Friday, October 27, 2006


Some television programmes are not by Russell T Davies.
Channel 4 decided that it would be a good idea to promote Peter Morgan's drama about the life of Lord Longford by taking out full-page adverts in the broadsheets depicting Myra Hindley as a saint. Possibly even as the Virgin Mary. It makes one want to experiment with using the words "prophet", "Denmark" and "cartoons" in various combinations.
The advertisement carries the strapline "What did he see in her?" which makes me think that Channel 4 got cold feet before transmitting the film. The halo'd face in the montage is that of Hindley herself, not actress Samantha Morton. It's the police mugshut, of course: assume I'd written a sentence including the words "peroxide" and "iconic" in this space. In the film, Lord Longford doesn't recognise Myra when he first visits her in prison, because she no longer looks like that picture. (Her hair turned red while she was on remand, which some people said indicated that she had no remorse. "I wasn't aware of any correlation between hair colouring and contrition" says Longford.) There seems to be no connection between the ordinary, rather pleasant woman who Longford gets to known and the woman in the picture. The film spends an intelligent and un-sensational couple of hours speculating about what the connection might have been. But there are some powerful people who think that even attempting to understand Myra Hindley is the equivalent of condoning what she did. To avoid being accused of supportiing child murder, the publicity material turns the film on its head, and pretends that it is Lord Longford, not Myra Hindley, who requires "explanation". No sane person could have visited such a monster, let alone called for her parole. So he must have had some ulterior motive. Perhaps he believed that she was a saint. Perhaps he "saw something in her."
The film itself only flirts with this explanation, briefly, and puts it into the mouth of Ian Brady, who says directly that Longford is sexually attracted to the murderess. This seemed to be a slightly heavy-handed intervention from the dramatist, pointing up a possible symmetry. If Longford fancied Myra, then we would have a woman who was only ever loved by two people: one of whom embodied most of what we understand by "evil", and the other was about as close to "good" as anyone you are ever likely to meet. (Who was it who, when asked how they imagined the Christian God, said they thought he must be something like Lord Longford?) But what comes through in the rest of the film is that Longford doesn't really need to be "explained". He was a Christian, possibly a slightly naive one. He thought that loving outcasts and visiting prisoners was part of his Christian duty. He didn't, in that sense, see anything in her -- he aoffers to help the psychotic Brady as well, but Brady won't let him.

Isn't agape by definition love for the un-lovable?
The remarkable thing about the film–apart from Jim Broadbent's astonishingly convincing impersonation of Lord Longford himself–is the way that it presents a complex argument, but nevertheless comes out feeling like drama, not editorial.

The drama follows two trajectories: on the one hand, the relationship between Lord Longford and his wife. She initially opposes his Hindley campaign and persuades him to give it up and concentrate on pornography instead. But having studied the case, she suddenly comes over to his side and recites, over Christmas dinner, a whole series of arguments in favour of Hindley's release which hadn't previously occurred to her husband. ("How much do you know about sado-masochistic relationships?") But this doesn't feel like a speech in a debating society: it feels like an old married couple who have quarrelled having a genuinely touching reconciliation scene. Similarly, a delicately balanced debate about porn–the Lord thinks it is very dangerous, the Lady that it's essentially harmless–comes across as a masterpiece of understated comedy because it takes the form of two old posh people in bed together surrounded by copies of Fiesta and Playboy.
The other strand of the story is, obviously, Longford's relationship with Hindley. The film's thesis is that Hindley deceived him. She finally scuppers her only chance of parole by admitting to two further murders. This means that she not only lied to Lord Longford but that, presumably, she didn't make a full confession to her priest and therefore her return to the Catholic Church is suspect at best. But the film also argues that Longford wilfully allowed himself to be deceived. Early in the story, an anonymous benefactor sends him a cassette tape labelled "The bitch should rot in hell", which he puts in a drawer and doesn't listen to. We all know what "tape" means in the context of a story about the Moors murders. I assume that this is a dramatic device, but the point is a valid one: Longford could have gained access to those terrible recordings but he chose not to; he was therefore able to continue to believe that Hindley was only an accessory to the crime–guilty of murder in they eyes of the law, but not evil in the way that Brady was.
I was rather concerned that we were going to be asked to draw the conclusion that "forgiveness" implies minimizing or condoning sin: that Longford forgave Myra because he didn't think that she was as bad as everyone said she was, and that he gave up on her when he discovered that in fact she was even worse. But the film actually draws a much more interesting and challenging conclusion. Because Myra has ruined Longford's good name by allowing him to campaign for her release on false premises, he finds that he has to forgive her for something that she has done to him--not merely an abstract crime against strangers.
The film concludes with another rather writerly scene in which the aging Longford and the terminally ill Myra meet for the last time in an open prison. He thinks that he has grown spiritually by being forced to learn to love and forgive this sinner; she still remembers her terrible crimes and claims that evil can be a spiritual experience as well.
The film doesn't ultimately "explain" Myra Hindley. We are allowed to consider the possibilities that she is a sinner who repenteth; and a sinner who is unable completely to repenteth or that she is a weak woman temporarily turned into a monster under the influence of a psychopath. Perhaps the most convincing theory is the one put into Brady's mouth: Hindley is literally an "hysteric", one who takes on the attributes that she thinks the person she is with wants her to have: a butch lesbian for her prison guard; a good catholic for Lord Longford; a sadist for her psychotic boyfriend. The one possibility that is not considered is that she is simply an evil figure with an evil haircut who a naive philanthropist mistook for a saint.
For me, the film was summed up by an unintentional irony in the casting department. When Hindley's accomplice first walks onto the set, we see, not the iconic face of Ian Brady, but the familiar, staring, but un-augmented features of Andy Serkis. Longford could have been mistaken for an old wizard, come to that.
Deserve to die? I dare say he does....

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Let's play a game, Let's imagine that the TARDIS materialized in Cardiff shortly after a big meteor fell in the city. Let's imagine that, trapped in this meteor, was a big green gaseous alien that has no escaped and has possessed one of the citizens. The Doctor would feel right at home; pretty much the same thing happened in 'Spearhead From Space'. Let's further pretend that the person who is possessed by the gaseous monster is now killing other members of the public. The Doctor would take this in his stride. That's what these aliens do. But now suppose that the Doctor confronts the alien, possibly at the end of episode 3, and discovers that it isn't a psychic vampire and it doesn't feed on negative emotional energy: in fact, it deliberately came to earth because humans have the best sex in the universe and it feeds off, and I quote, orgasmic energy. It has to fuck, and fuck rather brutally, to survive.
Of course, you can't: because the Doctor is essentially a character from children's TV, and as such, he can't talk about rape or sex or orgasms, any more than Bagpuss can say 'bum' or the Famous Five can worry about whose going to dig the latrine. Advanced students might like to envisage a scenario in which, in order to save the life of the monster's mortal host, Rose volunteers to be possessed by the fuck-monster, with the idea that the monster can then gouge itself on the Doctor's Time Lord libido. Oh, and by the way -- imagine that the final scene takes place in a sperm bank, because merely being in the same building as so much masturbation can somehow sustain the monster. Sarah-Jane, thou shouldest be living at this hour.
But now, flip it round. Imagine that you are watching a serious, grown up, post-9PM realistic cop show, with a tough police-lady who says 'shit' but gets emotionally involved her cases. Suppose that she is investigating a violent series of sexual murders; and imagine that the surprise twist is that they are not being committed by a pervert or a serial killer, but by a woman who has been possessed by an alien that escapde from a meteor and which feeds off men's orgasms. You would, I assume, expect the realistic heroine to be quite surprised and skeptical about this revelation; and you would also, I assume, expect her to ask exactly how a pool of green gas can control someone's mind, and what orgasmic energy is exactly and whether it's actual copulation or mere proximity that the thing needs. You'd probably regard the situation as so ludicrous that your belief in the heroine and her world would evaporate: to avoid this, you'd want some explanations which made some kind of logical sense.
And there, I am afraid, is the problem. Doctor Who wears its silliness on its sleeve; it's about a time traveling phone box, for goodness sake. It's filled with alien menaces whose only real motivation is there need to be alien menaces, I mean, really, if you were Dalek Emperor couldn't you have thought of a way of taking over the universe that didn't involve game-shows? The flip-side of this silliness is a fundamental innocence: the hero is a child-man who somehow guarantees that while there may be evil and horror they'll be nothing sordid or nasty. The innocence somehow justifies the stupidity. Doctor Who anagramatized has thrown out the innocence which covered Doctor Who's many sins; but it makes no attempt to be serious adult drama in its own right. On the surface, it is full of post-watershed nastiness: monsters who fuck you to death; scientists who explode rate; people who really bleed when they are attacked; goblins who live in the sewers and eat shit. But take all this away, and what you left with is a Doctor Who monster; indeed, a Russel Davies era Doctor Who monster: a walking plot device whose powers and motivations are defined largely by what would make a cool scene. It isn't convincing as 'Doctor Who for grown ups'; but it doesn't really work as 'sci-fi cop show', either.
The specific reference to Doctor Who stick out like a sore thumb, or, more precisely, like a severed hand. In the middle of a sequence of bars and mean streets and police men who swear, Captain Jack suddenly asks Gwen if she remembers the afternoon when Earth was invaded by the Cybermen. Even pronouncing the word 'Cybermen' in this context feels ludicrously incongruous, you rather expect Gwen to reply 'Weren't they villains in an old black and white TV show that was canceled before I was even born.' A 'spin-off' happens when someone looks at an already existing TV series and says 'I reckon that the snooty psychiatrist could probably sustain a series of his own.' Torchwood is not, in that sense, a spin-off: it's an independently conceived series that happens to have been heavily promoted in Doctor Who. In fact, the Torchwood that appeared in 'Army of Ghosts' and this Torchwood seem fairly unrelated: the one was a shiny, quasi-governmental secret organization with hundreds of employees, a bad attitude, and misplaced loyalty to the British Empire. This one is a ramshackle, slightly chaotic organization with six employees and access to a huge amount of alien technology but a lax attitude to using it. Doubtless, the relationship between the two organization will be explored in future episodes, but it's very clear that this series could have been launched without the build up in Doctor Who and it would have been little different.
Episode 1 is largely about the attempts of the viewpoint character WPC Gwen Cooper to find out what Torchwood is, and in particular, to find out about Jack Harkness. When she catches up with him, she's being menaced by one of the shit eating goblins in a car park: almost the first thing he does is order her to run away. She keeps asking him who he really is, but he gives her very evasive answers. At the end of the first episode, he asks her to work for him, and she agrees. By the end of episode 2, it's clear that they have a bit of thing going. Jack is very aware that he is out of his time and has no long term relationships, and positively encourages Gwen to have an ordinary life. To which all one can say is: Jack Harkness is not, and shouldn't try to be, a substitute Doctor, and Gwen Cooper is a very poor apology for Billie Piper.
All we've had so far is two episodes; one which establishes character and premise and another which establishes adult credentials and tries to creep out any asexual fanboys who have tuned in by mistake. The acting is competent; and while I think it's rather a bore that since Buffy, all characters are obliged to communicate in wisecracks, some of the one-liners are fairly good. John Barrowman keeps the camp thing within reasonable limits. It certainly deserves to be allowed few more episodes to settle in: I just hope that no more of them read like rejected scenarios for 1970s porn flicks.


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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fight! Fight! Fight!

"Dawkins seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms."

" For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is."

Reader, I Adapted Him

'What are we going to do this season that will convince the punters that the licence fee is good value for money?'

'You mean apart from the hippos?'

'I was thinking maybe one of those costume dramas with ladies in bonnets and wild, uncontrollable men with wild, uncontrollable hair.'

'Good call. They go down well with broadsheets and foreigners.'

'I thought maybe Jane Eyre?'

'OK, I'll nip down to Smiths and pick up a 99p classic. What did she write?'


'Er, guys, I think we have a problem. I was expecting chick lit. Wild eyed hunks on the moor singing it's me, I'm cathee, I've come home.'

'I think that's a different one.'

'But it's all about religion, and growing up, and education, and psychology, and scenery.'

'Well, cut it.'

'All of it?'

'Well, the religion and the psychology. It worked for Peter Jackson. But leave in the scenery We need an excuse for a location shoot or the punters won't believe it was expensive. But drop the education and cut straight to the bonking.'

'There isn't any bonking.'

'I thought you said it was a costume drama?'

'I thought you said it was a prestige literary adaptation.'

'Well invent some. You are a writer after all.'

'Sex? In Jane Eyre? Is it okay if they keep their clothes on?'

'Only if it's artistically necessary. Are there any bonnets?'

'Oh yes. Lot's and lots of bonnets.'

'Bonnets are good. I suppose there is no way you can work in a hippo?'

First person narratives aren't easy things to turn into dramas. Jane Eyre is all about Jane's mind and how it develops; it's full of thoughts, subjective impressions, and enormously long sentences. ('And then my mind made its first earnest effort to comprehend what had been infused into it concerning heaven and hell; and for the the first time it recoiled baffled; and for the the first time glancing behind, on each side, and before it, it saw all round an unfathomed gulf: it felt the one point where it stood -- the present; all the rest was formless cloud and vacant depth; and it shuddered at the thought of tottering, plunging amid that chaos.') It is a mark of how much Ruth Wilson will deserve her BAFTA that she manages to suggest the existence of these kinds of inner depths in a script which, of necessity, limits her to spending most of the first two episodes not saying much more than 'Yes Sir,' and 'No Sir'. Toby Stevens is neither sexy enough nor enough of a bastard to really succeed in being the sexiest bastard in literature, but he had a damn good try. The film starts to sparkle whenever the two of them have an extended scene together. And although it is never tricksy, there are some nice visual touches: I particularly liked the way in which we see Jane and Rochester's faces in profile, her's superimposed over his, the first time he announces that 'you and I are one.' The central episodes, where Jane is the governess at Thornfield made gripping TV, although they did stress the 'Gothic' aspect of the story rather too much for my taste. Jane's wedding is carried of brilliantly; what sticks in the mind is not the high melodrama of the lawyer at the back of the church saying 'There is an impediment!' but Rochester looking at Jane in awe and saying 'How could I have imagined you would have looked better in that gaudy veil!' The use of flashbacks to bring those of us who haven't been watching The Wide Sargasso Sea up to speed with the mad-woman in the attic are also a good idea in theory, although they tend to underline the fact that Rochester can't really be imagined in any context apart from his rambling Gothic mansion. So, all in all, a jolly good piece of Sunday night TV of the kind they don't make any more. What it wasn't, of course, was an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre concludes with Jane receiving a letter from her former suitor Rev. St. John Rivers, who has gone to be a missionary in India (as opposed to Africa, incidentally.) He's very ill; but he knew when he went that the climate would probably kill him. ' "My master,"he says "Has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly 'Surely I come quickly!' and hourly I more eagerly respond, 'Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus.' " ' The last line of Jane Eyre is the same as the last line of the Bible. St. John is quoting St. John. This is important at all sorts of levels. Rochester is the most important person in Jane's life, but he's not the be-all and end-all of her world: when she concludes her 'autobiography', she has higher things than romance on her mind. The story has partly been about Jane's spiritual growth: it starts with her at the mercy of some thoroughly nasty Christians; but it ends with her thinking about a thoroughly good one.

The BBC's version ends with Jane and Rochester entertaining some kind of family gathering, possibly the christening of their second child. They form up into a family group, and the final image of the film is a photograph in a floral frame. (Quite who was taking snapshots in 1847 is open to question: perhaps they held the pose for a week or so while someone did an oil painting.) Granted, this is an attempt to deal with the four most un-adaptable words in English Literature; but it's clear that we are being told that they all lived happily ever after. The book leaves us wondering, as Jane is presumably wondering, whether she did the write thing to follow her heart back to Thornfield rather than follow her head and become a clergyman's wife. In the TV series, the question is not even on the table: all stories end with weddings and if it comes to a choice between God and Toby Stevens, there's no contest. The idea that 'spiritual and religious development' could be one strand of a novel that is also about lurve is clearly not something which TV audiences could deal with. So out goes. So out goes most of the Lowood section (about a quarter of the book) and out goes much of the relationship with St. John.

We know that Jane is never going to go to Africa with Rivers, because she spends all the time that she is with him having flashbacks about Rochester, rendering the sci-fi climax, in which she is summonsed back to Thornfield by telepathy, rather gratuitous. At one level, these flashbacks are a rather elegant bit of TV narration. We jump straight from the revelation of the madwoman in the attic to Jane's being found wandering on the moor by Rivers and his sisters. The flashbacks gradually fill in the details of what happened in between, but also serve to keep Toby Stevens present on the screen when he is absent from the plot, and thus, to prevent the distaff contingent switching to channel 5.

On what would have been their wedding night, Rochester goes to Jane's bedchamber and begs her to run away with him to Italy. Jane is lying on her back; Rochester is lying on Jane, in what Rev. Rivers would presumably not have called the missionary position. It is in this position that he suggests that they could live as brother and sister, so she would not have to live in sin. I think Jane would probably have regarded miming intercourse with a man she didn't think she could legally marry as quite sinful enough, thank you very much. In case we have missed the point, when she goes back to Rochester after the fire, they end up lying on top of each other on the grass, decently clad but with their legs most indecorously intertwined.

Adapting a 19th century book and expecting the characters to adopt 21st century attitudes is precisely like going on holiday to Spain and insisting on drinking fish and chips and Courage best. There may have been a time when the BBC adapted Great Books in the hope that the Unwashed Masses who hadn't read them would be encouraged to discover the wonderful world of reading; or else they did radical reworkings of the classic to challenge and titillate the people who had. Now, it's just a matter of scouring old books for period love stories. Historical tourism.

Meanwhile, if you are the sort of person who finds themselves compelled to look at road accidents, then the BBCs other high-profile costume drama has not yet been removed from its prime time Saturday evening spot.

I think I probably first met Robin Hood in a Christmas production of Babes in the Wood . Then the BBC did The Legend of Robin Hood as one of their Sunday tea-time classic serials, my lady this and my lady that, earnest, historical and probably filmed in a quarry. I've also seen Basil Rathbone trying to conceal the fact that he is an accomplished fencer and Errol Flynn isn't; and Michael Praed pretending that if he goes on and on about Herne the Hunter, no one will notice his girly haircut. But these are all travesties. We all know the canonical version of the story, the one against which all others are judged. It's the one where Robin is a fox, Little John is a bear and Friar Tuck is a badger. In terms of seriousness, conviction and authenticity, it knocks the BBCs present offering into a cocked hat. With a feather on it.

Robin himself is probably the most interesting thing in the new series. In a Saturday teatime sort of way, he's trying to be a rounded character. We're in the version of the story where Robin is not a mere yeoman, but the Earl of Huntingdon. (He's also referred to as Robin of Locksly, which suggests that the writers have been studying some of the more obscure Greenwood ballads. Or watching DVDs of Robin of Sherwood.) He's only recently returned to England; and something very bad happened to him in the Time War, sorry, did I say Time War, I meant Crusades, although so far we haven't found out exactly what. His peasants love him, and he loves them: the reason he steals from the bad and gives to the good is that he still feels some responsibility to his peasants even now he's lost his lands. He very specifically robs the rich to feed the poor: he hasn't been back in England five minutes before he's inviting them to a slap-up feast in Huntingdon manor. He likes to leave gifts for the peasants in surprising ways and then watch the look on their faces when they find them, making me wonder if the writers had possibly confused him with Father Christmas. He likes the thanks and the adulation of the peasants, either because he is a glory hound, or because he has a neurotic need to be loved. (Clue: Answer B will turn out to be correct, probably because he lost someone dear to him in the Holy Land.)

Oh, and he's a pacifist, presumably due to his bad experience in Iraq, sorry, did I say Iraq, I meant Jerusalem. I think that he must have been designed in one of those role-playing games where you get extra skill points if you accept a big disadvantage. Robin has put all his skill points into Archery (he uses a Saracen bendy bow, not an English longbow, which arguably misses the point). He can do anything he likes with his arrows. He's forever shooting the ropes off innocent men on the gallows and shooting down arrows in flight which are about to kill innocent people, and firing six arrows at once which all miraculously go exactly where he meant them to. Most of this happens in slow motion, which presumably makes it a bit easier for him. But like the Green Arrow in the 1970s he has a Code Against Killing. So in episode 1, when the Sheriff is about to cut off Alan Adale's hand, Robin fires off five arrows with pin point accuracy, one between each of Alan's fingers; but then has to run away from the Sheriff's men because he isn't allowed to fire at anyone.

Robin has a sidekick who calls him Master and is devoted to him. His name is Much, but we don't find out if he is a Miller, or indeed if he has a son. I think he may turn out to be a gardener. Once Robin has run away into Sherwood, he finds a ready made troupe of moderately cheerful men. They are led by John, who is very big, but isn't called Little John. (John Little has a little son called Little John: it is obviously much funnier for a little person to be called 'little' than a big person.) Alan Adale shows no sign of being a singer. There are a whole brood of Scarlets, one of them called Will, but he doesn't appear to be a tough guy, or indeed, anything else. Friar Tuck is missing altogether. If we can believe the Daily Express this is because the political correctness brigade thought the character was disrespectful to fat people. But we can't. (In the canonical version, Tuck the badger was not especially over-weight. He lived in a church with some church mice, which suggests a limited understanding of the concept of mendicant orders. But then, since the Franciscans were founded in 1209 and the Dominicans in 1215, there were presumably not a whole lot of Friars in England at the time of Prince John's regency (1190-1194). I digress.)

So far, so harmless. It is certainly uncontaminated by originality, but it slips down easily enough on a Saturday evening. But where the canonical version treated Robin as a a serious heroic character, producer Dominic Minghella can't get it out of his head that what we are watching is a pantomime. This is understandable: if you are an Actor the Sheriff of Nottingham is not so much a nasty character in a medieval romance, but a camp role where the main objective is to get the kiddies to say 'Boo' and 'He's behind you.' Keith Allen can't decide whether he is meant to be playing a slimy politician -- he's rather good when trying to convince the peasants that Robin isn't out for their best interests -- or a pointlessly nasty nastyperson, joking about torture and killing ickle budgies to work off his anger. There is no rapport between this Robin and this Sheriff, because Robin is a dead-pan romantic hero while the Sheriff is camp comedy relief. Guy of Gisborn turns up dressed in biker leathers, and plays the role as a cop-show thug. Three main characters from three different series.

Along comes Marian, who may or may not be a maid. In the canonical version, as in Errol Flynn's, she is a noble lady who lives in the castle and is wooed by the courtly Robin. In Ror-or-or-bin, the Hooded-Man she is pretty much just a female merry man. Here, she is introduced as the ex-Sheriff's daughter, Rob's old flame, who isn't quite sure if she wants to pick up the relationship again. In episode 2 she does the obligatory 'I can help you out of the prison cell' routine, suggesting she just wants to be medieval-drama-lady. Would that she had remained so.

And then we have our obligatory sacrifice to the great god Relevance. I understand, largely because I read it in the Guardian, that Robin-Hood-Robin-Hood-Riding-Through-the-Glen was written by victims of the 1950s anti-communist black-list and contained some subtle digs at McCarthyism. The new series is trying something similar apart from the 'subtle' part. In episode 1, we find out that some people think that Richard has got England involved in an unnecessary war, of dubious legality and morality, against Muslims, because he has much too close a relationship with the Pope. In episode 2, we discover that the Sheriff has introduced a system of indefinite detention without trial for outlaws, who are regarded as 'enemy combatants' for the duration of the war. And in episode 3, we find the slimy sheriff making a slimy speech trying to persuade the peasants that Robin is a bad thing. This goes on in the background while Robin is snogging Marian, so all we hear is 'terrorizing....terror...war on terror!' I want to die. More specifically, I want Dominic Minghella to die.

In Episode 3, we find out that while Robin was off killing Muslims there was another outlaw in Sherwood, who also stood up for the peasants, and who wears a mask. He's called 'The Nightwatchman'. As soon as this was mentioned, I started to repeat 'please don't let it turn out to be Marian; please don't let it turn out to be Marian' over and over again. I needn't have bothered: at the end of the episode, it turned out to be Marian. Are we really so unimaginative that the only alternative we can think of to the admittedly sexist 'courtly love' of the Elizabethan and Hollywood versions is to take the Rich But Fragile Maiden Who The Tough But Strangely Attractive Outlaw Worships From Afar and give her a sword, a bow, and for all I know, a willy?

The aforementioned 'night watchman' is wrongly suspected of having killed the Sheriff's bailiff. The Sheriff, because he is evil, tries to blame Robin for the murder, and, because he is very evil, arranges for a few more of his men to be killed so he can blame Robin for that as well. It turns out that the assassin was someone entirely different; and at the end of the episode, he succeeds in assassinating the Sheriff of Nottingham himself. Except that, because the Sheriff is clever as well as evil, he had himself impersonated by a double while the assassin was on the loose.

'I shot the sheriff!' says Someone Entirely Different. 'No', replies Dick Dastardly 'You shot the deputy.' This would have been excruciatingly unfunny at any time; but it was made worse by the fact that they'd already made exactly the same joke in the title of the episode. I can only assume that it was written by a different Paul Cornell.

It makes me wonder. The opening sequence has a portentous march tune and over-done film style credits. Every new scene is introduced with a caption (accompanied by a silly 'twang' sound) which tells you where the scene is happening, even when you already know or it doesn't matter. The final scene is introduced by a graphic of a spinning archery target. This simply isn't how TV is made nowadays. The episodes end, not with a trailer for next week, but an advert for the BBC's on-line Robin Hood archery game, in which, get this, all the characters are represented as cardboard cut-outs. it possible that Robin Hood is not a drama that fails to take itself seriously; but a deliberate spoof which we have mistaken for straight drama because it is so achingly unfunny?

Prestige literary adaptations have to turn into bonkbusters; kids adventure series just can't help taking the piss. I think the best solution would have been to run the two things together. Jane Eyre Warrior Princess dispossessed from Thornfield hall by evil King George, living wild on the moors with her band of, well, rather dour women, robbing from the industrial middle classes and giving to the inmates of evangelical boarding schools. That would really have been post-modern. Give me a minute and I can work in some hippos.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Oh dear. I just thought that there was something rather cute about discovering Daily Mail readers unselfconsciously drooling about corporal punishment. It would have been a bit like coming down to breakfast and finding a man in open-topped footwear ordering a plate of Alpen and a copy of the Guardian -- particularly if he himself didn't see the joke. I'm sorry if anyone got the impression that I had mistaken what was going on for an actual argument.

I suppose one could bash out a decent thousand words around 'This house believes that inflicting pain in the short term is no less humane than removing liberty in the long term.' We might wonder out loud whether society could have developed in such a way that traffic wardens issued tickets requiring the owners of badly parked cars to report to the police station and be beaten-up and where everyone thought that 'fines' were a bizarre idea. We might note rhetorically that in the early 1980s we decided that blowing teenager's limbs off on the Falkland Islands was the kind of violence we could happily put up with; but whacking their backsides on the Isle of Man wasn't. Before long someone would be saying 'Of course, there is no crime whatsoever in Malaysia' and 'I'd sooner have the slipper than detention any day' and I'd be forced to give them a clip-round-the-ear.

The flogging of criminals officially ended in England and Wales in 1948; in practice, it mostly went away after the Cadogan committee recommended it's abolition ten years earlier. Perhaps surprisingly, it had been abolished in the armed forces in the 19th century; even more surprisingly it hung around as a possible punishment for misbehaving prison inmates into the 1960s. But even in the 30s, it seems to have been primarily juveniles who were subjected to it; perhaps because the courts were inclined to regard them as naughty schoolboys rather than criminals. There was an attempt to reintroduce flogging in 1961, mainly remarkable because it was the only occasion when Mrs. Thatcher, who supported the idea, voted against the Conservative Party, who opposed it. Please note that I just resisted the temptation to use the phrase 'Conservative Party Whip.'

You really have to go back to the nineteenth century, if not the eighteenth, to find the lost Eden in which whipping was the normal punishment for criminals; or else look at liberal dystopias like Apartheid South Africa or modern day Singapore. The Mail readers who miss the good-old flogging days would be just as likely to lament a medieval Olden Times when we used to put shoplifters in the stocks. Before it was discovered that all dark-skinned people were terrorists, it was common enough to be told that those Arab-johnnies have got the right idea about chopping off the hands of thieves. It is therefore more than usually clear that 'bring back the cat' is not a political proposition, but a portmanteau icon representing a deferential, crime-free never-never land located before the Second World War. Even our beloved prime minister, who explicitly distances himself from what he calls the 'hang 'em and flog 'em brigade' thinks that the period before 1939 was relatively crime-free, and that the present high-crime rates are the result of specific social changes that have occurred since the war.

It was understandable that the people who voted in Mrs. Thatcher in 1979 might have regarded the Cane, the Birch, the Noose and Winston Churchill as a symbol of a lost world where everything was simple and secure, if occassionally painful. Most of them spent their teenaged years in a world where these things were a reality. (They also remembered a time before many Indians and Afro-Carribeans had settled in the UK.) But it's harder to see why the mythology of a post-Blitz loss of innocence persists at a time when no-one without a bus-pass can possibly remember the War.

If, having said all that, anyone still thinks the question is worth asking, then I would say that deliberately hurting naughty people is a good idea if you believe the following:

1: The sole or main purpose of courts is to deliver Justice.

2: The purpose of Justice is to restore a state of equilibrium by making a criminal suffer to a degree comparable to his victim. This process directly benefits the victim: if the criminal doesn't suffer, the victim is harmed. While it may have various utilitarian side-effects, the punishment of criminals is therefore an end in itself. (It follows that concept of 'rehabilitation' is a denial of natural justice. If a thief learns a trade while he is in jail, and as a result gives up stealing and spends the rest of his life earning an honest living then he has benefited from his crime and been rewarded for his wrongdoing – particularly if the victim doesn't also get free woodwork lessons.)

3: Therefore, the only or main purpose of prisons is to punish criminals by keeping them in disagreeable conditions for long periods.

4: In practice, prisons are comfortable, not to say luxurious institutions. Therefore in nearly all cases, 'natural justice' does not occur: a murderer who spends 30 years in a prison can be said to have 'got off scott free'. On a personal note, I should mention that I went to Bognor Regis on three occasions and Clacton on Sea twice, and that prison is not in fact very much like a holiday camp at all.

If you accept these superstitions, then whipping must indeed seem very attractive. It's the only thing a court can sentence someone to which is purely punitive; and therefore, delivers the maximum quantity of natural justice. If you don't, then it was a silly and pointless form of brutality for brutality's sake, to be regarded roughly at the same level as putting the brick on trial because it fell on the King's toe. Even to ask the question 'Could flogging ever have a place in the modern criminal justice system' is to move the discussion onto non-rational territory.

And so it goes on. A bread-shop in Birmingham has started calling their spicy anthropomorphic cookies 'ginger people'. Readers will be very surprised to learn that Angry Customer Darren Ellis thinks that this is 'political correctness gone mad.' Angry Store Manager Who Refuses To Be Named doesn't like the fact that he 'has to tell children they can't have a gingerbread man, they can only have a ginger person.' When was the last time you went into a cake shop and asked for 'one of those iced buns with a cherry on the top' only to be told 'we don't sell iced buns with a cherry on the top; come back in again and ask for a Belgian.'i

It's certainly something gone mad.

