- the sparring between the Doctor and the Brigadier, the wierdly respectful relationship between him and the Master -- I tend to think of it as part of a different series.
And nothing against Patrick Troughton. Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy have both said they think he was the greatest, and considered as a performance, I think it was. Where Tom Baker waves his hands around a declaims, Patrick Troughton under-acts. You spend the first half of an episode thinking "what is supposed to be so great about this guy: all he is doing is reading out the lines". And then you suddenly realise that you believe, totally, and without question, everything this funny little man tells you. He's 400 years old, and there are Yetis in the tube. Fair enough. If you say so. But the one thing I didn't believe was that he was the same person as the white haired old buffer who kidnapped Ian and Barbara in episode one.
Maybe he wasn't. The metaphysics of regeneration have never quite been sorted out. Are we supposed to think that it's the same person, but with re-jigged cells and a slightly scrambled personality? Or has the Doctor mind slinked off into a different host body, like those slug-things in Star Trek? There is a strange undercurrent in some versions which suggest that the different Doctors are actually different people. The novelisation of "Tenth Planet" has our hero announce "I am the new Doctor" as if we were talking about someone taking over a role or position. The novel of "Five Doctors" seems to envisage the First Doctor "living out his days" in a restful garden, even though we know that he "died" at the south pole. And while it is not exactly canonical, "Dimensions in Time" has the Fourth Doctor sending out a message beginning "calling all Doctors", and thinking of his previous incarnations as other people -- "thank you, my dears."
It is harder to defend Colin Baker and Peter Davison. I rather liked what JNT was trying to do with the Davison era: three companions, instead of just one; expanding the TARDIS itself beyond a single control room; one companion in league with the bad guys; another one killed off; breaking some of the rules. But casting a young, good looking, heroic type, already know from many other roles as the Doctor was fundamentally misguided. Davison didn't stick in the role for long enough for us to get used to him. As for Colin Baker, the most that one can say is that he could deliver lines with great gusto, and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with a decent script.
And then there was Sylvester. Sylvester McCoy started his tenure as Doctor Silly. He spent his first season being suspended over vats of boiling sugar by Bertie Bassett, and threatened by evil caretakers and their killer cleaning machines. He was stuck in an identikit "Doctor Who" costume, and JNT was still convinced that it was cute to use question marks as a motif on the Doctor's clothes. (It is regarded as an awful faux pas to refer to the Doctor as "Doctor Who", but evidently, it's okay for him have question mark umbrellas in the TARDIS wardrobe.) Yet somehow he struggled against this nonsense, and gave us a Doctor who was interestingly different from what had gone before. Darker; more manipulative; traveling the universe according to some purpose which he knew and we didn't. ("Ace tells the Doctor about her worst nightmare. So he takes her there" has got to be one of the the great Radio Time blurbs of all time.) Fans now know that the script editor, Andrew Cartmell, was engaged in the first stages of a "masterplan" which would have emerged over several seasons and put a new spin on the characters of the Doctor and the Time Lords. Some of these ideas were subsequently incorporated into the first cycle of post-TV novelisations, ("The Virgin New Adventures") and they seem pretty ghastly to me; another boring re-working of the very boring back-story to the very boring Time Lords. But what emerged in the transmitted episodes was rather wonderful; the hint that underneath the clownish exterior was Doctor as cosmic-entity who could stare down a villain by force of will. When you looked into eyes, you half-believed that he really was far more than a time-lord; that there really was a big dark secret just wating to be revealed.
The character of the Doctor is weirdly flexible; but not infinitely so. We can't define it, but we know it when we see it.
Monday, March 21, 2005
RTD has also said that he wants the stories to be about "human beings" because no-one cares what happens on the planet Zog.
This strikes me as an odd thing to say about a series originally promoted as "an Adventure in Time and Space." The whole point about the series is that there is a magic box that can take you anywhere in the universe. If you aren't going to step through your magic wardrobe and come out on strange, alien planets, then I'm not sure that there is any point in having one. The original creators of the show interpreted "anywhere in Time and Space" quite broadly: pure fantasy as well as space-opera and historical time travel. Whatever else you can say about "The Celestial Toymaker" (*) and "The Mind Robber", you couldn't really have imagine them being done in any format apart from Doctor Who.
People who write about the origins of the show often imagine a split between, say, Sidney Newman, who wanted a very historically based children's drama series, and, say, Verity Lambert who admitted bug-eyed monsters and b-movie science into it. But you could just as well see it as a tension between, say, Terry Nation, who thought in terms of alien jack-booted Nazis and scientific holocausts, and, say, David Whitiker, who saw it all as a rather wonderful fairy tale.
The question of earth-bound horror vs alien worlds is as old as the programme. The original premise precluded any stories set in the present day: Ian and Barbara are as much exiles from 1963 as the Doctor is an exile from his mysterious home planet. I rather liked that. It was easier to believe that Ian and Barbara were wandering the universe but very much hoping to get home one day, than that Sarah-Jane was hanging out with the Doctor for want of anything better to do with her time. The first adventure which actually occurred in the present-day was William Hartnell's penultimate outing. There is, on the one hand, something very scary about the moment when Susan to run an errand for the Daleks on the planet Skaro: one human, all alone on a hostile alien world. But there is also something to be said for Jon Pertwee's famous dictum that there is nothing very surprising or scary about meeting a Yeti in Tibet, but they become very alarming if you encounter one in your bathroom in Tooting. (Having lived in Tooting, I can confirm this.) Scary aliens in a normal human environment, or normal humans in a scary alien environment.
If RTD means that he wants all the stories to have human interest, then of course he is right. Which begs the question, when didn't they. I think that there were two stories which had primarily alien supporting casts: "The Sensorites" and "The Web Planet". I agree that men in giant ant suits is not the way to go for the new series. If he means Pertwee style earthboundedness, the Doctor as Agent Mulder foiling this months alien invasion, then I think he is making a great mistake. ("Wanderer" or "traveller" are two irreducible components of the Doctor's character.)
"Planet Zog" is a media code-word for "science fiction is impenetrable". When someone refers to "the planet Zog", you know that references to anoraks cannot be far away. RTD knows very well that the series, in its heyday -- the duration of the first four Doctors -- was totally mainstream: not "cult TV" but "a children's programme" or "that thing that nearly everyone watches on a Saturday night." I don't know when it got the reputation for being watched mainly by a freemasonry of dedicated fans; I don't know when, if ever, that actually became true. Perhaps it suited Michael Grade to say that Doctor Who should be cancelled because it was only watched by the kinds of people who watch Doctor Who, in the same way that Panorama should be cancelled because it is only watched by the kinds of people who watched Panorama. He wanted, after all, a BBC that was mainly watched by the kinds of people who watched Eastenders, and he largely got his way. But I think that the fanboy reputation mainly came along when the programme went off-air -- when, by definition, the Faithful were the only ones keeping its memory alive. So RTD wants to tell the audience that his new series is for everyone, not just "fans" and "anoraks". (I think that the terms "anorak" was first used in clip compilation in 1992.) If he does this by using language which panders to negative stereotypes about science fiction and its enthusiasts, then I can't say I blame him. But I very much hope that he doesn't believe it himself.
Meanwhile, Mr Ecclestone has been quoted as saying that he didn't like the programme when he was a kid because all the Doctors had posh accents, and that this implied that he, a northern lad, couldn't be a hero. This seems to be an example of two things.
1: The airbrushing of Sylvestor McCoy out of Doctor Who history. (I am sort of assuming that the Daleks-can't-go-up-stairs-meme is so prevalent, and RTD so wants to be the person who abolished this cliche, that he has wished "Remembrance of the Daleks" out of existence, and the whole of seasons 25 and 26 with it, which is a shame, because on the whole they were rather good.)
