Sunday, October 28, 2012

Creative Aloneness - and Why I Won't Be Going to the Theatre Again


Two rare things happened last night. 

One, I went to the theatre. 

Two, I walked out of the theatre before the end of the play.
    
The first happened because I met the delightful and very talented Gary Pillai, who was appearing as Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, alongside Meera Syal, playing Beatrice. I love Meera – as a writer, actor, presenter, person – but had never seen her on stage. The production, set in India, also sounded interesting. It was the last night, and I am so rarely in London I wanted to take advantage of one of the city’s obvious main attractions.
    
My theatre going experience in general has not been good. The brilliant critic Jack Tinker was a good friend and I was always amazed that his passion for the genre never wavered. I used to go with him to shows not to see them, but to watch his enjoyment and his eagerness to file his copy. So great was his enthusiasm, he once failed to notice that I had fallen down a manhole on our way to Joe Allen after a play.
    
I also used to go to the theatre with Keith Waterhouse when we both lived in Bath. It’s a strange city in which to watch a production. The theatre’s front row is invariably packed with old ladies, who express their disappointment vociferously if what they see on stage does not match up to the picture on the front of the programme. At the start of a very trendy production of A Country Wife (programme: green fields, white people in nice frocks), their response to the black actor coming on stage and delivering a monologue not in the script was: “Oh, no.” Together. Like a geriatric Jedward.

Blood Brothers was ruined for me by a coach load of people from Wales, who collectively screamed: "Ooh, 'e's gonna shoot 'im!" at a key moment (Apologies to those who have yet to see it - is there anyone who hasn't?)
  
It’s not just my theatre history that made me doubt whether I should venture into this dangerous territory once more; I had endured an awful few days. Filthy hotel, underwhelming conference at very grubby college, screaming child in pub . . . Oh, I could go on. And will. Ugg boots. Cup cakes. People who wear woollen hats – any hats, come to that – indoors. I was having such a bad anger management day, I tried to get #whatsthatallabout trending on Twitter. 

No one joined in (Mean buggers - #whatsthatallabout?) . . . Celebrities whose new fashion accessory is a cardboard coffee cup (why don’t they just drink the sodding thing in the cafĂ©?) . . . Chinese restaurant staff who say to single people: “We only do tables for two or more” (yes, that really happened). So, I thought I would treat myself.
 
More problems - not least, when I tried to book online and predictive texting kept changing “Ado” to FBI (#whatsthatallabout?). Much FBI About Nothing. Really?
    
So. The queue for tickets was huge, with two minutes to go before Curtain Up. But after a nifty bit of manoeuvring, I managed to make it to the front. “Senior citizen discount?” asked the cashier.
    
What? I have a birthday next week. I will be 54. The last time I was asked my age was when a supermarket was reluctant to serve me alcohol. I was 28. When did I get to look so old? 
    
Having procured a ticket, I took my seat. So far, so good. The woman next to me was also a late buyer and clearly a theatre enthusiast.
    
Then, more problems started. The sweet wrappings, the crunchy chocolate, people arriving late, finding aliens in their seats, and debating the issue with the usher. And, worst of all, the seven year old behind me whose mother had to keep explaining who bloody Benedick was and why he was dressing up pretending not to be Benedick.
    
The last time I got so angry with a child in the theatre, I had to be moved. The production was Scrooge, in Bristol, and responding to every damned person who came on stage, the child next to me asked her mother: “Is that a ghost?” After about two hundred non-ghosts, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. “There are only three ghosts, okay? THREE! And I will tell you every time they come on!”
    
The mother said that I clearly didn’t have any children, at which point I lied and said I had three and, were they to come to the theatre, they would not be obsessive irritants who think they are seeing dead people. The management thought it best to move me. To a box. Alone.
    
A Bollywood version of Shakespeare takes concentration – I loved it, but it required silence from the people around me. So when, in addition to the sweets, chocolates and child, the theatre’s air conditioning came on right above me, I made a decision. Go. Now. And did.
    
I was sorry to miss the end of the play (yes, I know the ending, but that’s not the point) and was very honest with the cast when we met up later on. I was thrilled to have seen some new people making their RSC debut (Anjana Vasan as the maid – Wow! Brilliant!). And, as always, I left with enormous respect for actors who strut their stuff for peanuts in order to bring pleasure to the rest of us.
    
But why can’t people go to the theatre and just STFU?! Social networking has made interactive viewers of us all. We Tweet, we Facebook, we Zeebox – there is an audience not only for the shows, but for our own opinions, on a 24/7 basis. We have lost the art of sitting in a dark place, enjoying the company of others in our imaginations. Creative aloneness.
    
Maybe that’s why I love TV so much. Give me a 50 inch screen, people I have never met, pretending to be people who have never, in reality, existed, and I am so, so happy. 

Especially if there is not some brat behind me asking why there's a man dressed in a frock.
  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Can a Grope Ever Be Just a Grope?


When does a hug become a grope? 

Is a grope ever acceptable? 

Is it more acceptable for a woman to grope a man? 

Does groping a person in a more powerful position than yourself let you off the hook in terms of unacceptable behaviour? 

Can you be a gropee and a groper?
   
These, and any questions like them, have been occupying me in recent weeks as the furore (quite rightly) over the late Jimmy Savile’s abuse of young people has hit the headlines. Suddenly, however, it is not just a sexual abuser who is under the microscope, but media men in general, the latest being the historian Adam Hart-Davis, who, it is reported, was admonished by the BBC for “inappropriately” hugging a woman, who complained about his behaviour. He said his actions were misinterpreted.
   
In my younger days, I confess to having groped men in what, by today’s standards, would be considered inappropriate places. Some of those men worked for the BBC, many did not; interestingly (and this is only an observation), every man I ever groped received promotion shortly afterwards, a sign not, I believe, of my ability to influence, but my good taste in my choice of gropees (you know who you are).
   
I groped one prominent politician at a very senior BBC executive’s Christmas party. The man had that week been named as one of the sexiest politicians in Britain, so, in a bit of fun and in full view of everyone, including his wife, I grabbed him and made light of the survey. The following year, he arrived at the party and, out of view of other guests, put his hand up my skirt and groped me with some vigour. The executive wrote me a letter of apology, explaining that much as he tried to control his guests, he was not having much luck (a senior BBC female presenter had also tipped a glass of wine over someone’s head).
  
I confess to having been surprised at the nature of the grope, although I fully accept responsibility for it – what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and all that. But whereas my groping was always done in full view of everyone (it became a sort of fringe to the fringe at the annual Edinburgh TV festival), the politician had targeted me away from the crowd and, yes, it felt more invasive.
   
I cannot remember when I conducted my first unsolicited grope. I was not a promiscuous teenager – in fact, when my first boyfriend took me to Porthcawl fairground, my screams when his hand ventured near my top could be heard far above those of the people on the Helter Skelter; it was, perhaps, the strictness with which I was brought up about sex that led to a curiosity for and fascination with, exactly what it was that lurked so sinisterly in men’s trousers.
   
My first grope – definitely unsolicited – was with a schoolteacher, and that, maybe, is where it all began. I had no idea what my hand was being led towards, much less what I should do once it reached its destination, but the thrill of the unknown was perhaps what stayed with me.
   
Did I, the victim of a groper, become the gropee in the way that the abused often turn abusers in later life? Was I just having a laugh and, for the most part, not receiving a negative reaction to my behaviour (well, for the most part – Kevin Whately was a very unwilling victim), carry on because it was just a good way of breaking the ice with men?
   
Who knows. But the world has changed. My groping days – at least, in public places – are over; I am too old for such displays of affection, and also, today, I would probably be behind bars.
   
I am glad to have lived in the era of the innocent groper, though; and while I would not in any way condone anyone who abuses their position to gain any sexual favours, we have to remember that there was a time when sinister motives did not lie behind every overt (or covert) sexual expression.
   
Sometimes, a grope is just a grope.
  
  
  
   

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Salmanella Poisoning - and My Recovery


The BBC bills them as “Austerity protests”. 

What on Earth are they when they are at home? 

I am sitting in a bar where the TV is turned down and I am watching thousands of people with banners talking to anyone with a microphone who will stand still long enough to listen. All of them are grossly overweight, so whatever cuts they are protesting against, rest assured it’s not one to their food budget.
   
I confess to never having taken part in any kind of demonstration in my life. I once stood outside News International during the printers’ strike at Wapping, but that was only in the hope of bumping into a journalist with whom I was in love at the time. When I was at university, I also bought a Save the Miners badge, but that was only because I was in love with a philosophy lecturer, whom I knew to be a Marxist and thought my showing willing might prove an aphrodisiac (it didn’t – well, not until 15 years later, but that’s another story).
  
I’m not against marching per se; I admire people who will take to the streets on a wet weekend morning to shout about something they stand barely any chance of being able to influence. I like their passion and enthusiasm and marvel at their bad taste in clothes and footwear – it’s like Fraggle Rock taking to the streets.

It’s just not for me. I don’t like getting my hair wet (most demos take place in the rain), I don’t like being flat-footed because it draws attention to my five foot height (when Jimmy Choo brings out a Built for Demo sandal, I might change my mind), and I don’t like people shouting. I suffer very badly from misophonia – literally, a hatred of sound – and being engulfed by marauding complainers really is my idea of hell.
   
It’s not that I don’t have beliefs – but my excuse for not taking to the streets in my Wellingtons is that I’m a writer, and anything I have to say I put on paper and, hopefully, get into the marketplace through the printed word. But then many writers have been and still are far more pro-active than I could ever be.
   
Take Salman Rushdie. It was speaking out in print that got him into trouble in the first place, and it didn’t stop him. Me? I’d have keeled over without so much as a “Yes, yes, I renounce the evil ways of the West and where can I buy a burkha?”
  
I met Salman quite a few times when I first came to London in the early Eighties. At one point, we had the same agent, and I met him at a party, where he accused me of “rambling”. “Hah! That’s rich,” I responded. “Coming from a man whose books you can’t even read further than page 3.” I could smell his contempt.
   
When he was under cover following the “fatwa” declared upon him, you couldn’t go to any literary event without bumping into him. I knew his bodyguards better than I did my own family, and their appearance ahead of the “star” always alerted everyone to Salman’s arrival in ample time to muster up a battalion and prepare for attack.
   
One such occasion was a Jonathan Cape Christmas party. I am an ex-ballroom dancing champion and, seeing Salman standing morosely at the side of the dance floor, whisked him away for a jive. He must be dying for a dance, I reasoned. How he would love having a slice of normal life. Reader, he walked off the floor. Walked off the floor! From me! A champion dancer! He said I was not doing the jive to his liking.  
   
He was bloody lucky he had any sodding legs to do the jive, let alone any sodding jive according to his liking, I tried to argue, but it was to no avail.
   
So maybe it was my early Salmanella poisoning that bred in me an abhorrence of anything smacking of dissidence.
   
Or maybe it has more to do with my having been brought up with a terror of authority. Doctors, vicars, teachers, the police – I was brought up to believe that these people, my elders and people in a position of authority, were right about everything, and to cross them would cast me into the outer reaches of hell, never to return.
   
We now live in an age in which we know that many people in authority power abuse that power and that blind trust is . . . well, not to be trusted. I like to think I had good instincts when, on a youth course when I was just 13, I was not one of the youngsters who crowded around a creepy Jimmy Savile as he tried to ingratiate himself amongst us on our church youth club annual holiday.
   
So maybe I’ve just never liked being part of the crowd. Although, growing up, it was something I thought I craved, it is always something I have avoided, consciously or unconsciously. I am suspicious of mob mentality, banners and flat shoes marching in unison.   
   
Just give me my pen, my desk and the telly showing me fat, wet people, whose Wellington boots I am not fit to lick.
    


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Give Me Happywood!


When I was growing up, the little I knew about the movies was gleaned from the first books my parents passed down to me: several copies of F Maurice Speed’s Film Review. The red ones had gold lettering on their covers; the royal blue had pale blue.

I labeled the well-thumbed chronicles 9/- (for some strange reason, I priced everything I ever owned) and, in the one book that had no page numbers, I added those, too.
  
The cinema did not feature strongly in our lives, but these picture books brought alive worlds that seemed breathtakingly glamorous.

Deanna Durbin, Universal star, with Tarantula eyelashes, and lips matching the red roses pinned to her lace dress.

Six year old Margaret O’Brien, star of MGM’s Lost Angel, and who was a role model to those of us the same age who could only dream of stardom.

Bette Davis, posing gracefully, yet still sinister in her white fur, the caption billing her as a Warner star, whose 1947 releases included A Stolen Life and Deception.

Dozens of handsome men, who to me looked 70 but were probably no more than 25.

I feared for Ingrid Bergman, poisoned by Nazi spies and hoping that Cary Grant, leaning over her in the black and white photo, would rescue her.

And, most terrifying of all, Betty Hutton as Pearl White, tied to the railway track with the train inches away in Paramount’s The Perils of Pauline.

The book pointed out, “for the nervous reader”, that the train stopped “in the nick of time”. I remember the feeling of relief. And excitement.

This was another world, far away from Cardiff, the capital of Wales, where I was born.

A world fraught with danger, tears and laughter, the promise of a kiss.

And always, always, the happy ending.

A man who would rescue you, protect you and keep you safe from all the evils of the world that lurked beyond the hills of Hollywood. Those nine letters, high in the hills, that I felt I could touch in the red and blue, scuffed edged books and glossy pictures; the single word that told me no matter what, everything would be all right in the end.
  
And it was - at least, until I started to go to the movies for real.

My parents had always protected from the idea of death, especially when it came to animals. My mother protected me from the death of George the budgerigar by telling me that “He flew away to a hot country” and it took me months to get over the death of Horace the goldfish, who drowned (it’s a long, complicated story). So Ring of Bright Water was never going to be a walk in the park.

I had recently had my tenth birthday when the film opened in the Odeon in Newport, and it was my first cinema visit since Dad had taken me to see the Beatles in Help! when I was six. Five months before that, we had gone as a family to see The Sound of Music in Bournemouth. Then, we were staying in a Bed and Breakfast, where my brother had managed to open a bottle of junior aspirin and devour the sweet, orange tablets. He was rushed to hospital and, as a reward for his swift recovery, we were taken to the cinema.

I was not a naughty child and had too great a terror of authority to deviate, but two days later, back at home, I cut my bedroom curtains, just like Julie Andrews had done to make clothes for the von Trapp children (well, not “just like”; I did a two inch snip and felt like a child of the devil). I then got into trouble for playing the LP of the film eight times when left alone in the house one Saturday. By the time my parents returned, Auntie Muriel next door was at screaming point. My mother still reels with shock at the naughtiness of a child who hardly dared breathe without asking permission.

It says something about our times that (1) a child of ten could be left alone for the length of time it takes to listen to a musical eight times; and (2) that so innocent a film could induce such acts of rebelliousness in a child. After all, Pulp Fiction it was not.
  
Mum took me to see Ring of Bright Water on a wet Saturday afternoon, and it was a jolly enough tale until Mij very foolishly got himself in the way of some workmen who chopped him in two with an axe. I cried. I sobbed. So distressed was I, that Mum decided I was still not ready for the realities of rigor mortis.

So she comforted me by saying that it wasn’t Mij who died in the movie, but another otter: a cousin of Mij. A very, very distant cousin who had not even appeared in the movie. I stopped crying, smiled and ate my sherbet lemons.

In school the next day, Carol Lane said: “No, it was Mij who died.”
   
"Mum," I said, returning home from school, sobbing once more. "Did Mij really die?"
   
Mum thought it was time to come clean. "Yes, I'm afraid he did."
  
"So it wasn't Mij's cousin?"
  
"No, it was Mij."

Mij was dead. It came as a terrible shock.

I grieved not only for Mij but otters everywhere. With careless workmen like that around, the same plight probably awaited every poor creature who ventured out of the Ring of Bright Water for longer than ten seconds a day.

But how could it happen? This was the cinema, the place where everything turned out all right – wasn’t it?

I decided that I preferred a world in which Mij lived on and budgies had a knack of slipping locks. I didn’t want mysteriously vanishing birds and Carol Lane’s world, in which axes had a strange habit of chopping otters in half.

Now, as then, I want the perils of Pauline – but I need the assurance at the end of the movie that the train will stop, the axe will not fall.

I want the happy ending.

In movies, as in life.



Thursday, October 11, 2012

I'd Spit on His Grave - If He Still Had One (Savile update)


When I was 13, I went away with the church youth club to a summer camp. I was crazy about a boy called Brinley in the group, but he liked my friend Wendy. His friend, Chris, was 15, and considered something of a catch because of his staggering advanced years. But I was an innocent in the ways of the world and, when he kissed me, I think they heard my screams as far as Offa’s Dyke, which was at least 50 miles away.

On that trip, we were told that we would be honoured with a “celebrity” from the world of TV, and it was none other than Jimmy Savile. I don’t remember being hugely excited and commented to the course leaders that there were no seat-belts in his van, despite his having been the front face of “Clunk, click, every trip” –  designed to get people to wear seat-belts before they travelled. I asked then why someone who said one thing and acted the opposite should be believed about anything (yes, I was an argumentative teen).

I remember being on the floor in a circle and sitting next to Savile. He gave me the creeps; that much I remember very clearly. I remember telling the staff in charge of us and also my fellow youth club members that I didn’t like him. I was not one of the kids who asked for his autograph afterwards, and I recall asking many questions about why he was so popular when he seemed so unlikeable. I now like to think I had good instincts.

Fast-forward 20 years. A friend of mine is doing an hilarious impression of a conversation he had with the late and brilliant Anthony Burgess in a BBC dressing room, while being made up for a show. “Jimmy Savile, the most evil man in Britain. Goes the length and breadth of Britain in a sinister charabanc, sodomising children. The BBC have it all, have it all, done nothing with it,” Burgess is alleged to have said. Anyone who ever met the wonderful Burgess, knows that the quote just has to be true.
  
I was not surprised. Not only had there been stories circulating about Savile’s proclivity for young girls  - and boys - for years, there had always been rumours of a cover-up amongst those who employed him. Journalists I knew were always trying to pin the story down but, because of Savile’s charity work, they were, reportedly, always warned off.
  
A few years ago, I spoke to someone who was part of Savile’s entourage back in his Top of the Pops heyday and he said: “When he dies, it will all come out.” He went on to tell me that he had witnessed dozens of young girls in Savile’s company over many years, and yes, the relationships had been sexual.
  
You can only ask with wide-eyed incredulity today why no one spoke out sooner. The young people, I can understand: sexual abuse victims can often take decades to be able to speak of their ordeal. But why everyone else?
  
Reputation of a TV “god” at a time when TV was revered in a way it is not today, perhaps? The desire not to want to believe? The mistaken assumption that anyone involved in doing good works could not have a bad bone in their body?  Or, even more frighteningly, that there were people around Savile, including BBC employees, and possibly executives, who colluded in this hideous exploitation and abuse. Lord Patten has this week been vociferous in his determination to find out if this was the case.

I recall telling my mother of the rumours when I first became a journalist and her response was, as was that of so many others: “I don’t believe it; people lie for all sorts of reasons.” There were people who, last week, continued to defend the indefensible, on the grounds that the stories were "hearsay". I don’t think they are in any doubt now that we are not dealing with gossip; we are dealing with facts. And have been for several decades.
  
The jokes that surrounded the phrase “Jim’ll Fix It” ("Jim'll f**k it" was a well-worn take on it in media circles) went on for years in an industry that, yes, I believe, conspired in a cover-up, because this man was a cash cow not only for the Corporation that hired him, but the hospitals that needed the money he raised. How sad that it was raised on the vulnerability of so many others. And how despicable, how utterly despicable, that nobody blew the whistle when the man was alive to be punished for it.

And now he doesn’t even have a grave that we can spit on. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Jim Can't Fix This One

When I was 13, I went away with the church youth club to a summer camp. I was crazy about a boy called Brinley in the group, but he liked my friend Wendy. His friend, Chris, was 15, and considered something of a catch because of his staggering advanced years. But I was an innocent in the ways of the world and, when he kissed me, I think they heard my screams as far as Offa’s Dyke, which was at least 50 miles away.

On that trip, we were told that we would be honoured with a “celebrity” from the world of TV, and it was none other than Jimmy Savile. I don’t remember being hugely excited and commented to the course leaders that there were no seat-belts in his van, despite his having been the front face of “Clunk, click, every trip” –  designed to get people to wear seat-belts before they travelled. I asked then why someone who said one thing and acted the opposite should be believed about anything (yes, I was an argumentative teen).
 
I remember being on the floor in a circle and sitting next to Savile. He gave me the creeps; that much I remember very clearly. I remember telling the staff in charge of us and also my fellow youth club members that I didn’t like him. I was not one of the kids who asked for his autograph afterwards, and I recall asking many questions about why he was so popular when he seemed so unlikeable. I now like to think I had good instincts.

Fast-forward 20 years. A friend of mine is doing an hilarious impression of a conversation he overheard by the late and brilliant Anthony Burgess have in a dressing room, while being made up for a show. “Jimmy Savile, the most evil man in Britain. Goes the length and breadth of Britain in a sinister charabanc, sodomising children. The BBC have it all,” Burgess is alleged to have said. Anyone who ever met the wonderful, brilliant Burgess, just knows that it has to be true.
  
I was not surprised. Not only had there been stories circulating about Savile’s proclivity for young girls for years, there had always been rumours of a cover-up amongst those who employed him. Journalists I knew were always trying to pin the story down, but, because of Savile’s charity work, they were, reportedly, always warned off.
  
A few years ago, I spoke to someone who was part of Savile’s entourage back in his Top of the Pops heyday and he said: “When he dies, it will all come out.” He went on to tell me that he had witnessed dozens of young girls in Savile’s company over many years, and yes, the relationships had been sexual.
  
You can only ask with wide-eyed incredulity today why no one spoke out sooner. The girls, I can understand: sexual abuse victims can often take decades to be able to speak of their ordeal. But why everyone else?
  
Reputation of a TV “god” at a time when TV was revered in a way it is not today, perhaps? The desire not to want to believe? The mistaken assumption that anyone involved in doing good works could not have a bad bone in their body? 

 I recall telling my mother of the rumours when I first became a journalist and her response was, as was that of so many others: “I don’t believe it; people lie for all sorts of reasons.” Alas, there are still people who, this week, continue to defend the indefensible, on the grounds that the stories are "hearsay". No, they are not. They are facts. And have been for several decades.
  
The jokes that abounded around the phrase “Jim’ll Fix It” ("Jim'll f**k it" was a well-worn phrase in media circles) went on for years in an industry that, yes, I believe, conspired in a cover-up, because this man was a cash cow not only for the Corporation that hired him, but the hospitals that needed the money he raised. How sad that it was raised on the vulnerability of so many others. And how despicable, how utterly despicable, that nobody blew the whistle when the man was alive to be punished for it.