But this story was forced off the cover of Tuesday's Express by an even more important one..


BRITONS gave overwhelming backing last night to a call for a ban on full-face Muslim veils.

Ninety-eight percent of Daily Express readers agreed that a restriction would help to safeguard racial harmony and improve communication.

If this seems a bit familiar, that's because this is exactly the same story that they ran last Saturday: the same use of 'Briton' to mean 'Daily Express readers who could be bothered to shell out 50p on our premium rate phone-line'; the same insinuation that 'Muslims' and 'Britons' are two different sets of people; the same name-checking of Jack Straw.

The story continues on page 6 under the headline Why object to tackling extremism? (I can think of all sorts of answers to this question. 'Dunno. Who does object?' 'What does the wearing of funny clothes have to do with extremism?') But on the same page there is a separate, and much more disturbing story.

There is in Yorkshire a private Muslim school, imaginatively called The Institute of Islamic Education. It was recently visited by the schools inspectors, who gave it rather a bad write up. The Express lingers over this Offsted report for three columns, rehearsing such juicy details as:

Parts of the school building, including the dining room and boarders toilets, were dirty,


Teachers showed limited understand of pupils aptitudes and prior attainments

Surprisingly enough, the inspectors also thought that this religious school was placing too much emphasis on religion. Or, as the Express puts it:

Inspectors who visited the school, which stands just yards from the former home of 7/7 suicide bomber Sidique Khan concluded that the emphasis on Islamic teaching came at the expense of secular studies.

So why, despite this rather desperate attempt to link the story with terrorism is item illustrated with – see if you can guess – a picture of a woman wearing a niqab? Well, that's the clever bit. You will be aware that Mrs Alshah Azmi recently got herself into an altercation with her employers. She teachers English-as-a-second-language at a state school; her employers says that she can't do this wearing a veil because it means that the non-English-speaking kids can't see her lips; she says that she can teach perfectly well; she's taken them to a tribunal to settle the issue. If not for Jack Straw it's hard to believe that this trivial story would have been front page news for a week.

Surprisingly enough, this Muslim teacher has a father (Dr Mohammed Mulk) who is also a Muslim and a teacher. It has 'emerged', as these things do, that he a headteacher at the Yorkshire school with the dirty loos.

So, the non-story about the school report appears under the headline

Veiled protest woman in link to 'radical' school

There is a clever ambiguity in this Azmi is certainly a woman, and she sometimes wears a veil. This undoubtedly makes her a 'veiled woman'. She is protesting about the fact that she has been asked to take it off. This arguably makes her a 'protest woman'. So she could be called a 'Veiled protest-woman': a woman in a veil who is protesting about something. However, the lack of punctuation will cause many readers to suppose that she is also a 'veiled-protest woman', a woman who is wearing a veil in order to make a protest. The headline is implying that she is covering her face in order to make a political point; which is clearly not true.

The 'radical' bit is also rather fun. Despite the quotation marks, no-one appears to have described Dr. Mulik's school as 'radical'. The closest we come is a claim that the school forbids pupils from reading British newspapers or TV stations. But the word 'radical' is code for 'bad Muslim'. Earlier in the week we discovered that we may have to spy on Islamic students in case the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Union 'radicalises' them -- that is, turns them into terrorists. The Express wants us to think that the dirty toilet school is a school for terrorists (a terrorist once lived in a street near by, which proves it) even though no-one has actually said so.

So. A picture of a veil; a headline about a radical school which is linked, quite spuriously, with the London bombings, above a separate headline about extremists. The message is clear. Radicals, Muslims, veils, extremists, terrorists. They go together like cake shops and the political correctness brigade.

In between Veiled protest woman and Tackling extremists there are a few hundred words about the incredibly unimportant case of Miss Nadia Eweida, the airline employee who was asked to remove her cross and suspended from work when she refused. The interesting thing about this story is that it has become enmeshed in the racist narrative about veils. Jack Straw's original incendiary remarks were not about religion. He was ostensibly saying that face-covering was an intrinsically bad idea despite the fact that it was a religious symbol. But everyone seems to think that this is somehow related to the claim that Christian air-stewardesses and news-readers are being prevented from wearing their crosses because they are religious symbols.

This is a pretty important distinction. So far as I know, no-one has ever suggested that 'this is part of my religion' can be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card which over-rides all other considerations. If performing unnecessary surgery on children is a bad idea then it's a bad idea regardless of the fact that your religion may require it. But those of us who are reflexive liberals would only play the 'bad idea' card over very serious matters. 'This is cruel and abusive' might be sufficient grounds to stop someone from practising their faith; 'This seems a bit strange to the rest of us' isn't. This is why, on the whole, we don't worry about Jews lopping bits off baby boys (seems a bit strange to those us us who were never snipped) but do worry a great deal about Somali traditions of 'circumcising' girls (intrinsically cruel). There will, of course, be borderline cases and grey areas. That's what the House of Lords is for

The French and the Dutch have made moves towards banning the public wearing of headscarfs because they are religious symbols even if the headwear itself is unexceptionable. (How this works in practice I don't know: could I argue in court that I was not wearing a bowler to represent my allegiance to the orangeman course but simply because I was an upper-class twit?) Jack Straw wants us to believe he has no problem with turbans, headscarfs or rosaries but would have objected to face-covering just as strongly if there had been a community of secular circus-clowns in his constituency. However, the fact the 'crucifix' story is being invoked alongside the 'veil' narrative shows that this is not how the Sun and the Express see it. 'They can wear their turbans and headscarfs,' they argue – 'So why can't we wear our crosses?' When they talk about 'the veil', they are talking about what they see as a symbol of Muslim-ness; and it's that they want to prohibit by law.

Why can't the politicians see that every time they say 'We should have a sensible debate about veils' a large proportion of the electorate will hear 'Muslims are terrorists with dirty lavatories'? What we need right now is not a debate, sensible or otherwise. We need Tony Blair and Jack Straw to stand up and say, very loudly 'Muslims are Britons. Muslim Britons sometimes dress in a way that some other Britons aren't used to. Just like some Britons wear kilts and some Britons have their tongues pierced. And if you find kilts, pierced tongues and veils a bit strange, then that's your problem, and you should try to get over it.' Why is that so hard?

The question in today's phone-in poll is 'Is Labour wrecking our great British army?' I can't wait to find out there answer to that one. Pass me a gingerperson.

iYou don't think that the confectioner had perhaps made biscuits in two shapes and made up a price tag marked 'ginger people' because he couldn't be bothered to write 'gingerbread men and gingerbread women', do you?

Friday, October 13, 2006

It may be time to retire from satire due to unfair competition, again. The news item is unremarkable, but the readers comments are utterly beyond parody...

What Not To Wear

On Saturday October 8th, the Sun ran the headline

Hero soldiers' home wrecked by Muslims.

The substance of the story was that a house earmarked for servicemen returning from Afghanistan had been vandalized. The Sun drew the conclusion that the vandals were Muslims, although their only actual evidence was a quote from an un-named source and a non-committal quote from the police. ('One line of inquiry' is that the attack was racially motivated.)

Underneath this front-page story was a four column strip. On the left was a picture of a woman wearing a burkha. (This picture was approximately three times as large as the photo of the vandalized house.) In the middle was a caption which reads THE BIG BURKHA DEBATE – PAGES 6 and 7. And on the right was a photograph of Labour MP Jack Straw.

Elsewhere in the paper, you could read about Muslim cabbie's guide dog ban.

On 10th October, the front page of the Sun featured another picture of a woman in a burkha. This time, the headline was HIDDEN DANGER. The previous day, a Sun reporter had caught a plane to Paris wearing a niqab. Customs inspectors didn't ask her to raise her veil to check that her face matched her passport picture, although regulations say that they should have donei. This is chilling, apparently. 'I hope this is an oversight, and not political correctness' says the inevitable Tory MP. If you read the 'full story' on page 9, you would also have learned about a terror suspect (unnamed) who, it is claimed (we aren't told by who) tried to escape capture by disguising himself with a burkha. And who should be at the top of column 1 but Labour MP Jack Straw?

So, images of veiled women are being placed alongside stories about Muslim yobs and vandals; stories are dredged up in which burkhas are tangentially associated with terrorism. Anyone looking at Saturday's paper would have taken in the words Hounded Out -- Hero soldiers' home wrecked by Muslims -- The Big Burhka Debate in a single glance. The vandalism story is printed in a frame; and the 'burka' caption overlaps that frame: quite clearly, we are being invited to forge a mental link between the two stories. Muslims are dangerous and frightening. Muslims are alien. Muslims are chilling. And wherever there are stories about dangerous, frightening, chilling, alien Muslims there will be a little picture of a woman in a veil. The Sun has made veils into a hieroglyphii which means 'Muslims are scary'. And alongside this icon of Islamophobia there is always a picture of Labour MP Jack Straw.

Interestingly enough, the HIDDEN DANGER story only takes up about 1/3 of Monday's front page. The other 2/3 are given over to a promotion for something called Page 3 Idol. ('Turn to page 3', the caption very logically advises.) Female Sun readers are being invited to send nude photographs of themselves to the paper. Male readers will then vote for the picture they like the best, and the winner will be offered a job as a model. You couldn't, as I believe someone once said, make it up. This is illustrated, naturally, by a picture of a lady with no clothes on. (Page 3 itself has a total of 14 tits on it, which must be some kind of record.) So, when we look at Monday's front page, what we actually see is a small picture of a dark skinned lady wearing a veil, underneath a large picture of a light skinned lady wearing nothing at all. The message is clear: totally covering yourself up is 'chilling' and 'dangerous', whereas stripping naked, having your picture taken and sending it to a national newspaper so that strangers can masturbate over it is perfectly normal.

Meanwhile, the Daily Express has had one of its famous phone-in-polls in which it has turned out that 97% of readers think that Muslim women should uncover themselves -- though not, presumably, to the extent that Sun readers are going to -- because it would 'safeguard racial harmony'. In order to further safeguard racial harmony, the Express reported these findings under the headline BAN THE VEIL! The accompanying text is vintage Daily Express stuff:

CONCERNED Britons gave massive backing last night to calls for Muslim women to ditch the veil.

An astonishing 97 per cent of Daily Express readers agreed that a ban would help to safeguard racial harmony.

Our exclusive poll came a day after Leader of the Commons Jack Straw spoke out against the veils.

Note how 'Britons' are contrasted with 'Muslims' in the first line, and that 'ditch the veil' (choose to stop wearing it) in line 1 slides into 'ban' (prohibit it by law) in line 2. Observe the presentation of the story: 97% of readers 'gave backing' and 'agreed' to the idea of 'a ban': even though no ban has been proposed and there is nothing to back. And once again, it is all associated with Labour MP Jack Straw. It is literally true that he 'spoke out' against veils in the sense that he remarked that he would rather talk to people whose faces he could see. He quite explicitly didn't call for any kind of ban. But the trajectory of the opening paragraph goes 'Ban the veil – ditch the veil – a ban -- Jack Straw.'

Jack Straw knew what he was doing. New Labour is the political wing of the middle classes. Every New Labour speech goes out of its way to praise the car-driving home-owning hardwor kingfamily. These are the votes which win elections. White – people who read papers in which lapsed Anglicans from England are 'us' and dark skinned Muslims are 'them'. Paranoid – people who feel that their way of life is under threat from gypsies, gays, terrorists, asylum seekers, the political correctness brigade, Europe, foreigners in general. Four million of them pay money to read the paranoid fantasies of Richard Desmond and Rupert Murdoch on a daily basis. Ten days ago the average Sun readers didn't remember Jack Straw's name, let alone his job title. But for a week, they have had his face in front of them every day, linked with stories about Hidden Danger and Banning the Veil. What he actually said no longer matters, any more than it ever mattered exactly which river it was that Aeneas had seen frothing with much blood. Straw wasn't presenting an argument, but positioning himself. He has brilliantly associated himself with the paranoid middle-class. The people whose votes he most needs now think of him as 'That fellow who spoke up for ordinary White people and against chilling Muslim yobs who sneak through customs and vandalize guide-dogs.' And this, unless he is very stupid indeed, was precisely what he knew would happen.

I live in Bristol. Burkhas are quite rare, although there are increasing numbers of Somali women whose robes cover the whole of their body except their faces. (I think that they look very attractive and exotic.) Headscarves are so common that I no longer notice them. I admit that, when I see a black hat and ringlets, I still think 'Jew' before I think 'man'; but when I see a headscarf, I no longer think 'Muslim woman' or 'religious woman' or 'Asian woman' but just 'woman'.

When I first moved to Bristol the man in my local corner shop had a West Country Accent. If you want to buy a pint of milk after half past ten, the person who sells it to you will be an Asian: it's a stereotype, but it's true. 'What's a Pakistani man doing with a West Country accent' I said to myself. 'Everyone knows that Pakistanis have South London accents.' Since then, I have noticed that some teenagers combine Brizzle dialect with British Asian, even when their vowels are RP. 'Where's Rashid to, innit?' White kids are also picking up the 'innit' habit, which seems itself to be a bit of cockney dialect pressed into service to represent a Punjabi tag word. I find this aesthetically displeasing. The whole purpose of teenage slang is to irritate people over 30. That is what 'assimilation' means. You spend decades worrying about the fact that New York has been overrun by Italians who don't speaka the lingo proper, and then wake up to discover that Pizza is a classic American dish. I shouldn't be surprised if next year, white teenagers decide it's fashionable to cover up their faces. If it irritates Jack Straw, I may start doing it myself.

i Private Eye points out that the story is not attributed to Anila Baig, the dark-skinned journalism who carried out the stunt, but is claimed as an exclusive by light skinned Julie Moult.

ii Actually, the icon is a partial photograph: the paper tends to show a narrow strip of two eyes looking out from a slit, rather than the whole head. The papers' layout therefore distances the woman more than the actual veil does.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Sun is a disgusting little right-wing sexist New Labour rag, but it has to be said that How do you solve a problem like Korea? is a bloody good headline.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

It's international talk like a pirate day, apparently

"You are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery.

But damn ye all together: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment? ....You are a devilish conscience rascal, I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field; and this my conscience tells me: but there is no arguing with such snivelling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure and pin their Faith upon a Pimp of a Parson; a Squab, who neither practices nor believes what he puts upon the chuckle-headed fools he preaches to.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Flogging a Dead Horse

A shy young farmer is showing his girlfriend around the farm. He shows her the haystacks and the milking machine, and then they come to a field where a cow and a bull are doing what cows and bulls do when farmers put them in fields together. The farmer and his girlfriend watch for a few minutes and then the farmer ventures: ' you know, one day, I'd like to do that.'

'Well, it's your cow,' she replies.

We are all much less screwed up about sex than we used to be. Everyone is glad to be gay. We don't tell children that if they play with themselves they'll go blind. Sado-masochism is openly discussed in the pages of Woman's Realm. But it is still relatively rare to come across an 'out' necrophiliac. Dead people don't put up postcards in phone boxes. If I were to walk in on a friend having sex with his ex-girlfriend, I would probably say something slightly stronger than, 'Well, it's your corpse.'

Why is sex with a dead body necessarily more depraved than, say, sex with a manikin? You or I may think that both pastimes are a bit yucky, but 'yuck!' is not really an argument. Norman Tebbit thinks it is yucky for two men to have sex together, even if both of them are still alive, to which the only answer is 'That's all right, no-one asked you to watch.' Norman would probably reply that it's the whole idea of a man having sex with another man which he finds yucky, to which I would reply: 'Well, I think the idea of John Major having sex with Edwina Curry is pretty yucky. Or indeed, the idea of anyone having sex with Edwina Curry. Or, in fact, John Major. Do you want to ban that as well?' Aesthetic judgements are a very bad guide to morality.

We think that desecrating a corpse is an offense against the family of the corpse's original owner: but we no longer think that desecrating corpses in general is an offense against humanity in general. There was a time when we tried to prosecute artists for doing challengingly post-modern things with the dear departed. But now we permit 'Body Worlds', even though it is an exhibition of high-tech human taxidermy, because all of the exhibits signed legal documents agreeing to be filleted and put on display when they die. So what would be the moral difference if someone willed their mortal remains to be used for some much less educational, but possibly more enjoyable, artistic venture?

The only rational objection to necrophilia is the practical one. It's rather difficult to pursue the hobby without a dead body; and it's rather difficult to get hold of a dead body without killing someone or digging someone up. (There are also questions about hygiene and public health, even if you wear a condom and don't share shrouds.) We object to necrophilia because we don't think that you should interfere with human remains. The fact that some people find interfering with human remains a sexual turn-on is is beside the point.

I mention this because necrophilia is one of the categories covered by Tony Blair's proposed law against 'extreme' pornography. The others are sexual violence and bestiality. At present, it is illegal to produce or distribute certain kinds of dirty book. But what the world has been crying out for is a law against even having such material in your house, in a cardboard box under your bed, or, and especially, in a file on your hard-drive marked 'Very boring bank statements, do not read.' I have never been entirely sure what a rubicon is but I am pretty sure that we have just crossed one.

Prime Ministers have always regretted the fact that they can't legislate about what goes on in our minds and in our trousers. But with the advent of the World Wide Wank it is theoretically possible for Tony Blair to spy on all of our wet dreams. In the past, we drifted off to sleep turning dodgy little paraphilias over in our heads, hardly remembering them the next morning. Nowadays, we type 'Doctor, Rose, Dalek, tentacle, slash, threesome' into Google and see our most secretest fantasies dance before our eyes in living colour. Or so I have heard.

Tony can't stop you thinking about naughty things; but it is now fairly easy for him to discover what naughty things you have been thinking about and if he doesn't like them, to send three big uniformed police officers to your house to confiscate your computer, handcuff you, conduct an intimate body search and then take out their big, manly truncheons, and

I don't think that looking at images of necrophilia, sexual violence or bestiality is one of my more fundamental human rights. It's a right I'm perfectly willing to give up, along with my right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theater, my right to drive on the right hand side of the road and my right to put potato peelings in my wheelie bin, so long as it does some good. But I would quite like to know what kind of good the new law is supposed to do.

Are cemeteries being vandalized in order to provide models for a booming necro-porn industry? Is the RSPCA worried about an epidemic of cows with sore bottoms? Then by all means, let's take action. Let's impose a criminal penalty on people who look at pictures of non-consenting bovine sex, in the hope that by cutting off demand, you will put the suppliers out of business, as has worked so successfully in the case of hard drugs.

But no plague of pornography-fueled sheep-buggering corpse-shaggers has so far been detected. Instead, we're told we need a new law because extreme pornography is 'repugnant', 'abhorrent', 'disturbing', 'repellent' and 'unacceptable to the vast majority of people' which is as much as to say, being interpreted, yucky. Those of us who point out that maybe some people find the stuff you look at quite yucky; and that in any case we doubt whether everyone who looks at yucky stuff ought to go to jail, are told that some of this stuff is very yucky indeed. Feminists in particular are inclined to say that they once saw, or heard about, a movie in which a woman was tortured, or appeared to be tortured, and that this was so yucky that if you had seen it, you would have been sick. They think this settles the question. If you persist, and say that, even assuming genuine 'snuff' movies exist, you don't see how sending a few Internet masturbators to prison is going to help, they seem not to understand the question. The representative from the Home Office explained to the BBC that:

By banning the possession of such material the government is sending out a strong message - that it is totally unacceptable and those who access it will be held to account.

It has to be banned because it is unacceptable. We are are going to ban it because it's the kind of thing which should be banned.

Some people are prepared to give actual reasons why yucky things should be banned. The most common argument is that we have to ban the possession of extreme porn because extreme porn harms the people who possess it. There are three versions of this argument. On one view, extreme porn is cleverly put together by pornographers who understand how your sexuality works. If you look at pornographic images of sexual violence, you will start to be turned on by those images. This will make you a bad person. This seems to me to be a circular argument, roughly equivalent to saying: 'It is bad to look at yucky pictures, because they will make you the sort of person who looks at yucky pictures, which is bad.'

The second, and more common form of the argument is that looking at extreme pornography is likely to turn you into a criminal. If you look at yucky pictures, and become the sort of person who likes to look at yucky pictures, then sooner or later, looking at yucky pictures is not going to be sufficient: you are bound to actually go and dig up a corpse. This is every censor's argument: people are too weak and stupid to distinguish fiction from reality. Fredric Wertham said that any comic book which depicted a crime (in any context) was a 'crime comic', and that 'crime comics' by definition turned the youth of America into criminals. Christianist extremists have said that the depiction of 'magic' by J.K Rowling is likely to turn children into disciples of Aleister Crowley. When the BBC put the question to the man from the ministry, he went completely to pieces:

There is no conclusive proof that in every case certain types of images will have a certain impact on every individual but we know that in that particular case....that these images do have an impact, do feed certain fantasies in certain individuals and we believe that it is our responsibility to prevent that from happening.

Does anyone know what it means to 'feed' a fantasy? And has it been proved that if you did feed one, it would get bigger and stronger and eventually burst out of its cage and bite someone's head off? Isn't it just as possible that it's lean, mean, starving fantasies which do the harm, and the best thing that anyone can do with one is to keep it well fed and docile?

If there were concrete evidence that people who looked at pictures of people having sex with kittens went out and had sex with kittens, then it wouldn't necessarily follow that the best way of protecting kittens would be jailing anyone who owned a sexually explicit kitten picture. As it stands, the argument is circular.

'We must ban yucky pictures.'
'Because they harm the people who look at them.'
'What is your evidence for that?'
'It is intuitively obvious.'
'Because they are so yucky.'

The third form of the argument, and the only one which I think has any credibility, is that looking at pictures of people doing weird sexual stuff is inclined to 'normalize' the weird stuff that you might want to do, and make you more inclined to do it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this can be the case. You spend thirty self-loathing years thinking that your are the only person on earth who is sexually excited by teddy bears - and then one day you discover, spend a happy hour downloading teddy-porn, and post a message to the teddy-porn forum saying 'I never knew anyone else was interested in this...I thought I was the only one...' With the encouragement of other arctophiles, you might even come out of the toy-cupboard and admit your fetish in public.

But this pre-supposes that your interest is eccentric but basically harmless. If what you are interested in is obviously criminal, then it's another matter. Your parents, your teachers and your community leaders have taught you that murder, rape and child-abuse are morally wrong. Your conscience tells you that you shouldn't kill people or have sex with them without their consent. Your sense of empathy tells you how horrible it would be to be murdered or sexually molested. And your common sense tells you that if you do these things, you will be shunned by your community, sent to jail, or, in primitive countries, executed. Yet the tendency of certain images to 'normalize' or 'legitimize' deviant behaviour is so powerful that it over-rides your upbringing, your conscience, your morality, your empathy and even your fear of punishment, causing you to go out and do something which you know is wrong. This is an extra-ordinary claim; extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence. The burden of proof is on those who believe that these images possess this power. But the only proofs cited are circumstancial evidence that many people convicted of violent sex offences have violent pornography in their posession; vague metaphors about 'feeding fantasies' and 'mental furniture'; and general assertions that some images are so nasty that they probably have some kind of effect. This is insufficient to establish that some images have can turn normal individuals into ammoral psychopaths.

There are a certain number of people whose moral conscience and sense of empathy was flawed or non-existant even before they plugged their computer in. These are certainly dangerous and scary individuals. But it isn't smutty website that have made them so. (*)

I have been assuming that the reasons for introducing the new law are rational ones. But, of course, they aren't. Laws are no longer about spotting crimes and working out realistic ways of preventing them. They are about 'sending signals'; they are about creating newspaper headlines; they are the government's attempt to create a popular 'narrative.'

In 2003 a young woman had unspeakable things done to her by a not-at-all well man who got off on doing unspeakable things to young women. Not surprisingly, he also spent some of his spare time looking at pictures on the internet of young women having unspeakable things done to them. The relatives of the victim believed that these pictures had in some sense caused the murder. They organised a campaign to get 'violent porn' prohibited. The new law is a response to this campaign. 'Victory for mother in war on violent porn' explained the Daily Mail. Even our own dear Guardian found the narrative – 'out of this great evil must come something good' – too appealing to resist, and referred to it in three separate headlines. 'Violent Porn Ban 'a memorial to my daughter'; 'Legacy of Jane Longhurst'; 'Jane's Legacy'. Without even noticing it, we have replaced jurisprudence with soap opera. Last month, the Home Secretary was referring to his pro-lynching initiative as 'Sarah's Law'. Right at the beginning of his reign of terror, Tony Blair said that he had made it illegal for grown-ups with licences to fire guns at paper targets, not because it was a good idea but because 'We owed a debt to the people of Dunblane.' I find this tendency very disturbing. Laws should be made because they will serve a clear and tangible purpose: not because they provide an uplifting ending to grotesque murder stories.

You may wish to say that I am being flippant. You may think that murder, corpse mutilation and cruelty to animals are crimes; and that it is self-evident that there shouldn't be a trade in pictures of people committing crimes. We could have a terribly interesting debate about medieval child brides, the age of consent in Sweden, Shirley Temple movies, and what the hell's going on in those night clubs where people dress up in school uniforms and listen to old Boney M records. But as soon as we start to talk about actual pictures of actual people actually doing things to actual children, then we would all be in agreement: it's illegal, it's always been illegal, and it ought to be illegal. You may think that images of women actually being tortured and graves actually being vandalized should be treated in the same way. I would probably agree with you. But Tony Blair's new law goes much, much further than this.

The governments consultation document states very clearly what kind of pictures they want to lock you up for looking at:

15: In summary, material would need to be:

a: Pornographic

b: Explicit

c: Real or appears to be a real act...

16: It would cover

i: serious violence *

ii: intercourse or oral sex with an animal

iii: sexual interference with a human corpse

* by serious violence we mean appears to be life threatening or likely to result in serious, disabling injury (my italics)

In case you missed this, the paper goes on to define it's terms.

'The second threshold would be an objective test for the jury in respect of actual scenes or depictions which appear to be real acts...By actual scenes or depictions which appear to be real acts we intend to catch material which either is genuinely violent or conveys a realistic impression of fear, violence and harm.' (my italics)

So. New Labour's legacy will be to re-define 'real' as 'fictitious' and 'actual' as 'simulated'. For years, people have argued about whether or not 'snuff' movies really exist. Tony has brilliantly circumvented the question: looking at a clever special effect in which someone appears to be killed will be defined, under English law, as just as bad as watching a film in which someone is actually killed.

Owning a movie in which someone is killed or appears to be killed in a horrible way will not, in itself, be a crime, which is a relief for those of us who bought the DVD of The Passion of the Christ. We can only go to prison if the violent film is also pornographic. In case we don't know, pornography is defined as:

material that has been solely or primarily produced for the purpose of sexual arousal...We believe that this first test should eliminate, for example, photographs of works of art, news and documentary programmes by mainstream broadcasters which are of public interest and works classified by the BBFC

So; everything depends on the intention of the person who created the film. If someone makes a film of someone digging up a corpse, with the intention of making me violently sick, traumatizing me, and giving me nightmares for a month, then I am not committing any crime by owning a copy. But if someone makes a film of someone digging up a corpse with the intention of giving me an erection, then if I have a copy of the film I can go to prison for three years. (If I do get a hard-on while watching it, then we're in the clear provided no-one intended me to; if they intended me to get a stiffy but I actually find it a complete turn off, then I can still move directly to jail.) If what I'm watching is only a very impressive special effect, it makes no difference: a sexy special effect is against the law, a merely disgusting or horrifying one isn't.

Lawyers will be able to have endless fun with this. If I get excited by looking at pictures of – say – a group of teenaged squaddies mud wrestling in the nude, then that's perfectly okay, provided I'm looking at a real film of real recruits being really abused in the sort of perfectly normal, heterosexual horse-play that made the British army what it is today. But if exactly the same scene is staged by a gay porn website for the benefit of the kind of people who like that kind of thing, then a crime is committed by anyone who looks at it. Mary Whitehouse famously tried to argue that since it would be criminally obscene to perform anal sex on the London stage, it must logically also be obscene to convincingly simulate the same act. But in Blair's Britain there are cases when looking at the real thing might be okay, but looking at a simulation is against the law.

A crime will only be committed if the pictures you are looking at are 'explicit', helpfully defined as

activity which can be clearly seen, leaves little to the imagination, and is not hidden or disguised, (e.g by pixilation.)

So; any notion that this law is needed to prevent unspeakable things being done to real animals, real cadavers and real, live women can be put aside. This law is not to protect them: it is to protect you. A picture of someone buggering a cow in which the naughty bits are pixilated out might be less likely to corrupt and deprave the person looking at it; and it might be less yucky for the rest of us. But it presumably doesn't make any difference to the cow.

Jemima Lewis, writing in the Independent provides a clue to what is really going on.

It hardly matters whether footage of a rape victim having her throat slit or limbs sawn off is real or fake: its message is one of savage hatred of women... We always reserve the right to protect ourselves, however imperfectly, from things that are bad for our bodies or souls. Like drug abuse or racism, misogyny is a social cancer which we should be unashamed to fight.

So. What we are legislating against is not the images themselves; not the real people hurt in the production of those images; not even the criminals who some people believe are created by these images. What we are making laws about is their subtext; their ideology; their message.

Joan Bakewell, writing in the Guardian, concurs

But the truth is that many people can watch films of cruelty and degradation without harmful effect. That said, extreme pornography degrades women and brutalises men, which is why I think that removing it from the Internet would be the best way forward.

(Isn't it cute that she thinks that making a law and locking up a few people, is the same thing as 'removing it from the internet'.)

But if what we're worried about is the sub-text, why stop at snuff movies and necrophilia? Half the top shelf of your average sub-urban news-agent could be said to be misogynistic and to degrade women. So, why not jail the consumers of that, as well? Jeremy Coutinho, also in the Guardian agrees. The new law does not go far enough. It does 'not in itself address society's attitudes towards women'. (It is not clear who said that it was supposed to.)

While I welcome this bill, the mainstream objectification of women has to be tackled too if the government is really serious about women's human rights.

He gives a number of examples of certainly yucky but presumably consensual and not life-threatening 'mainstream' images that he would like to 'tackle', such as novelty gentleman's toilets and pictures of men ejaculating in women's faces.

I think that misogyny is a Bad Thing. I also think that racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, islamaphobia and whatever-the-word-is-for-someone-who-hates-Christians are Bad Things. I am very doubtful whether people who own literature which express an racist or anti-semitic message should go to prison. You may not agree with me; you may think that some ideas are so offensive that even to possess a book or tape or disc which contains them should incur a term of imprisonment. In a way, that's not the point. The point is that this looked like a law against a particularly nasty kind of porn. But it is really ideas which are being censored. It always is.

* These two paragraphs have been edited following criticism. The original version read: "This pre-supposes that your interest is eccentric but basically harmless. Whether we are talking about kinky sex or trainspotting the Internet makes it much easier to contact fellow enthusiasts. If you find other people who like the same thing you do, it's much more likely that you'll go and do it together. If what you are interested in is obviously dangerous and criminal, then it's another matter. Everything in your up-bringing and your conscience tells you that murder, rape and child abuse are morally wrong: the only actual objection to teddy-sex is that it is slightly unusual. I simply don't believe that a web-site and a peer-group who say 'Digging up corpses is perfectly okay' is going to over-ride every piece of socialization you have experienced since you were born – unless, of course, you were a psychopath to begin with. In which case, it's not the the website's fault."