2: An absurd inverted snobbery. (I was about to write "political correctness" but that phrase can only be used in conjunction with the expression "gone mad, I tell you.") It does, I suppose, say something about British society circa 1963 - 87 that the Doctor, being a scientist, was conceived of as male and speaking with "received pronunciation". It certainly says something about our attitude to "science". You only needed to give William Hartnell a white coat to turn him into the personification of the "boffin". Scientists. Blokes. Old, white haired. Mad as coots. Very clever, of course, but you wouldn't want your daughter to marry one. One of the ways in which, I think, the show gradually lost its way is that, having invented the ludicrous and brilliant idea of "re-generation", they nevertheless created an established "type" for the main character. Doctor Bill, Doctor Pat and Doctor Jon were totally unlike each other. Doctors Peter, Colin, Sly and Paul were all pretty much variations on Doctor Tom. So, by all means, let's have northern Doctors. Let's have women Doctors and black Doctors. (Patrick Troughton very nearly was the first black Doctor.) But spare us this class-warrior nonsense. If Tom Baker's Shakespearian tones imply that little boys from Yorkshire can't be heroes, then Doctor Chris's dialect implies that I can't be a hero. Which is rubbish. Doctor Who is the patron saint of the middle-class, spotty-kid with specs at the back of the classroom, who'd rather play with a chemistry set or read a book than play football or have fights.
Then God, stand up for nerds!
(*) For example "The BBC wiped the tapes, so I've never seen it."
Sunday, March 20, 2005
Up to a point. I am one who is very keen to defend the weirder adaptations of classic fiction, and if Jonathon Miller and Svankmeyer are allowed to re-interpret Alice in Wonderland in surreal and post-modern ways, I can't really complain if Walt Disney does so in a crassly populist way. I think the work of art stands on its own terms Ultimately, I disapprove of Jackson's Gimli because he is crass and unfunny, not because he has nothing to do with Tolkien's Gimli.
People say that a re-working of a book can't violate the original, because the original still exists. This is only partly true. I think that Disney's Snow White did, as Tolkien says, vulgarise the Dwarves, to the extent that any fairy tale involving Dwarves struggles against the image of cute people singing "Hi-ho!" with American accents. If you liked the original mythology, that harmed it in some way. There's an old joke about an intellectual being a person who hears Rossini's William Tell Overture and doesn't immediately think of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Is there a person on earth who can read Mary Shelly's romantic masterpiece and not see a little picture of Boris Karloff in their head every time the name Frankenstien is mentioned? At some level, then, Karloff has violated Shelly.
I don't believe that there is such a thing as the essence of Story: that, somehow, by re-telling Tarzan or Frankenstien I am "passing on" or "evolving" a bigger entity called The Story. I don't think that a story exists over-and-above any individual version of that story. Johnny Weissmuller's jungle movies were terrific fun; I loved them as a kid; I still quite enjoy them now. But they were not "making Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan available to people who would not otherwise have known about him." They had almost no point of connection with ERB.
Certainly, an adaptation, done in a careful way, can hold a light up to the original. I adored Jeremy Brett's version of Sherlock Holmes: for the first time, I was seeing the character that I thought I remembered from the books coming to life on the screen. But, in truth, his portrayal was just as partial as anyone else's, taking the maniacal eccentricity (which I think is mainly present in the earliest stories) and making that the controlling feature of the character. If I take Conan Doyle off the shelf nowadays, I can read it as if played by Jeremy Brett and equally as if player by Basil Rathbone. But here, we are talking about people interpreting an existing story, not making up new ones. Brett took words which the author wrote and acting them, changing some emphasis, inventing details that the author left out (when did Holmes give up taking drugs? Doyle doesn't tell us; Jeremy Brett invented an answer.) But this is based on the assumption that the text say-what-they-say; and that a future actor or interpretor will be free to come and re-interpret them. That is a very different proposition to creating a new stories that will have the stamp of "canonicity" -- new adventures that aficionados will pretend "really" happened.
I agree with RTD the characters need to be re-invented, and a new version of Doctor Who that was simply a pastiche of someone's favourite period of the original show would be a catastrophe. Bringing back something which is nearly 20 years old implies a very substantial amount of re-invention and re-imagining. But if you re-invent Magic Roundabout as a quest narrative with villains and pop-culture references, then what you have isn't Magic Roundabout, even if the the thing is quite interesting in its own right, which, by all accounts, it isn't. There is a fine line between re-invention and starting again from scratch, between Ultimate Doctor Who and "this is just a totally new series which happens to have a time-traveler in it", at which point I lose interest.
