Nae man can tether time nae tide

I don’t remember which came first, Doctor Who on television or Doctor Who in print. I can say with certainty that the weekend when I stayed the night at my best friend Matthew’s house and he showed me Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD and parts two to four of Remembrance of the Daleks had a destiny-shattering effect on the rest of my life, propelling me into a future of scrawled cartoon Daleks, obsessive reading and cataloguing of fact and fiction, followed by a VHS then DVD and now slightly more cautious blu-ray habit. Nothing serious, you understand: just standard fan stuff. It was bound to happen eventually.

But the books follow a slightly different timeline. They held an appeal for the same reason as the Nicholas Fisk books I devoured: evocative titles matched with evocative images. For all the idiomatic urging not to judge books by their covers, when I was growing up I absolutely did. Still do, truth be told. As has every child I have ever taught. Publishers, get your covers right.

There was an entire children’s Waterstones in Bath where my Grandparents lived – an entire shop full of children’s books – and one of its biggest delights was a whole shelf devoted to the colourful Target series, a universe of stories to explore. On each of our many visits I would hover there for what felt like hours dipping into the treasures on display. I read whole stories there. If you bought your Doctor Who books in Bath and found they were often a bit grubby… well, sorry, that might have been me.

The Underwater Menace – one of a batch of Target novelisations I was bought for Christmas last year – was not one of these, because The Underwater Menace was a Doctor Who book owned by my school library. The only Doctor Who book owned by my school library. So although it might not have been my first Doctor Who book, it was one of the first Doctor Who books I read in the comfort of my own home (the first or second, in fact; the other was Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks, the grey hardback of which my local library held – oh, those line drawings! The description of the endless TARDIS corridors! The glass Dalek!).

It must, however, have been after that life-changing experience of Doctor Who on television, because I remember this: when I read The Underwater Menace, I attempted to read it as a story featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Quite how long I managed to keep this up for I don’t know; I think it might have been quite stressful, not so much imagining Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in place of Patrick Troughton’s (not the hugest leap) but somehow turning 60s dolly bird Polly, who in this story is particularly (and uncharacteristically) pathetic, into baseball bat-wielding Ace.

Polly was the only candidate for this treatment: Ben made so little impact I had forgotten he was even in this story until I eventually saw in on video (and even then, he rather fades into the background, possibly because half of his lines have been hastily given to Frazer Hines). And there was no way I’d have tried to turn companion Jamie into Ace, because I was VERY happy to add Jamie to the Seventh Doctor’s crew.

I don’t know why Jamie made such an impact (and having reread this tome, I remain a little baffled). But he did. My pictures of the Seventh Doctor and Ace were immediately and anachronistically joined by the character of Jamie, my ideal TARDIS crew. Which was especially interesting because I had no idea what he had looked like on television. It didn’t matter: I could imagine, and The Underwater Menace put a clear idea of his appearance in my head.

He was a white-haired old man with a fluffy moustache in a kilt and a tam o’shanter.

On picking up this book after all these years, I was curious to see what could possibly account for this – was it possible that Nigel Robinson could be blamed for such a misconception? Well… yes and no. Certainly Jamie’s wide-eyed 18thcentury bewilderment, usually expressed in a colourful vernacular, has more than a little Private Frazer about it. I probably gave him a fluffy moustache because, even though in real life absolutely none of the old men I knew had a fluffy moustaches, in my imagination old men without exception had a fluffy moustache. I blame children’s television.

What I had failed to take note of was a single adjective in the book’s second sentence: ‘It was the only explanation the young Scottish piper could think of’. I picked up his nationality without mishap (I pictured him with a kilt, a detail that I’m pretty sure Nigel Robinson never bothers to fill in). I expect his musical ability didn’t pass unnoticed either (I pictured him with a tam o’shanter, the obligatory uniform of anyone who players the bagpipes – again, I blame children’s television). But thanks to my failure to pick up on his third characteristic, Jamie ended up an old man with a fluffy moustache, and by the time Robinson next mentioned his age the damage was presumably done, picturing-things-in-my-head-wise. This was an adventure featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and an old man with a fluffy white moustache wearing a kilt and a tam o’shanter.

A jolly good adventure I thought it was, too. My subsequent drawings of my portmanteau TARDIS crew attest to that. Reading the book now, its appeal is obvious: it rattles along, Nigel Robinson sticking very much to the Terrance Dicks formula for Target novelisations, and there’s plenty of jeopardy along the way. In fact, it is rather more convincing as a book than it is on television, the idea of the underwater society with its ancient religion continuing uneasily alongside new technology pretty compellingly sold, and the sillier details (‘we turn people into fish so that they can bring us plankton!’) sensibly skirted over. Unfortunately, Robinson can’t skirt over the central plot point that the villain is a man who wants to blow up the world JUST BECAUSE. In a way it’s a pity he doesn’t resign himself more fully and have some fun with this; he’s knowing enough to use the quote ‘Nothing In The World Can Stop Me Now!’ as a chapter title, but I can’t help feeling that a more offbeat narrative approach, like those in the three sublime novelisations Donald Cotton wrote around the same time, would have sold this B-movie stuff rather more effectively.

Not that it bothered me at the time – it is only with adulthood that we fans decide that things like character motivation and scientific plausibility have some part to play in adventures as well as high jinks and derring-do – and even in the absence of those, there is something very modern about the template for this story. The Doctor, an agent of chaos, enters a situation and within 24 hours sparks a rebellion and overturns a regime. Take away the madman trying to blow up the world and you’ve basically got a Cartmel-era archetype right there. Actually, replace the madman with Kate O’Mara and I think we might have found a doppelganger.

So perhaps it wasn’t so inappropriate to try to squeeze the Seventh Doctor and Ace into this scenario after all. The perfect team to take on this kind of fodder, with the aid, lest we forget, of at least one young fan’s favourite moustachioed octogenarian Scotsman, Jamie.

James is occasionally writing reviews of Doctor Who related books on Goodreads, at a rate which should see him get about a quarter of the way through before the inevitable heat death of the universe.

After The Screaming Stops

People complaining that Bohemian Rhapsody is a sanitised, plodding account of stadium-level superstardom needn’t wait for an alternative trip to the cinema that has all of the guts and tension of the real thing: After The Screaming Stops is a no-holds-barred documentary following the fortune of late-80s chart toppers Bros. They may not seem the most obvious subject – the relatively brief period during which their star was in the ascendant has perhaps dimmed our collective memory of how brightly it shone. But directors Joe Pearlman and David Soutar have made a searingly brilliant film, a portrait of Matt and Luke Goss that manages to glance into the abyss of the music industry without losing its intimacy.


Key to its success is the decision not to focus on the past, but the present. The brothers have independently led successful careers since making a financially ruinous fresh start in the early 90s – Matt has a residency at Las Vegas and Luke is a film actor and director in Los Angeles. The significance of their decision to leave the UK becomes more apparent throughout the film, which follows their journey back to their town of birth and a reunion to perform together for the first time in 28 years at the O2.

Also key to the film’s success is that it lets its subjects do the talking. Matt, a dapper figure with a penchant for bandanas and licking things, behaves in a way that leans towards self-parody, though we glimpse a far more fragile interior. Luke is the quieter of the two, thoughtful and deadpan, but again concealing a darker, brittler side to his personality. They make for an immensely entertaining double act, both intentionally and unintentionally funny, though to the film’s credit they are never treated as subjects for mockery. I predict that audiences will find them endearing company whether or not they had any previous interest in the brothers Goss. Mind you, the rapturous audiences at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival and the female hordes glimpsed in the film suggest that a fair number of people out there do have an interest – perhaps once a Brosette, you’re always a Brosette.

I wasn’t. (Were boys even allowed to be Brosettes?) I was a bit on the young side, and my loyalties were firmly committed to the church of Jason Donovan. But Bros represented something a little more grown-up than the manufactured pop of Stock, Aitken and Waterman; I was musically aware enough to recognise the virtuosity of Matt Goss’ vocals and to be impressed that they co-wrote their songs, and the subject matter seemed very adult (they sang about ‘issues’ – drugs! racism! materialism!), a stark contrast to the bouncy love songs of the Hit Factory.

The two worlds collided in a blissful Christmas 1989 when Jason Donovan and Matt Goss dueted for a second and a half in Band Aid II (more thrilling to my ears than a hundred Bonos), and by lucky chance the shift in my musical tastes had come after my brother and I had made Christmas lists, so he ended up with a Kylie album that no longer looked so appealing next to my copy of The Time. In arty black and white printed onto slightly silver card, Matt and Luke shirtless and staring moodily from the cover, it was by any measure the sexiest cassette on my shelf. (Come to think of it, it probably still is.)


I only recently discovered that the album was perceived as something of a failure at the time, hitting only number 4 in the charts and going merely gold after the four times platinum achieved by its predecessor. Apparently the critics were a bit sniffy about it too, which surprises me even now, because objectively it’s a more interesting, ambitious piece of work, from the structural and harmonic complexity of ‘Madly in Love’ to the edgier guitar-driven funk grooves on side B and the poignant balladry of ‘Sister’. The first single ‘Too Much’ is arguably the best pop single they made.

But ‘Chocolate Box’ (‘their best song so far’, said my friend Stephen, the biggest Bros fan in my class) only reached number 9 in the charts, and After the Screaming Stops touches on the field day the media had over that. ‘A few years earlier I’d have given anything to get to number 9,’ Matt Goss says, still baffled by the relentlessly negative treatment they received. And although the point is not hammered home, one of the things you come away with is a sense of just deep the wounds inflicted by the media can be.

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The UK press hated Bros. Even at my tender age I was aware of some of the attempts to whip up scandal, the ‘Craig is gay’ rumours, and the tediously frequent ‘Bros split!’ headlines, as if newspapers thought that by printing it they could make it true. In a way, they succeeded. In an early 90s interview, Terry Wogan mentions that the press have been ‘trying to kill you stone dead for about a year and a half now,’ before gently adding ‘I don’t think they mean any harm to you, it makes headlines’. You can see in the brothers’ faces that they’re not convinced. And why would they be? The onslaught must have felt pretty personal to such young men and the relentless schedule and media circus had already taken its toll – although the film doesn’t touch on it, the band’s third member Craig Logan ended up in a wheelchair with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and in one heartbreaking sequence we see them wheeled onto television, broken smiles fixed on their faces, within a day of hearing that their sister had been killed in a car accident. Ultimately the pressure and the critical mauling would drive apart not only a band, but a family.

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Why did the press hate them so much? It’s not clear. Perhaps as Wogan says, ‘it seems to be a very British thing that as soon as somebody really succeeds everybody attempts to kick the ground from under them and destroy them’. Or maybe the press felt like the neighbour looking out of the window at the endless rows of young girls hanging around outside the Goss’ London house desperate to catch a glimpse of their idols (‘They’re just sitting there like dummies!’) – and don’t the media hate feeling left out? Just out of curiosity, I glanced through a review of the sold out O2 reunion, and there it is again: the snark. The mockingly parroted tagline ‘the biggest reunion in pop history’. The sarcastic acknowledgement that Luke can ‘hit the right parts of his drum kit in the right order’. Perhaps some critics are simply intimidated by genuine charisma – because whatever you make of Matt and Luke Goss, there is plenty of that, onstage and off. Either way, when they talk about the press as if still processing a trauma, you begin to get a sense of what was casually inflicted all those years ago.

It becomes abundantly clear in After The Screaming Stops that these are just some of the wounds that have never had a chance to heal, and we are treated to some spectacular scenes of sparks flying in rehearsals. Some reviews have made shorthand references to Spinal Tap or the Gallagher brothers, but both comparisons do the film a disservice; having so carefully invited us into the respective worlds of Matt and Luke, the undeniably entertaining arguments turn on a knife edge; there is a point in the film when it becomes unclear whether you’re watching a bittersweet comedy or a slow motion car crash. It is a moving, even haunting journey, and by the time it finishes, it may surprise you just how much you’re invested in an 80s pop sensation making a successful comeback.


After The Screaming Stops is in cinemas from today and on DVD and digital release on 12th November. You can check out the screenings here and you absolutely ought to get to one if you possibly can. You’ll thank me, I promise.

Worth Rescuing: Never Let Me Down

In 2008, David Bowie released a new mix of ‘Time Will Crawl’ from his much-derided 1987 album Never Let Me Down. As much a rerecord as a remix, this version stripped the song of its 80s excesses, jettisoning the heavy reverb and electro-kit of the original and inserting an everso tasteful (and everso noughties) string quartet and a new drum track. ‘Oh, to redo the rest of that album,’ said Bowie. Problem is, the ‘MM remix’ not only fails to improve on the original, it sort of neuters it. Its original power is gone, along with some of its surprisingly artful changes of texture – I’ll swap the meandering string quartet for the original’s prominent piano and the third verse textural build-up any day, echoey drums and all.

Nevertheless, the album’s original producer Mario McNulty has taken Bowie at his word and a new version of the album is what we’re going to get. The appetisers dropped onto the internet so far have done little to alter my feeling that the project is destined to be no more than a worthy curio; on the new version of ‘Zeroes’ the light-entry-add-drums-later build is almost identical to the ‘Time Will Crawl’ remix and similarly diminishes the sense of grandeur. Bowie’s voice doesn’t just sound 30 years behind the rhythm section, but about twenty metres behind them as well, and ironically (since it is an attempt to rescue the song from overproduction) this layering of old and new elements eventually becomes incoherent. This is even more the case on Beat Of Your Drum, Bowie’s lonely vocal trapped behind a wall of arty strings that neither sits happily with the chugging middle aged rock texture reached at the chorus nor with the spirit of the song itself. And whatever the artistic merits of the new contributions, it doesn’t half sound contrived. Most tellingly, on the revamped ‘Zeroes’ Bowie sounds as if he is singing sharp throughout; there are technological reasons that would explain tuning discrepancies if tapes from 1987 haven’t been properly matched to 21st century machinery, but knowing that Bowie tended to lay down his vocal last and that he had a masterful knack for pitching his performance (in a literal sense) to match the context, my suspicion is that he sang on the sharp side to match the energy and pomposity of the late-80s production. Stuck against (or behind) a more restrained backing track, it sounds wrong.

This retrofitted Never Let Me Down is guilty of doing both too much and too little. For all of its anachronistic tinkering it leaves the track listing intact, as if production is the beginning and end of the album’s problems (it’s not) and as if every song on it is worth rescuing (I refuse to believe that even the presence of the great Laurie Anderson can make the execrable ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ bearable). There are a whole load of issues to be addressed to reveal this album’s hidden qualities, and I hold the uncommon view that production isn’t really one of them – take it or leave it, the overblown quality of Never Let Me Down is the sound of 1987, and if we’re going to start meddling with that then why not also rerecord the rhythm section on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, both of which could do with beefing up a bit? In any case, the overproduction is less egregious than people remember, the content just needs presenting in a more flattering way.

I had a go at fixing it myself a while back and the result completely transformed my experience; to my surprise (because like most people I never came close to loving this album), it has been on my metaphorical turntable regularly. So, whilst it’s never going to convert anyone for whom echoey programmed drums and 80s bombast are anathema, here’s a proposal for revisiting Never Let Me Down without it sounding as though it were recorded in two different centuries…


The Problem

Arsalan Mohammad’s excellent Album to Album podcast recently discussed the problematic ‘toploading’ of Let’s Dance, all Side A hits and Side B dross. That’s the 80s for you – stick the singles at the beginning, then filler all the way. Never Let Me Down certainly has the big hitters on Side A, while Side B begins with the half-baked ‘Glass Spider’ closely followed by the utterly crapulent ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, but if you make it as far as the rest of the album it’s not all bad – the problem is that the three tracks that follow are pretty much exchangeable in tempo and tone, with near-identical intros and a relentless 120bpm beat (plus a weird tonic-dominant-tonic relationship which makes them feel even more part of the same breath). What Side B is desperately crying out for is variation.

So pacing and structure are all wrong, but the problem goes deeper than that. The album’s grappling with prostitution, war, the environment, war and, erm, girls, is often lazily assumed to be disparate and a bit laughable (there’s nothing more embarrassing than a middle aged rocker doing ‘issues’), but in fact the underlying themes of isolation and anxiety, under the inevitable shadow of nuclear oblivion, suggest something approaching a Concept (capital C). The spoken prologue to ‘Glass Spider’ is the giveaway: this is middle aged Bowie’s answer to Diamond Dogs, with the former’s dystopian future replaced by a dystopian present. Bowie’s 80s decline is rightly characterised as the moment he started following trends rather than leading them, but in Never Let Me Down we perhaps see an attempt to cut a slightly different path. A concept album could hardly have been less fashionable in 1987, and like Diamond Dogs it was designed with a grandiose, theatrical tour in mind (conceived as an arty, experimental venture, even if it was received as pretentious folly).


Any such ambitions were watered down by the millstone of EMI, for whom Bowie was supposed to be making lots of money, and who put the kibosh on his original plan to record short, uncompromising songs in a style that Iggy Pop was making his own. The era’s penchant for slow fade-outs kills any sense of continuity, and the conventional tracklisting puts the final nail into the coffin of any creative intentions.

Why Is It Worth Rescuing?

All of the above. Flawed ambition is better than no ambition, and after Bowie’s complete disengagement from Tonight and even his let-Nile-Rodgers-do-all-the-heavy-lifting approach to Let’s Dance, at last we have Bowie committing to a project. Rather than just turning up to sing, Bowie worked long, disciplined days during Never Let Me Down‘s three month recording period, writing and experimenting during the sessions as he had in his most fertile periods, and for the first time since Scary Monsters playing on some tracks as well. Yes, the lyrics leave a lot to be desired, veering from completely-on-the-nose to insipid (though just occasionally striking gold on the way). But for all that it’s not his greatest period of songwriting, the material was pouring out of him again – his previous album had been a couple of new songs padded out with covers and rehashed Iggy Pop, and almost half of Let’s Dance reworks existing material (with some pretty uninspired stuff in the remainder), but this time he ended up with material to spare.


You can hear it in his singing. It’s not clear at what point Bowie realised that the album had fallen short of his ideals (he certainly promoted it as if he believed in it, at least initially), but he belts the songs with full-throated brilliance, giving the kind of vocal tour de force that we hear on ‘Heroes’ and Lodger, whether it’s the wild falsetto in ‘Day-In Day-Out’, his cod-Lennon ‘Never Let Me Down’ or his biggest, Basseyest croon on ‘Beat Of Your Drum’. Miraculously, the nuance and energy of his performance manages to cut through the excesses of the production – for this alone, the album deserves a second chance.

Replacement Tracks

Quite why Bowie was so enthusiastic about ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, apparently one of the first tracks he insisted should be a definite, is hard to tell – perhaps it has something to do with his brief infatuation with Mickey Rourke. Whatever the reason, I’ll be happy if I never hear it again, and it will have no place on any version I’m putting together.


Thankfully, Bowie’s newly regained enthusiasm for recording left plenty of bonus material with which to give more shape and variation to the album as a whole. I’ve cheated slightly and included ‘When The Wind Blows’, which may not come from the same sessions but was probably recorded while the Never Let Me Down demos were being laid down, and it certainly fits thematically (he was recording it when he heard about the Chernobyl disaster, which inspired ‘Time Will Crawl’). The presence of Erdal Kizilcay and the heavy guitar lick in the introduction mean that it happily slips into the Never Let Me Down sound world, and one his best melodies from the period, coupled with a vocal that moves from tender to icy in a single sweep, adds some much-needed lyricism.

We also find a more delicate sound in his version of ‘Girls’, a song written for Tina Turner but which works rather better in his hands – hardly surprising, given the Jacques Brel pastiche it clearly is. Bowie half-croons, half-croaks the song before growing to full Scott Walker intensity at the chorus – it’s hardly ‘My Death’, but there is some real magic in the first verse, subtly scored with piano to the fore (Philippe Saisse almost channelling Mike Garson in his chromatic embellishments). It kind of loses its way after that, the sombre chanson vibe giving way to guitar and dirty sax, but the single edit it doesn’t outstay its welcome and again we have a distinct new colour to break up the album.


Then there’s ‘Julie’, a song that begins with an understated, countryish verse, then breaks into a heartfelt and rather gorgeous chorus. Perhaps its slightly sixties vibe is what saw it relegated to the B-side of ‘Day-In Day-Out’, but by leaving it off the album Bowie denied us arguably the most beautiful thing to come out of the sessions. Definitely worthy of a place.

Finally, and surprisingly, I’m including ‘Too Dizzy’, though it’s a difficult one to get hold of. ‘I never want to hear that fucking song again as long as I live!’ said Bowie, and he did a pretty good job of erasing it from history, deleting it from every reissue of the album. For years I wondered what horrors the track might conceal, imagining it sitting a couple of songs after ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ and being the one that Bowie was embarrassed about! What a surprise, then, to finally hear it and find it guilty only of enjoying itself a little too much. Is the lyric misogynistic? A little, but it’s got nothing to rival ‘China Girl’ for jaw-dropping awkwardness (both lyrically and musically, that is, as well as in the video and Bowie’s live performance toe-curling Chinese accent). I hear the argument that the track is a camp mess, and I’m ignoring it, because if there’s one thing this album badly needs it’s a sense of humour.

Track Listing

There’s no question as to how this album ought to open: ‘Glass Spider’ is barely a song in its own right (it’s little more than a repeated refrain), but with its dramatic monologue it makes sense as a prelude. It’s a shame the twinkly synthesiser that kicks it off (or fails to) is so insipid – it needs something like the saxophone shriek that heralds in Diamond Dogs – and for want of anything better, I’ve given it a bit more ceremony by splicing in the cello hits from the beginning of the instrumental version of ‘When The Wind Blows’, along with some of the electronic screams from the opening of ‘Zeroes’ (another callback to Diamond Dogs). It’s not brilliant, but I think it’s better – and it creates a deeper sense of continuity with what follows.

Spacing out the stand-out tracks (which, to my mind, are ‘Time Will Crawl’, ‘Beat Of Your Drum’, ‘Zeroes’ and my additions of ‘When The Wind Blows’ and ‘Julie’) and giving the order of the tracks a little more light and shade, this is what I ended up with:

  1. Glass Spider
  2. Beat Of Your Drum
  3. Day-In Day-Out
  4. Time Will Crawl
  5. Girls
  6. ’87 and Cry
  1. When The Wind Blows
  2. Zeroes
  3. Never Let Me Down
  4. Too Dizzy
  5. Julie
  6. New York’s In Love
  7. Bang Bang

There’s a hypothetical Side A and Side B there, though neither would fit on an LP because, as you’ll see, I’ve added much more than I’ve taken out. That’s partly a lack of discipline (I am a bit of a completist and tend to feel that more is more) – a neater version would leave out ‘’87 and Cry’, ‘Too Dizzy’ and ‘New York’s In Love’ – but hearing them in this context I didn’t feel them to be either superfluous or objectionable, and repeated listenings haven’t changed my view.

Cover Art

One thing we can all agree on is that the cover design for Never Let Me Down is an absolute car crash, horribly of its time and a headache to even glance at. Coincidentally, when I searched for alternatives to grace my iTunes catalogue I plumped for a very similar image to the one the Parlophone’s new version is using, one of Greg Gorman’s outtakes from the same photo session. But where the official version has really fouled up is in keeping the shoddy and frankly ghastly cut-and-paste ‘David Bowie’ logo – given the extent to which they’re trying to erase the 80s from the music itself, you’d have thought they’d find a different font. I settled for the logo Paul Belford contributed to the V&A Changing Faces Of Bowie print; the simplicity of the design and vaudevillian style of the photograph have a kind of timeless feel which, if it doesn’t match the sound of the album, at least doesn’t contradict it.

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The Result

My copy of the EMI reissue of Never Let Me Down has sat virtually as new in my CD collection for years, mainly fulfilling its role of ensuring there’s no gap in the chronology of the spines. Whereas my ‘special edition’, as I said, continues to enjoy repeated listenings.

I’m not saying it’ll work for everyone, but I didn’t make it for everyone, did I?

And they can keep their ‘past is a foreign country’ puns, too…

‘Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is publically criticized by illiterates’, wrote Sondheim in Finishing the Hat, by which he meant illiteracy about musical theatre itself. We got to see a little bit of that with the press night of The Go-Between, the most exciting new musical I have seen for years. (In brief: the music is astonishing and has the vocabulary to navigate the psychological nuances of the story, as does a production that plays to every strength of its theatricality, its ensemble cast operating like a beautiful piece of clockwork and accompanied throughout by a single onstage piano which, thanks to the writing and the performance, weaves every colour the score needs whilst retaining an intimacy and intensity that is at the heart of the whole concept. I sat through both acts in what felt like a single breath and it has continued to haunt me since. Go and see it. And take me with you please.)


Not that I was so naïve as to anticipate that response being reflected in the show’s reviews, and even as I staggered out of the theatre trying not to make a fool of myself by weeping too openly on Shaftesbury Avenue I did wonder how far such subtle craftsmanship would go with a critical community more used to seeing (not to mention working in) broad brushstrokes.

Illiterates? Perhaps. It’s hard not to feel empathy with Sondheim when critics of musical theatre have so little belief in the genre: according to The Londonist ‘musical just isn’t the right genre for intense, psychological narrative’, an idea echoed by the opinion in WhatsOnStage that ‘secrets and subtext would be easier if the cast could talk to each other’ – whilst, reducing this to a special kind of stupid, Official Theatre simply has it that this musical contains ‘too much singing’. In The Times we get ‘this is not so much a musical as a play set to music’, which may be the single silliest sentence I have seen in a theatre review, partly because it implies the absence of a librettist and partly because it ignores the development of the function of musical theatre since about 1943.

But perhaps this is not illiteracy so much as inexperience; all of the above demonstrate a profound underestimation of the genre of musical theatre, even resulting in a need to redefine this piece altogether. On BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Matt Wolf went the whole hog and called it a chamber opera, though his erudite stance was scuppered by host John Wilson explaining that there were no stand out songs and the whole thing was ‘pointless’ because ‘if you love the book, and the film was fantastic, why take it to the musical stage?’ On those grounds we should give some serious re-evaluation to the likes of such pointless musicals as Oliver!, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, for which there are also perfectly good literary substitutes, not to mention the recent glut of musicals adapted directly from films which are already fantastic.

‘Ah’, John Wilson might respond, ‘but those musicals do have stand-out songs’. His assumption – not an uncommon one – is that the stand-out songs are the point of musicals. Many commercial producers clearly think along those lines with their increasingly desperate attempts to turn some back catalogue into another Mamma Mia, almost as if musical theatre hasn’t moved on since its formative years as a mere glorified revue. But even if that were the case, The Go-Between had been described moments earlier as a chamber opera, and you don’t hear people complaining that The Turn of the Screw is pointless because it doesn’t have stand-out songs and you can read the book.

(Incidentally, both The Turn of the Screw and The Go-Between do have stand-out songs, they’re just rather less heavy-handedly deployed than in, say, We Will Rock You, not least because the composers place storytelling above the audience’s need to clap every few minutes.)

It’s important to point out that not all critics are illiterates, and there have been brilliant and perceptive responses from the likes of Mark Shenton, Edward Seckerson and Libby Purves (perhaps it’s no coincidence that they are largely positive), not to mention from audiences themselves. When I saw the show the now-obligatory standing ovation was genuinely enthusiastic and the audience members who sat in their seats still sobbing as the house lights went up didn’t seem to have had their experience diminished by the shortage of ‘numbers’. It is reassuring that, in spite of the expectations of some critics, music and storytelling are all that’s needed to get that kind of response from West End audiences.

So for all that it has been labelled ‘gentle’, ‘mild-mannered’ and ‘austere’ (it is none of those things, but some critical pulses are evidently conditioned only to respond to heavy synthesisers), The Go-Between lays down a hefty gauntlet. By demonstrating that musical theatre can be sophisticated, even challenging, and still shift seats, it challenges producers to look for ticket sales in quality, not another back catalogue. That way lies a future for the British musical.

Doing things in a more civilised way

So this Labour spat over the decriminalisation (or not) of prostitution: it is tempting, as always, to sigh and say ‘Jeremy Corbyn really doesn’t help himself, does he?’. In this case, though, I’m not sure it’s that way round. After all, he is within his rights to give a personal opinion in response to a question from a member of the public, especially one consistent with his support for Amnesty International’s position on prostitution. (Whether he elaborated on it is unclear, because predictably the press have only reported The Controversial Thing What He Said, but nobody could accuse Amnesty’s stance of being poorly considered.)

As the press gleefully reported, he was immediately attacked by ‘angry female MPs’, every reporter conveniently ignoring all criticism from male MPs to portray this as a straightforward battle of the sexes. Mind you, it wasn’t the media that made it about gender in the first place, was it?

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Enter Jess Phillips, hashtag shedding a tear because Corbyn is a man who ‘says we should decriminalize a known violence against women’. This introduction of gender politics is deeply unhelpful. Even if we accept the genderisation of the discussion itself on the basis that most of the victims of prostitution are women, Corbyn’s gender is irrelevant – it is entirely conceivable that a man (especially this man) can advocate for women’s rights, and in any case the Amnesty view is championed by women and women’s groups alike. To portray Corbyn as a chauvinist with no respect for women’s dignity is pretty low and more than a little disingenuous.

Equally disingenuous, or just plain ignorant, is reacting as though Corbyn doesn’t care about violence against women, portraying him as a champion of the sex trade and confusing decriminalisation with legalisation. The Women’s Equality Party have even put out a statement which insinuates that Corbyn was ‘advocating the sale of bodies for sex’, a hugely reductive leap of non-logic.

The sad thing is that these angry Labour MPs don’t recognise that, on this, they are genuinely all on the same side. Corbyn has aligned himself with a proposal grounded in a desire to protect the vulnerable, and whilst they disagree over the proposed solution, they might at least give Corbyn the credit for raising the discussion and engage in a more sensitive, sophisticated way.

(Oh, and the shadow cabinet member who said Corbyn should ‘go and join the Green party’ can piss right off: this debate is not served by you attaching your political prejudices to it, and since you’re the one taking them anonymously to a right wing newspaper, consider that perhaps you’re the one in the wrong party.)

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Prostitution is an emotive issue, but for that very reason politicians must be wary of letting their emotions cloud their ability to reach objective conclusions, particularly in the absence of a party line. Nobody doubts Harriet Harman’s commitment to women’s rights, but her conflation of abuse with her distaste for prostitution confuses the issue; Corbyn shares her desire to protect women, so her objection to his description of prostitution as ‘an industry’ seems a bit petty when you consider that industry and exploitation are hardly mutually exclusive. Fine, we can stop calling it an industry if you like, but that won’t stop it being one a dictionary definition sense, and it won’t solve any problems.

And whilst it is a legitimate point of view to consider all prostitution exploitative and degrading, however consensual, that is a different discussion. An important discussion, but a more broadly ideological one with opinions (indeed, feminist opinions) on both sides. It would be disastrous to confuse that debate, with all its grey areas, with the clear cut need for legislation that protects the victims of categorical abuse such as coercion, sex trafficking and child prostitution; the so-called Nordic model (decriminalisation of the sellers and criminalisation of the buyer) is an attractive solution to those who are morally opposed to prostitution full stop, but it may not be the solution that best helps the vulnerable (in fact, the Amnesty proposal is supported by 60% of organisations working with sex workers, of which, conversely, only 4% support the Nordic model).

None of which is to say whether Corbyn is right or wrong, it is simply to ask, can you just sit down and talk about this, please? I mean, talk to each other rather than to the Telegraph or the whole of twitter? If you really care about these vulnerable women, men and children, then instead of spoiling for the fight that the media have predictably turned into the main story, acknowledge that you are unified in your beliefs that the current law doesn’t work, that criminalising victims doesn’t help and that you want to do something about it?

You do want to do something about it, right?

You Stupid Boy.


‘Um, hey. About this headline.’

‘Brilliant, isn’t it!’

‘Well… is it?’

‘Yeah, ’cos it’s like history repeating itself, us against Europe, like in the Second World War!’

‘Well, no, in the Second World War we were trying to save Europe from Nazi occupation.’

‘That’s exactly my point! ’Cos David Cameron, right, is so rubbish at doing it, he’s like in Dad’s Army where they just let the Nazis invade!’

‘I don’t think the Nazis ever did invade, did they? Even in Dad’s Army?’

‘Sure, but they would’ve done if Cameron had been in charge.’

‘Okay. Okay, let’s accept the analogy for the time being. Only… I can’t help noticing you’ve put Cameron’s name where it was originally, er, ‘Hitler’.’

‘Wrong number of syllables, you mean? I was worried about that too. But actually you can make the scansion work, you just have to use semiquavers.’

‘No, no, it’s not that, it’s… in your analogy, I thought Cameron was fighting the Nazis?’

‘Yep. Well, he is, isn’t he?’

‘But Hitler was a Nazi.’

‘Oh. I see your point.’ (pause) ‘I know, let’s put in a picture of David Cameron dressed as Captain Mainwaring, that ought to make it clear!’

Several hours of photoshopping later…

‘Yeah. Yeah, I see your point… he does look a bit like Heinrich Himmler.’ (pause) ‘Never mind, let’s put in a caption explaining who he’s dressed as, that ought to make the whole thing totally clear!’

On the offensive

Ken Livingstone went on Question Time and offended some people last week, which shouldn’t come as a surprise by now. Not only because he has made build a career on offending people, but because when it comes to discussing terrorism, a lot of people seem to think that blazing moral outrage is the only way of ensuring everyone knows Just How Bad They Think Terrorism Is, as if the biggest danger facing us is that we might accidentally become a nation of apologists.

Take the tremendous knee-jerk reaction to Livingstone saying that the 7/7 terrorists ‘gave their lives’ for their beliefs. ‘WHAT???’ responded a twittersphere of caps lock, punctuation-heavy outrage, ‘they didn’t give THEIR lives, they TOOK OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES!!!’

I pointed out to a couple of people that, the truth of the second bit notwithstanding, it is an indisputable fact that the bombers sacrificed their lives too. Nobody’s trying to glorify it, least of all Livingstone, who as Mayor of London responded to the 7/7 bombings with a speech that was roundly applauded as summing up the mood of the city and the nation, and which incidentally used the exact same phrase without attracting any criticism. And why should it? Giving your life is a requirement for a suicide bomber (the clue’s in the name) and if we’re going to understand terrorism we do actually have to get our heads around that terrorists think they have something worth sacrificing themselves for.

One of the Offended People angrily argued that:

You ‘give your life’ if you put yourself in a position where others might kill you or where you kill yourself, NOT when you set out deliberately to kill others.
So we’re not in fact arguing about whether they ‘gave their lives’ in a literal sense at all, but about the phrase itself – as if you have to earn it through some romantic notion of noble self-sacrifice. That’s understandable – the phrase has religious connotations and associations with remembrance; Danbury Mint make a bronze sculpture of ‘the Brave British Tommy’ who ‘gave his life’ for King and Country, though ironically he probably gave his life considerably less willingly than your average extremist and in fact was pretty much forced by King and Country to give his life so it might be more accurate to say they took it from him, but that sort of sentiment makes people feel awkward at remembrance services. Still, there’s one damning distinction you can make about the 7/7 suicide bombers – their lives were never taken from them.

Except… in a less literal sense they were. Their lives were taken at the point they were indoctrinated into the twisted worldview that convinced them that these atrocities were justified. To think otherwise is to assume that they were born evil and, by extension, to believe that there is no solution to the problem of terrorism – the ‘shit happens’ explanation. Well, this shit doesn’t just happen, and understanding what drives people to extremism lies at the heart of stopping it from happening. That does actually mean looking at extremists with some awareness of context, which the Sun will label ‘sympathy for jihadis’, but which anyone actually looking to find a long term solution would call learning lessons from history.

That’s a distinction that eluded Matt Forde on Question Time. Ken Livingstone’s view that the 7/7 bombings were a direct consequence of Tony Blair’s actions in Iraq is neither illogical or original, but it got Forde worked up into a state of righteous indignation as he accused Livingstone of trying to ‘absolve’ terrorists, fundamentally failing to recognise that seeking explanations is utterly different to pleading absolution, and apportioning blame to a leader who ignored advice an exacerbated an unstable situation doesn’t in any way lesson the blame that lies with the perpetrators.

Plenty of others want to obliterate the shadow of Western foreign policy from our collective act of finger pointing. The aftermath of the Paris attacks saw shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden saying we shouldn’t see terrorist acts as always being a reaction to what the West do, bizarrely adding that it ‘risks infantilising the terrorists’ when ‘they are adults entirely responsible for what they do’ – as if the fact that the terrorists have a choice not to be terrorists means we can’t possibly consider their motives. Should we be careful not to see Cameron’s proposed bombing campaign as a reaction to the Paris attacks, because it risks infantilising him?

Emma Reynolds MP competed to be even more smugly Completely Appalled By Terrorists And Anyone Who Doesn’t Also Direct Their Full Appalledness At Them when she asked if Cameron agreed that ‘full responsibility for the attacks in Paris lies solely with the terrorists and any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West or France’s military intervention in Syria is not only wrong, disgraceful, but also should be condemned?’ earning her that half-pissed sleep talking noise that indicates approval from the Tory benches, even though her tautology-laden question didn’t really have much of a point, except to gently stab the leader of her own party in the back and toady up to David Cameron – who duly replied that the half-pissed sleep talking was an indication of just how right she was, a condescending note of gratitude in his voice.

You bet he was grateful. