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The girl in front of me is about to cry, and I’m not really sure how to deal with this. It’s not often as a performer that what you do move people to tears (it’s certainly not often that what *I* do does) and I’m not sure of the protocol. Maybe I should have stuck to comedy…

Melmoth Darkleigh began his life as just as weird voice. When we were doing the In The Gloaming podcasts I wanted them to have a host, someone like Roald Dahl at the beginning of the early serieseses of Tales Of The Unexpected or the Cryptkeeper from Tales From The Crypt. He was a creepy voice and an excuse to some cackling over the theme tune every month. I can’t resist a good cackle.

The next year we were booked to perform the podcasts as a live show a few times, including in the delightfully spooky Arundel Jailhouse. In the couple of weeks before that show all of the cast dropped out. Some were busy, some were ill, some probably just didn’t feel like going to do a profit-share show in the wilds of the Downs. So, a couple of days before, when the last person got an advert, I was left with a couple of days to write a one-man In The Gloaming show. Which is where Melmoth crept in…

The show took the form of a kind of seance, where Melmoth would summon ghosts from the venue’s past. It was an excuse to wheel out a lot of dark, old character monologues, and hang then together with some new stuff. And the show did quite well, and I did it a few times over the next couple of years.

Magic was always a very minor part of the show. To add to the creepiness I always tried to have a couple of inexplicable moments in the show, to make it really unsettling. This ranged from a bit of cold reading to a Haunted Boggle, which would predict an audience member’s death. Usually ‘drowned whilst wanking.’

This year, however, I decided to raise the stakes. To see if I couldn’t really convince an audience that Melmoth had strange, occult powers. I started doing larger effects, and dropping the monologues. image

As I learned and studied more, however, about seances, NLP, hypnosis, mind reading, the occult, and all the other gubbins, a strange thing happened. I found that I had gone from being someone pretending to be a mind reader to actually being a mind reader.

I could reveal words people were thinking of that they had told no one, childhood memories, I could duplicate drawings they had done, and predict choices they were going to make. I became known in my local pub as ‘that weird guy who can read minds’. Which was an improvement on what they had called me before: ‘that weird guy.’

Melmoth would say that this only goes to prove the power of the dark and mysterious forces that surround us (the people of Nutfield and Merstham). I’m pretty sure it’s a combination of suggestion, framing, intuition, NLP, hypnotic language and some good, old-fashioned conjuring. Whichever of us is right, it has been a bizarre few months.

All of which will come to a head on Wednesday and Thursday. Why not come down and see what you think? It will definitely be a mind-f*cking, but I can also promise some mind-cuddles afterwards…

How could you?

These children will be this unhappy if you don't come

You may know that next Tuesday, April 17th, is the beginning of something *very* exciting. And by ‘very’ I mean ‘very, very’.

Next Tuesday sees the launch of the new, topical, character comedy night at The Vandella: Topical Cream.

Wait? What? Topical character comedy? Can such a thing even be done?

Oh, it can. This month and every month I shall be gathering the most intriguing, hilarious and bizarre weirdoes into one place to create an entirely new kind of comedy.

Yes, it’s topical comedy. No, it won’t simply be songs about how George Osborne has a stupid nose and drinks the blood of children. Although there will be songs.

It’s unlike anything you’ll have seen before, and it will leave you weeping hysterically, unable to move without medical assistance. You’ll laugh yourself in half.

And if that doesn’t convince you, here are ten more reasons.

  1. Time Out recommends that you come. It’s recommended by Time Out. Look, over on this page. The bit that says ‘recommended’? That means they recommend it.
  2. It’s a Tuesday. What else are you really going to do with a Tuesday? Really? No. Thought not.
  3. The line-up. We’ve got Ruth Bratt, Darren Strange, Sara Pascoe, Robin & Partridge, Hils Barker, John Voce & Michael Legge, Jake Yapp, David Trent, and Nadia Kamil.
  4. Oh, and ME!
  5. In future we’ve got Bridget Christie, Pippa Evans, Dan & Dan, Marcel Lucont, David Bussell, and many, many, many more.
  6. We are employing Professional Hecklers to make sure that any heckling that happens is of the highest possible quality. We are the only club in London to do this.
  7. The Vandella is lovely. It’s a brilliant venue, run by some lovely people. It’s comfy, quirky, and is definitely the place to be seen this summer.
  8. It’s musical, it’s odd, it’s got acts the like of which you won’t have seen before, all doing brand new material. It’s bleeding edge political comedy, and it’s where the new satire boom is going to happen.
  9. People will think you are cool when you can say that you saw all those people on the telly before they were famous.
  10. I love you and I miss you.

Book your tickets here.

First, read this…

Let’s call it Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. I wrote it in January 2011, and, I think we can all agree, it’s a fine example of the ‘mediocre sketch with vaguely interesting premise’ genre.

Now watch this:

You see? You see? And that, my friends, was put up on the Internet back in 2009.

Conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that the writing staff of That Mitchell And Webb Look are compulsive thieves who have developed time travel. The only feasibly explanation for this is that they roam the timestreams like multidimensional magpies, purloining comedic gems wherever they go.

Or, alternatively, it was a pretty obvious idea. And one that shows exactly why a lot of new writers spend far too long worrying about people stealing their ideas.

When two people have the same idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone stole it. And, in this case, it’s not just the idea, the execution is fairly similar: the setup is the same, both have a gag about crystals, and the patient ends up dead. Mine doesn’t have the second-scene coda which gives some nice context, but they’re similar enough that I felt an irrational pang of anger when I saw the Mitchell & Webb clip.

But I knew that was all it was, an irrational response. It took about four seconds for me to realise and fully accept that writers sometimes have the same ideas, especially comedy writers addressing the same topic.

I often think when I see the efforts people go to to send themselves scripts by registered post, register things with the Library of Congress, and only conditionally let producers see some of what they have written after they’ve signed an NDA, that this energy could have been better used, well, writing.

No one wants to steal your scripts.

No one reputable wants to steal your scripts. For the amount of hassle and legal trouble that will be caused if they do, it’s cheaper just to buy your script. That way, you’ll also be likely to offer them your next script. If someone thinks your writing is good, they will want to make it, and they will want to make other things you write (or at least be offered them, which is unlikely if you are embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership of a previous script).

Many people won’t read unsolicited scripts now because they worry about being accused of plagiarism in the future. Rather than protecting themselves, new writers are reducing the number of people who are willing to read what they’ve written.

Are there unscrupulous people focused on short-term gain in the movie and TV businesses? Almost certainly. Moreso in films, where anyone with a mobile phone and a table at a decent restaurant can call themselves a producer. But these people are very few and far between, and they are usually too busy ‘setting up deals’ to actually make a film in which they rip off someone’s idea. There are easier ways of getting someone to work for nothing than theft. Usually you can just ask them: “Will you work for nothing, giving up all rights to your work?”

However, most people are hard-working, creative, and desperate to turn good scripts into good programmes or movies. Without exception, the people I have worked with have had one goal: making the best things they can make with the resources they have.

And, besides…

Your ideas are not all that important.

Ideas are ten a penny. Everyone has an idea for a film. Everyone can have ideas. You don’t need a writer to come up with ideas.

You need a writer to write a film.

The idea has very little relevance to how good a film is going to be. Just look at all the straight-to-DVD ripoffs that come out every time there is a huge hit at the cinema. The ones with a business model that depends on the confusion of the buying public. “Avatard? Didn’t that get pretty good reviews?”

Look at Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Antz and A Bug’s Life. (What? I watched a lot of films in the 90s. What?) The fact that the premise is similar doesn’t make these films equally successful, either commercially or as films.

It’s all in the execution.

And sometimes even that comes out quite similarly. See above.

Time spent worrying about who is stealing your work is time you’re not spending working. If, contrary to all logic, there is someone out there desperate to steal the work of new writers and to pass it off as their own, paying money to ‘register’ your script won’t stop them doing it (In the UK, you hold the copyright on something you have written as soon as it is written. You do not need to register it).

In order to succeed you need to leave your house, meet people, and, most importantly, let them read your work. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, obscurity is a greater threat than being ripped off. You can’t protect yourself against everything. Especially not time-travelling thieves in the pay of two of Britain’s best-loved contemporary sketch performers. More’s the pity…

BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award

Image via Wikipedia

This is an elongated version of an article that originally appeared on The Spectator Arts Blog here.

Did you know that if you took your bowels and laid them end to end, you’d die? That joke works with practically any of the useless facts you were given about the human body as a child. Did you know that if you took off your skin and laid it out it would cover five tennis courts? And then you would die. If everyone in China stood on each other’s shoulders they would reach past the moon? And most of them would die. And life would go on in Midsomer completely unchanged.

There is, however, one substance, deep inside many of us that is inexhaustible. No matter how much you pull out of us, lay end to end, stretch across tennis courts, croquet pitches or badminton galleries, wind around the surface of Jupiter, or hurl, cackling, into the fiery bowels of the sun, there will still be more. Day after day, week after week it comes. That substance? Hatred of Richard Curtis.

No matter what his achievements, his international successes, his seemingly irredeemable niceness, all qualities we claim to value, almost everyone can be driven into a fizzing, supercilious foam by the mention of his name. Assailed from the left, scoffed at from the right, article after article after article appears, solely about how appalling Richard Curtis is.

I’m guilty of it myself. In an article I wrote for The Spectator last year I spent much of the middle section berating Mr Curtis, culminating in this particularly unpleasant couple of sentences:

“Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’ worst film. That’s Love, Actually.”

It’s all too cool and easy to join in the Curtis-bashing without thinking. Or even with thinking. With thinking and gleeful anticipation at all the horrid things you can say with impunity. And with writing yourself little notes in the middle of the night when you dream a particularly acidic putdown and don’t want to forget it before morning. I assume.

But all of the comedy I truly loved growing up had Richard Curtis’ hand in it. The first television programme I ever learned off by heart, imitating each and every one of the performers’ vocal tics, was Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. At school, we all knew it off by heart (when I say ‘all’ of us, I mean those of us not involved in the rugger, violence or sodomy cliques. Four of us).

We knew every series off by heart. And it introduced us to the hard stuff: A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, worlds that had seemed impenetrably adult before.

In the mid-nineties he was responsible for the teenage female population of Great Britain becoming infinitely more susceptible to awkward public school boys with unruly hair, when Four Weddings And A Funeral became a hit. My teenaged self is forever grateful. Many women now entering their mid-30s may well not be.

In fact, as the creator of so much of the comedy I devoured repeatedly during my formative years Richard Curtis is certainly responsible, at least in part, for the fact that I now make my living writing and performing comedy. That may be another black mark against him for many.

When I started writing the terrible student plays that terrible students write, I kept crossing out jokes, muttering ‘too Richard Curtis’. Now I just cross them out, muttering ‘too shit.’

How, then, did it reach this pass? How is Curtis-lambastation such an easy trope to fall into? How has Britain’s media become a trough of venom for one of the most successful figures our country had produced in the last century?

He has many of the virtues our right-wing media purport to hold dear. He’s a self-made man; and, although Harrow and The House don’t exactly smack of clawing one’s way up from the streets, he won a scholarship to Harrow, and his career has been marked by an quite boggling amount of work. Richard Curtis clearly works hard. Almost constantly.

And I think this is one of the things we hold against him. We’re lazy. We’re all lazy. Writers are crippled with the knowledge of all that time they’ve wasted checking emails, ‘doing research’, or playing Mineswee… rechecking emails. And when we catch a moment between wines for a quick snooze, we fall asleep haunted by the knowledge that somewhere Richard Curtis is writing something that millions of people will love, and that will lead to his having to build an extension to his bank.

Mr Curtis’ body of work is an indictment of every lazy one of us. Added to which, to a certain part of the right-wing commentariat, it’s probably just typical unpleasantness about a scholarship boy; every haughty reference to The Boat That Rocked a coded whisper about how Curtis has second-hand hockey kit.

He is also an incredible public fund-raiser. Funds that, much to the chagrin of the same cabal of tiresome proto-fascist foghorns, are freely given by people whose concerns are much the same as those of Richard Curtis: alleviating poverty in Britain and abroad with grass-roots projects.

It gives the lie to those libertarians (or, indulge me, ‘fibbertarians’) who claim that they don’t object to things being done for the poor in and of themselves, it’s just when they are done by governments that it’s also a problem for them when Richard Curtis does it. The fact that they are whipped into a steaming, broken, hate-froth by a man who spends a lot of his time organising charitable giving, bankrolled by his private income in the free market (where, incidentally, he’s pretty successful, too) just goes to indicate what decrepit, empty, noise-hoses they are, blaring hateful inanities until their eyes burst, or until Nanny turns down the topsheet. To be clear: they are against the Nanny State, not nannies

You’d think that if you wanted charitable giving to replace the welfare state you might at least take a polite interest in the activities of a man who has raised £630 million through Comic Relief (not counting his involvement in Live Aid or Live Eight). You might be a little intrigued by the way in which it operates on the Golden Pound principle, whereby none of the administrative costs of the organisation are paid for by donations, but rather through interest on money in the bank or corporate sponsorship.

If nothing else, Comic Relief took a grim, drab, wet, minor public school in the bumcrack of Surrey in the late 1980s, where most of the spring term was spent running between classrooms with books over your head to fend off the rain / hail / prefect urine, and offered the possibility that maybe, just for one day, the teachers might let you tell jokes, watch videos, do silly things to raise money. They never did, of course. Being slippered by a man in a plastic red nose is very similar to being slippered by a man without one, but it at least gave us hope.

We’re often told that the left ‘hate success’. They can’t bear it. They search around for anyone showing the slightest zest or entrepreneurial spirit, and then tear them down like a bunch of barely-motivated lions mauling a zebra. Or Richard Branson.

Very few Britons have been as internationally successful as Richard Curtis. It’s often a bit of hyperbole, but it actually would actually take too long to list all of his accomplishments here. His creations are beloved by the world: he co-created Mr Bean. He single-handedly invented a whole genre of films ‘the Britcom’. He’s Oscar-nominated and has a string of hits to his name. He came up with two long-running sitcoms. He hasn’t met a format in which he hasn’t had a huge success. He has exported a certain sort of British culture across the world, and had it embraced everywhere.

It isn’t the left who hate success. Dastardly from Wacky Races (or Stop The Pigeon if you’re a purist) hates success. As do people who write endless gloating articles about Richard Curtis’ perceived failings.

And how can we hate Richard Curtis? He’s so nice. So absolutely, irredeemably, bastardly fucking nice. He’s polite, unfailingly respectful (in public at least) of those around him, gathers talented people and gets excellent work out of them, for free. He’s a national treasure. What is there to get so upset about?

Four things keep coming up.

I’d probably best address the one I played on in the article I wrote: that he seems to have a tin ear for emotion, that he seems not to distinguish between real, earned emotion and cheap sentiment. I was first troubled by this in the infamous “we actually are expected to entertain, even for a beat, the fact that Julia Roberts’ stardom is more of a burden than Gina McKee’s not-having-any-legs and not-being-able-to-have-children” pastry distribution scene in Notting Hill.

To me, this made Love, Actually unwatchable actually (have a look at the other article for some of my specific problems with it), but, you know what? Curtis straddles the line between emotion and sentiment, and the exact position of that line is different for all of us. For some of my friends “Oh, is it raining? I hadn’t noticed…” is intolerable, but I relax into it with an enjoyable mental squelch.

Millions upon millions of people disagree with me about Love, Actually. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m emotionally deficient. Or maybe it’s all right when people disagree about films. And when he gets it right, he gets it exactly right, as he did at the end of his episode of Doctor Who last year.

The second recurrent criticism is just a vague sort of dislike-by-association, because people have him linked quite closely in their minds with Tony Blair and the late 1990s. I don’t see any real evidence for this, although the years of Curtis’ greatest success and prominence as an international figure were also those of the rise of New Labour.

I think Mr Curtis made his feelings pretty clear about Tony Blair in Love, Actually, and that we should bear in mind that one of them two of them holidays with murderers, dictators, alleged hirers of child prostitutes, and seems unable to distinguish between ‘morality’ and ‘venality’; and the other makes funny films and raises money for the poor.

Another criticism is that he is ‘too political’, something you won’t hear those same commentators saying about Rupert Murdoch. When these fibbertarians spend their time bemoaning the way a private individual chooses to give their time to causes they support, you really have to question their commitment to the principles they claim to espouse.

Their problem, of course, is not that he is too political. I’m sure, if pressed, they would concede that he’s entitled to be exactly as political as he wants. They are merely concerned that he is too good at being political, at achieving things and publicising the causes about which he cares. They remember The Vicar Of Dibley.

hat sitcom took a highly contentious issue (about which some of the pepole who so rail against Mr Curtis probably wish we were still arguing now) and showed its absurdity with some delightful casting and a dopey sidekick. He healed the rifts in the General Synod with a Christmas episode about having to eat lots of dinners. And he did it with a warm heart, jokes about words that sound funny, people who don’t understand things, and without ever stooping to the level of his detractors. (Yeah, me! Take that!)

His concerns are close to those of the general public, which is why when Richard Curtis decides the Robin Hood tax is a good thing, the aim of the bankers’ arm of the right-wing commentariat (which is all of the right-wing commentariat) suddenly becomes to destroy Curtis himself. The flying donkeys have been unleashed, beware a torrent of horse-manure.

The last criticism I have heard a lot is that Richard Curtis’ best work is behind him. To which my response is: And?

John Cleese’s best work is behind him, Woody Allen’s best work is behind him, but that is no criticism. When you have left behind things as glorious as they have, you can keep trying on the offchance. When even your relative misses far exceed most other people’s hits, it’s not a terrible thing to not be on your personal top form.

In conjunction with Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis also gave us something that is, I think, more valuable the whole Britcom genre. I call it the Comic Rallentando of Airy Passages. Or CRAP. This is something you’ll see a lot in the more florid passages of dialogue in Blackadder, or whenever there’s a particularly delightful mental image to savour, Rowan Atkinson slows down as he approaches the end of the sentence, and the silly word (ideally a monosyllable) that completes… it.

Atkinson’s eyes roll around the whole room before giving that last word. Often ‘pebble’, or ‘plinth’, or ‘Bob.’

I found myself using the other day with the word ‘glans’. I hadn’t realised when writing it, but as I mouthed that ‘glans’ in front of a room full of people I couldn’t help but think of Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, rolling their plosives around in public.

That’s just one of the rhythms they gave us. When he worked with Rowan Atkinson, we had the joy of seeing someone delighting in writing word for someone who delighted in saying them. Every labial, oily crevice of a word would be exposed. Richard Curtis gave us a comedy in which language wasn’t funny because it had a second meaning, or because it revealed character, but because it was funny to say.

I have problems with some of Richard Curtis’ films, I do think he sometimes takes the easy option for his characters and stories, but he has given us new modes and rhythms of comedy. He wrote the comedy language that a lot of us learned as we grew up. He’s a dominant international figure, an ambassador for Britain, has a phenomenal body of work, and he has added to the lexicon of British comedy, changing it for the better.

Comic Relief is his crowning achievement, a unique testament to the man’s passions and achievements and one that engages all sorts of people across the country to do naff, unsophisticated things because it makes them laugh. Once every two years, Richard Curtis gives us an opportunity to change the world in small, tangible ways and to revel in laughter.

And nothing makes cold hearts sicker than knowing not only is the country laughing, but the country’s giving at the same time.

Oh, and for the record? Bernard And The Genie was excellent. I watched it so often I wore my videotape out. It should be on every Christmas, everywhere. And this Friday, I’ll be watching to see what new things he has come up with to entertain, amuse, and to save lives across the world*.

I’m putting money into Richard Curtis’ pot. I suggest you do, too. And then I’m punching myself in the face for contributing to the torrent of bile that washes over him, and doesn’t seem to have the slightest effect.

Did you know that if you took all of the venom spewed by all of the commentators and put it into a swimming pool, then you’d die. Both because there’s loads and you’d die of old age, but also because venom is… venomous and you shouldn’t even be in the pool in the first place, and… Oh, Richard Curtis is great. Give money to Comic Relief.

The End.

(*This is a fib. This Friday I’ll be at a gig. But I’ll watch it when I get in.)

This article was first published on the Spectator Arts Blog on the 22nd November, 2010.
I am a crazed demon. That’s right, you heard: a crazed demon. A journalist on a national newspaper says so.

And how do I manifest how crazed and demoniac I am? Do I roam the streets gobbling up children, waving my withered, sulphurous genitals, and committing small but necessary acts of petty vandalism? No. Do I reside inside the head of a young girl forcing her to utter profanities and spew forth a violently-green combination of bile and Cheestrings? No. Do I believe that hospitalised, pregnant women should be shackled in case they feel like running off? No

(Incidentally, Anne Widdecombe has proven the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. In her case: sleeping…)

No, I believe that we should treat jokes as, you know, jokes. Unfunny, distasteful, worthless they may be, but jokes they remain.

And, so, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I am a ‘crazed demon’.

This afternoon, we will learn if Paul Chambers, he of the #twitterjoketrial, is going to attempt to have his conviction overturned in the High Court, or whether he has decided to draw a line under the whole affair. Whilst part of me hopes that he decides to do everything he can to overturn his conviction, to correct in court some of the damage done both to him and to the concept of free speech in this country, I shall understand if he chooses to cut his losses.

Paul Chambers has lost two jobs, and been fined £3,000 because he used figurative language to express himself to his friends the way millions of us do every day. The problem was, he did it on Twitter.

For those not familiar with the case, there is a great summary of the events that led up to today from blogger Jack Of Kent (who is now providing pro bono legal advice to Mr Chambers), here. In essence, Mr Chambers was convicted for having, on learning that Doncatser Airport was closed because of snow, sent a tweet that read: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

What should perhaps be most worrying to us, is the assertion of the security services that they cannot distinguish between a flippant remark made to friends, and a serious threat to an airport. The people we trust to deal with the threats of terrorism cannot distinguish between a threat of terrorism, and hyperbole.

Would we trust a dentist who finds it difficult to distinguish between evidence of tooth decay and the music of the Ramones? Would we feel safe in the hands of a surgeon who, just as we go under, says, “Looking at your X-rays you’ve either got a massive tumour or a Ford Capri lodged in your thorax. I’ll fill you with car polish, just to be on the safe side”? Our air traffic controllers hopefully don’t sit, staring at their monitors with a baffled look, going “What are all these crazy moving dots? Obviously some are planes, but what are the others? Poptarts? Angels? The original line-up of Simply Red? We just have no way of knowing!”

Do they really think that terrorists give ‘a week and a bit’s’ warning of their intention to blow up an airport? Does the list of demands usually come down to ‘getting your shit together’? Assuming, of course, that their shit hadn’t been got together, the airport would have been empty, still closed by bad weather; is it usual for terrorists to threaten empty buildings?

No. They don’t do any of those things, and the police and the CPS and the security services know it.

The key point is that, knowing that they would not be able to prosecute Mr Chambers under existing bomb threat or bomb hoax legislation, the CPS discovered s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Mr Chambers was not on trial for having issued a credible threat, but for having sent a ‘menacing’ message over a public network.

Had Mr Chambers said the same thing on stage at a comedy gig, he would have had no case to answer. Had he written in in a newspaper or blog (as Charlie Brooker excellently points out here) he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it to his friends in the pub he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it on Mock The WeekThe Now Show, or Have I Got News For You he would have had no case to answer. Paul Chambers has a criminal record because he assumed that the rules of public discourse were the same on Twitter as they were in the rest of the country. He was wrong.

Twitter is a strange service. It feels more private than it is. Even though Mr Chambers only had around 690 followers at the time, all of whom were familiar with the ways in which he tweeted, his tweet was publicly visible if you searched for it. Whilst it was intended for the eyes of his friends, it was open to the scrutiny of the world. The District Judge the first time the case was heard suggested that the result would have been different if Mr Chambers had made his comment as an @-reply rather than as a comment on his general timeline.

In 2010, that’s the difference between being a menacing criminal, and someone joking with friends: @

Still, it’s just an isolated and unfortunate example, isn’t it? Except that, ten days ago, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham was arrested under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 for tweeting: “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”

On the face of it, that’s a particularly unpleasant thing to say about a Muslim woman. However, he didn’t just tweet that. At the end of the tweet was the hashtag ‘#R5L’, indicating that this was a response to his listening to Radio Five Live. Ms Alibhai-Brown was on Radio Five Live at the time, arguing that (I understand, I have not heard the original segment) the fact that women were stoned to death in a country didn’t give us an imprimatur to invade. After all, she argued, the hands of The West are hardly morally spotless.

Mr Compton’s comment above, then, in context, becomes a spirited response from someone engaging her arguments, rather than a personal threat. The thrust is that Ms Alibhai-Brown can only be so dismissive of stoning women because she lives in a culture that doesn’t stone women. It’s common right-wing pablum – You’re only allowed your liberal lefty opinions because you live in a civilised country, civilised at least in part because there were people willing to bomb Dresden for that privilege – dressed up in a pithy way for the 140-character audience.

It’s not an incitement to stone to death a leading light of the commenterati. Not, that is, until you strip it of all context, of all meaning, and presume to be able to deduce intent from its literal meaning.

The British public prides itself on its sense of humour. The British establishment is apparently unable to spot a joke when it sees one, even when that joke comes with a helpful hashtag explaining what it is in reference to.

The Daily Mail (and one week I really will go through a whole article without mentioning them) recently ran a story suggesting that gingerbread men were being advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ in Lancashire schools (there’s a good rundown of the story at Five Chinese Crackers) because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Of course, what had actually happened was that someone, playing on a sense of ‘PC-gone-mad’ wrote the menus with a joke in.

You can tell it’s a joke because they were advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ and not ‘gingerbread people’. It’s (moderately) funny. Or a threat to our great British way of life. Whatever.

I suspect that we’re losing our sense of humour because the culture of the last ten years, has been deliberately humourless. We used to be able to distinguish figurative language from literal. No one really expected Denis Healey to go around grabbing rich people and squeezing them until the pips squeaked. Where would that have left the Queen, who, as a woman, doesn’t even have pips? No, the thought of Denis Healey grasping Her Royal Highness in a half nelson, wrestling her to the floor, and compressing her ribcage in the hopes of hearing things she didn’t have make a noise they wouldn’t make never occurred to anyone. Until just now.

This is the age of ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists.’ There is no room for nuance, and those who seek distinctions between what similar things actually mean, those who question whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party were actually comparable, those who look for subtleties are helping the enemy. We are at war with monstrous theocrats and that is all ye need to know.

Everything must be judged in the simplest possible terms. To admit doubt, to suggest that meaning varies based on context is a heresy. The world is divided into good people and evil people, and to see shades of grey is giving the evil people a free pass.

A lot of comments on the Paul Chambers case have stated variations on the fact that ‘in the current security climate’ you shouldn’t even risk making jokes, or speaking figuratively about terrorism. Which would make a little more sense if they were saying it on July 8th 2005. They’re not. And we should ask when ‘the current climate’ is likely to end. There has been a half a decade since the last successful terrorist attack on mainland Britain. When are we allowed to tell jokes about it again?

Between 1982 and 1996, there were nine bombs in mainland Britain, set off by variants on the IRA. Why must we feel more threatened now, why should we curtail our liberties more now than we ever did then?

Do these commenters actually believe that Messrs Chambers and Compton were actually threatening anyone? On the whole, no, but they believe that the state has a duty to punish ‘silly’ behaviour, just to show it is serious about keeping us safe. We like to see examples made of people who aren’t taking the whole thing seriously because we are afraid. We like the police to step in when someone says something that upsets us.

Christianity used to be offered specific protections under the blasphemy laws. To correct that egregious state of affairs, did New Labour get rid of the blasphemy laws? No. It introduced the Religious Hatred Act 2006, which put all other religions on the same legal footing. Now all religions, even Jedi, which is recognised as an ‘emerging religion’ following a concerted campaign in the 2001 census, are offered the same protection against people saying things they don’t like. If I foment hatred against the Jedi, I am committing a crime. Even if I am a Sith, and mandated to hunt the Jedi across the galaxy and exterminate them by my religious beliefs.

We have become a nation of Ayatollahs, howling for state reprisals every time someone says something we think we don’t like. We are just as happy to see the world in black and white. We are just as happy to rip things out of context, and present them (sometimes with extra things added, like they did to the Danish cartoons) as things that are insupportable.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Mr Compton, but still opines that those of us who think that s.127 (designed originally to protect female telephone operators from menacing phone calls in the 1930s) and its application in the last few months have been an affront to civilised society are ‘crazed demons’.

Of course, if doesn’t matter that she isn’t pressing charges, as it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not there is a case to answer. It’s not reliant on her. Mr Compton may still face trial, but Ms Alibhai-Brown has at least had the good grace to wash her hands of it.

(This sort of not-quite-liberal liberalism was again on display with Ed Balls this week. He was cheered on by various left-wing bloggers as “accepting the importance of civil liberties” while still arguing that the state should be able to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. If he actually accepted the importance of civil liberties he should be suggesting that it should be 0 days.)

We are in a fight with a murderous ideology that wants to curtail our way of life and strip humanity of any joy and colour and subversion and humour. In fact, we are in a fight with two: Islamism and neoconservatism.

Benjamin Franklin said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We’re doing something far worse. We’re giving up our sense of humour.

Update – News has just come through Paul Chambers will be challenging his conviction in the High Court. He’s making a stand for free speech for which we can all be grateful. And what’s the best way to express gratitude? Money. Lots of money. He will need another £10,000 to pay the legal fees for the appeal.

To contribute to the fighting fund, if you feel inclined, please donate here

And a lamp

The Parsec Award for Best New Podcaster 2010

In The Gloaming just won the Parsec Award for Best New Podcaster 2010. The live show we did in Arundel also got excellent reviews last month. So, I’ll be performing it again as part of Theatre Souk tonight and tomorrow.

Theatre Souk is an innovative ‘pay-what-you-want’ set of shows and cabaret acts at Theatre Delicatessen (nr Bond St), so you only pay for what you like. I may well go home empty-handed… Anyway, if you’d like to come I’d love to see you there. I’ve got a couple of free tickets for each night, email me if you’d like them.

Since writing a blog post about those film-makers who were happy to see the back of the Film Council, I’ve had a couple of debates with people who thought that I supported the closure of the UKFC. To make it clear, I’ll repeat what I said in that post:

So, whilst I have sympathy with those who say that the Film Council was exclusive and a force that stifled the industry; whilst I agree that the slate of films produced since 1999 is, apart from those of Andrea Arnold, staggeringly mediocre (compared to the exuberance of the 1990s); whilst I agree that the enormous sums spent on salaries and offices don’t seem like the best use of limited resources, and that way in which the Digital Screen Network was implemented was a scandal, I’m not whooping with delight to see the back of the Film Council. It was an ideological move, the implications of which have not been thought through, and that could potentially be devastating for inward investment if that work is not maintained. [emphasis mine. Well, obviously, I wrote it the first time too, but, you know...]

I think that the UKFC has been a moderate success in promoting Britain as a centre for production for Hollywood films. I think it has been a relative failure in promoting a self-sustaining British film industry outside that template.

Today, news has emerged in The Independent that Ed Vaizey, stung by the high-profile defences of the UKFC, the 5,000 people on Facebook who want to save it, and the 25,000 signatures on a petition to that effect, has called members of the Film Council in to demand an explanation. In Vaizey’s world, these people only hold these opinions because the UKFC told them  to.

In the Fantasy Land of Ed Vaizey, Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood have nothing better to do with their days than to get involved in funding disputes in foreign countries that will not affect them one way or the other. In the FLoEV people think that the UKFC is symbolic of the British film industry as a whole because they are wilfully being misled by radicals like Bill Nighy rather than the fact that that’s exactly what it was set up to do. It was meant to be the visible face of the British film industry, your one-stop shop for film in Britain. The fact that people think it is tends to suggest that it was quite effective in at least one way…

Mr Vaizey’s letter seems to be most infuriated by the fact that the UKFC claim that they are actually doing a good job: “It looks as though sources at the Film Council have been overzealously briefing in order to protect their interests. As a result they may be damaging the film industry that they purport to represent.”

Yes, in the Fantasy Land of Ed Vaizey, a Film Council that said: “Actually, you’re right. We’re pretty incompetent. We were going to fund a good film once, but the script got lost in the aftermath of one of our larger money-fights. John Woodward had just copped a bunch of £20 notes in the eye, and may have shredded it out of pique.” That would be better for the film industry than having an organisation that champions its own work, when its major role has been to champion its own work around the world.

And the height of the flatulent, pompous imbecility that furnishes much of the Fantasy Land of Ed Vaizey is the idea that summoning the UKFC to his offices, like a headmaster who has just found an exercise book of ribald limericks in the boy’s showers, and telling The Independent all about it will, in some way, not make him look like a massive twonk. If this sort of thing doesn’t stop, he will be keeping the whole British film industry in after school. There will be no tax breaks for anyone, if you can’t behave. It’s your own time you’re wasting…

Perhaps he would like to interview the UKFC about their poor value for money whilst sitting on the £467 sofa he tried to make to taxpayer foot the bill for, sipping quietly from a nice glass of red balanced on his £607 table.

The most unnerving thing, however, isn’t the unnecessary and juvenile macho posturing, but the fact that this doesn’t seem to have been anticipated. Although the DCMS has claimed that there will be £3 million more invested in British films, and that the inward investment tax break will continue, they haven’t explained how this is to work at all, and it appears that they haven’t explained it because they just don’t know.

Generally muttering something vague about the BFI is not going to satisfy people that this isn’t politically motivated, or that the DCMS has given it any real thought. The fact that it was done without consultation as a testosterone-fuelled sop to the more frothing Tory commentators only makes it look worse. The people of Britain cherish the illusion that they have a film industry and the UKFC is a large part of that illusion, as it was designed to be. The DCMS may as well have oiled themselves up, dragged Richard Curtis into a gym and beaten him bloody with dumbells.

We’re told that the inward investment will continue, but we were told that immediate government cuts on the scale we have seen would cause a double-dip recession. We were told that the NHS was safe in your hands. We were told that the we would regain ‘a sense of decency and liberty’ when dealing with migrants.

The reason people are still worried despite your protestations, is that they don’t believe you. Your protestations have, on the whole, turned out to be, for want of a better word, arse-dribble. From the need to raise VAT to nuclear power stations, statements made by any member of the coalition government have turned out to be the worst sort of guffluent, excused by ‘the structural deficit we could not possibly have known about’. Apart from by looking at the budget in any one of the last 13 years.

When any department makes any commitment to future spending, we must assume that the minister responsible is crossing their fingers behind their back, when they’re not actively chuckling behind their well-manicured hands.

It’s not the UKFC’s briefings that make us fear for the future of the British film industry, Mr Vaizey, it’s you.

Everyone wants to save the Film Council. Mike Leigh wants to save the Film Council; Hannibal from The A-Team wants to save the Film Council; 42,000 people on Facebook want to save the Film Council. Everyone wants to save the Film Council. Even Clint Eastwood, who eats financiers for breakfast and cleans his teeth with the sharpened bones of distributors, wants to save the Film Council.

Say what?

When a self-proclaimed libertarian like Clint Eastwood is arguing that you should keep a government body to subsidise a product that competes with the one he is producing, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at what’s actually going on. And that’s when you discover that not everyone wants to save the Film Council.

There is a small group of film-makers – mostly independent, mostly young – who don’t want to save the Film Council. Not at all. In fact, you get the feeling they’d quite happily burn the Film Council to the ground, and dance in the ashes.

They’re making quite a compelling case that the UK Film Council was simply a way of subsidising the production and distribution of Hollywood films in Britain. Which is exactly the same point Clint Eastwood made.

Chris Atkins, director of Taking Liberties, is one of the more visible members of this relatively-small ‘movement‘ (the ‘Get Rid of the Film Council’ group on Facebook has 123 members), but other prominent supporters of the UKFC’s closure are Alex Cox and Jonathan Gems (screenwriter of Mars Attacks and 1984).

These filmmakers point to the £200,000 given to Warner Bros to help with print and poster campaigns for their movies, as well as the £140,000 given to Disney in 2006. They point to the £144,000 given to distribute U2-3D and the £154,000 to She’s All Right, and wonder why the taxpayer is subsidising what are essentially extended marketing campaigns for millionaire rock stars.

They point to the Digital Screens Network, which, when it was announced in 2004, was meant to spend £14 million in putting digital projectors in 200 cinemas in Britain, so that smaller films could be distributed cheaply on hard drives, rather than having to get celluloid prints produced. However, rather than ensuring an open system, the UKFC caved to the ‘anti-piracy’ lobby, who insisted that these hard drives be encoded in a unique way. A unique way that is only done by one company in Britain, and which costs £5,000.

The cinemas also took this opportunity to put the digital projectors on their main screens, rather than their smaller screens. So, now the digital screens are used to cheaply distribute CGI animations on big screens, and are utterly inaccessible to independent film-makers, who still have to shell out for prints to be distributed to cinemas.

For EXAM, Stuart Hazeldine was offered 25 screens if he could afford prints for all of them (he tells the story in the comments section of this post). He couldn’t and the UKFC didn’t help. The film ended up opening on 8 screens. As he says: “I got a BAFTA nom for a film nobody saw.”

In some ways this seems to stem from an objection to one of the UKFC’s roles, what it liked to call ‘inward investment’. This was ensuring that Hollywood production money was spent in Britain’s studios, edit suites, and quaint villages. If you see this as the UKFC’s primary function, then it has arguably been a huge success (although the current financial troubles of Pinewood-Shepperton, and it’s failure to get planning permission for its large expansion suggest that the UKFC could have done more here, too).

Some, however, see using Britain as a ‘production house’ for Hollywood films, where all of the returns go back to studios in the US (like the Harry Potter or James Bond franchises) actually stifles any chance of having a British film industry. Jonathan Gems is quite persuasive in arguing that what the UKFC understood as British films weren’t, in a lot of cases, British in any meaningful sense (although his unfortunate choice of last line moves firmly into Little Englander, Blimp-esque territory).

Myself, I instinctively felt the old, hot ball of rage swell within me when the closure of the Film Council was announced. Like any right-thinking, left-leaning arts practitioner, it was quite heartening to feel the Dragon of Horror At Things The Tories Do stir within the cave where he’s slept since 1997. His replacement, the Impotent, Hoarse Donkey of New Labour Betrayal was never quite the same…

However, I’ve long argued that we should stop subsidising production, and, instead, spend that money subsidising distribution. I believe that the problem with attracting private investors is mainly because it’s so difficult to get a film into cinemas. If it were cheap and easy for a film to be shown on digital screens, and distributed on hard drives, and there were a financial incentive for a cinema to show local films, then it would be much easier to raise the funds for productions. The way to kickstart the industry is to give private investors a (high-risk) way of making a serious return on their investment, rather than ensuring that they will have to sell their film to a US- or French-owned studio in order to get it into cinemas.

So I am sympathetic to those who see the demise of the UKFC as an opportunity for a real and basic change in the way the British ‘film industry’ works. However, I don’t share their optimism.

The government is not attempting a major rethink of its strategy with regard to the way in which films are produced and distributed in this country. It became quite clear in the day following the announcement that they hadn’t even thought very hard about what was to replace the Film Council. It probably made Jeremy Hunt look quite good in Cabinet the next morning. Maybe he got to carry David Cameron’s books for him. It was a piece of macho posturing from a deeply unimpressive man; as if someone had cast Charles Hawtrey in The Expendables (although that’s about the only thing that could induce me to go and see it).

So, whilst I have sympathy with those who say that the Film Council was exclusive and a force that stifled the industry; whilst I agree that the slate of films produced since 1999 is, apart from those of Andrea Arnold, staggeringly mediocre (compared to the exuberance of the 1990s); whilst I agree that the enormous sums spent on salaries and offices don’t seem like the best use of limited resources, and that way in which the Digital Screen Network was implemented was a scandal, I’m not whooping with delight to see the back of the Film Council. It was an ideological move, the implications of which have not been thought through, and that could potentially be devastating for inward investment if that work is not maintained.

The UKFC was a flawed, in many ways unhelpful, organisation that it should not be difficult to replace with something better. Unfortunately, it looks like not much attention has been paid to replacing it at all.

And, besides, do you want to argue with Clint Eastwood?

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