I'm hoping that Davies faith in the mystical integrity of Story doesn't mean that he thinks he has crossed it.
Thursday, March 17, 2005
Which is nice.
It has a picture of a row of seven kids, in those absurd blazers that the headmasters of comprehensives still think make their schools look posh. Five out of the seven are statistically white, but it is a statistically correct black girl who is at the center of the picture, looking into camera. She is both literally and metaphorically waving a Union Jack. At risk of over-interpreting, the black girl with the flag has what looks like a prefect’s badge, but the white girl just behind her has a prefect’s badge and a head girl badge. I think the message is. “Ethnic Britons. In the minority, but at the center. Successful, but not too succesful.”
There is logo in the top right hand corner, depicting half a Union Jack, with the words “Proud of Britain” underneath it. What this means, who can say. Half the country is proud of Britain all the time; or all the country is proud of Britain half the time; or all the country is proud of Britain but only as far down as Newcastle.
This drivel was sent out, not by the BNP or even the Tories, but by the "Labour" party. On the reverse is a little questionnaire asking “Why are you proud of Britain?” and allowing space for three lines of very small handwriting. You can go to a website and read some of the answers that other punters have sent in. It’s an absolute hoot. It turns out that I should be proud of Britain because "Bus drivers are far more considerate than in other areas" and "Independent research shows that the tax burden in Britain is lower than France, Germany and Italy." ‘Mary from Lancashire’ explains that she is a pensioner and "this winter I am going to be warmer than before", before concluding "I'm proud to be British under Labour." Note how imperceptibly we slide from “Proud of Britain” to “Proud to be British”. I imagine the perpetrators of the leaflet were fully aware of this sinister double meaning. (See under “pigs, flying” and “plausible denial.”)
Why am I proud of Britain? I don’t understand the question, any more than if you had asked me why I am proud of my street, or my borough, or my city. I’m not particularly “proud”, it’s just where I happen to live. Now, if you had asked me “Why do you like being English,” I could have come up with some possible answers.
I like being English because the world's best playwright wrote in English.
I like being English because we invented a game with such complicated rules as cricket, taught it to everyone else in the world, and still can’t beat them at it.
I like being English because our national dishes are stodgy comfort foods like Yorkshire Pud and fish and chips.
I like being English because of Morcombe and Wise, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.
And the Beatles, obviously.
Oh, and Radio 4.
I like being English because of King Arthur and Robin Hood.
I like being English because there are still a few real ale pubs
I like being English because there is a street in York called Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate.
I am certainly not in any sense proud of England. I don’t think that we are better than the Scots because we brew the best beer and they brew the best whiskey. But it probably isn’t a coincidence that I’m a real-ale man. There is a sort of agreed symbolism around “Englishness” and “Ale”. I bet if I’d grown up in Dublin, I’d prefer Guinness.
I don’t know how I would go about being proud of Britain. I mean, what would I be proud of? I’m not proud of the geographical feature called “the British Isles”. I am hardly going to feel proud because Ben Nevis is, in real terms, taller than any French mountains of similar height. I’m not proud of British culture. There isn’t any. There’s English culture and Scots culture and the cultures of the various immigrant communities. When politicians try to talk about the subject, they often find themselves saying that the essence of Britishness is multi-culturalism and diversity. Which is, being interpreted, “We don’t have a culture of our own, but we are very good at putting up with other peoples.” And (it goes without saying) I am not proud of the fact that I am descended from one of the original, native inhabitants of these islands, because that is (a): Utter cods-wallop and (b): racist.
The only thing which I can understand “Britain” to mean is “The British State” or “The British Constitution” or “The British System of Law” -- the collection of civil servants, rules, flags and aging aristocrats which act as a sort of administrative umbrella over the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland. The wages of politicians and civil servants are paid by the British State, so it is not very surprising that they, unlike normal people, think a lot about British-ness and would like everybody to be Proud of Britain. In a similar way, the only person who believes in the existence of the Commonwealth is the Queen, who owns it; and the only people who thought that the Student Union had the slightest significance were the six hacks who ran it.
I am not proud of the British state or the British constitution, because I had very little input in setting it up. (I would have helped if I’d been asked, but I must have been out when William and Mary phoned.) And I am not a politician, a soldier, a civil servant or a police officer, so I can’t even claim any credit for its day to day running. But I do, on the whole, think that the British State is quite a good thing. I’m quite glad that its rules and regulations are the ones under which I live.
Maybe “proud” just means “respect, admire and approve of” or “feel cool about”. In which case, there isn’t space on the back of my little card to enumerate all the ways in which I am “proud” of Britain. A short-list might run:
I’m proud of Britain because we don’t have oaths of allegiance or citizenship ceremonies.
I’m proud of Britain because the police don’t routinely carry guns.
I'm proud of Britain because we have a system of law where every man is assumed innocent until he is proven guilty.
I’m proud of Britain because everyone has the right to a trial by jury.
I'm proud of Britain because politicians can’t interfere with the decisions of judges.
I'm proud of Britain because when the police arrest someone, they have to either charge him or release him within a very short space of time.
I'm proud of Britain because the police can't stop me unless they have good reason to believe that I am doing something wrong. They can’t, for example, stop me to make sure I am carrying my identity card.
I’m proud of Britain because no-one can be imprisoned (or put under house arrest) without a fair trial.
I’m proud of Britain because no-one can be accused of a serious crime, like, say, terrorism, without seeing the evidence and having a chance to answer it.
I'm proud of Britain because it does not torture or execute anyone.
I’m proud of Britain because if someone has been tortured in a foreign country any confessions or evidence obtained can’t be used in a British court.
I’m proud of Britain because we don’t deport people to nations where they might be executed or tortured.
The other day I heard a "Labour" spokes-person on the radio explaining that the British People could vote out the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary at a general election. But the British People can’t vote out judges. So politicians are more accountable than the judiciary. So it is a good thing that the new anti-terrorism laws will be administered by politicians rather than judges.
I am less and less proud of Britain every day.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Kathy (a little girl): You know how he used to cure people? Jesus, I mean. He cured a blind man once, didn’t he.
Vicar: That’s right.
Kathy: And he could bring people back from dead, too.
Vicar: Mm Hmm. Lazarus.
Kathy: Only he must have let some people die, mustn’t he. Why did he let those people die?
Vicar: Well, uh...you see, uh, people...babies are being born all the time...and, uh...those of us who are here already have got to make room for them, haven’t we.
Kathy: Yes, sir.
Vicar: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. That’s what the Bible says, isn’t it?
Kathy: Yes, sir.
Vicar: I mean, God has got more than us to think about. Not only people dying, it’s what we’re doing to the world, that’s what worries Him. You see, we hurt God much more than He hurts us. You don’t have to go very far to see people offending God. What about when you’ve got children taking guttering and lettering and I don’t know what from the church. It’s not only the value, it’s God’s house.
Kathy: But that’s nothing to do with Jesus.
Vicar: Well, it’s going to stop. I’m going to stamp this vandalism out, I’m not having it. I’m going to take very strong measures in the future.
Kathy: Yes, sir.
Vicar: So, you pass it around.
Charlie (Kathy's younger brother): He doesn’t know, does he?
Sunday, March 06, 2005
Not that Anonymous said... In January, regarding blogging, Andrew wrote:
"I’ll give it to, say, the end of February and see if I think it is worth carrying on with."And now, towards the end of Februray, he says:
"But even if it turns out bad, remember, it could have been so much worse...."True
What I have learned so far from blogging
It is massively easier to post in blog format than to faff around with Demon. The process of updating the old page involved a lot of swearing at Word Templates and the Demon’s FTP homepage system and getting an e-mail from some kind soul pointing out that all the links I pasted in manually are broken. The process of updating the Blog involve, er, typing some text in. This is cool. Someone is going to tell me that the solution would be a more complex web-authoring tool, aren’t they?
I have been posting stuff with more frequency. This is probably a good thing. But the claim that I would post first drafts without editing turned out to be a blatant lie.
I have given up counting how often I have said “That is it, I am never reading this rag again”. But somehow two thirds of my rants seem to begin with the immortal line “I read something stupid in the Guardian this morning.” Or at the very least "I heard something interesting on Radio 4”. You have no idea how ashamed I am of this.
Just think, there are Americans out there who don’t know what Radio 4 is, and there is no way you can explain it to them, because "talk radio" or even "high brow talk radio" doesn't give the slightest hint of what a wierd thing Radio 4 actually is. " One of the guys from my office asked me what sort of music they played on Radio 4, and seemed genuinely confused when I told him that the answer was “None at all.”
If Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is a success, do you think we’ll get a big screen adaptation of Just a Minute?
I have absolutely no intention of keeping an on line diary. I can’t write about my friends, because I would like to keep them. I can’t write about my job, because I would like to keep it. I can’t write about my family because I am going to keep them whether I like it or not. Regrettably, the rest of my life consists of “Woke up. Listened to Radio 4. Got on bus. Read Guardian. Came home. Listened to Radio 4. Watched TV. Read book. Watched DVD. Listened to Radio 4. Read comic book. Went to bed.” Which is what I am writing about. Sorry.
Is it true that William Shatner himself personally coined the expression "Get a life"?
I like the immediacy of feedback which the blog format allows. When I post things to the web-page, I generally spend two days thinking “Oh god. I’ve done it now. Everybody is going to think I am a loony / a fascist / a pompous fool / a terrible geek. My family will disown me. People will shun me in the street. I will be forced to travel to Liverpool and apologize in person”. Eventually, I may get an e-mail which says something along the lines of “I enjoyed the article. Thanks for writing it”. Once this happens, I feel fine and no longer care what anyone else thinks. (In a good way.) So then I start ego-googling for “Rilstone-Blair-Wagner” to see if anyone else noticed that I exist.
In the blog format, I get told I’m a pompous fool within an hour of posting the article.. This gives me a big warm feeling. However, if I am not terribly careful, I will spend all my writing time writing witty response to people who make comments, which tends to reduce the page to the Andrew and Sam show. (And note that I get around to responding to twitposts, but not to interesting and sensible ones. “Ah yes. A very interesting and wise post from someone who knows far more about the subject than me. I shan’t respond to that until I have time to do so properly”)
“I do not have time to make it shorter.” In first or second drafts, I tend to say the same things several times in different words. When there isn’t a long editing process, I sometimes repeat myself. I have a tendency to make several attempts at making the same point, and I don’t always have time to go back and delete the redundancies.
Someone who posts to rpg.net is using a quote from me in his .sig. This pleases me quite disproportionately.
I am not convinced that my stuff suits this format. A comment about Doctor Who, followed by a definitive resolution of the problem of evil, followed by a review of a movie feels incongrous. I preferred the way in which the old page was split up into different subject areas so that people who, for some unaccountable reason, cared about what I thought about C.S Lewis didn’t have my opinions on Cerebus foisted on them.
While ego-surfing, I noticed that some American school teacher appeared to have set one of my Lewis pieces to her class as a homework assignment, complete with comprehension questions to make sure that they had read it. I think it was Bernard Shaw who refused the BBC permission to do a radio programme for schools based on his work, because “his plays were not designed as instruments of torture.”
Sometimes I have my doubts about this article stuff anyway. “Go away and write a book” I say to myself. “Write the definitive work on Doctor Who or Marvel Comics or the Bible or something. Or else bloody well go back to college and learn political philosophy properly. Then no-one apart from your lecturers will have to be subjected to your opinions, and they get paid for it. I did an evening class in London a few years or go back, and was the only person who got “distinction” on one of his essays. I believe I could cash it in 1/27th of an undergraduate degree.”
I may go back to sticking articles on the old site, or something like it, when they are finished, but keep this going for the off-the-cuff pieces and general chat.
I’ll think about it and get back to you.
Thanks for asking.
Thursday, March 03, 2005
So thank the divine entity of your choice that we have the Daily Mail to guide us through this maze of moral ambgiuity. Apparently, the current ruling (which says that girls DO have the right to wear Islamic clothes to schools) is a very bad thing because....
...it might mean the end of school uniform.
And Tony and Dave pay attention to what these people say.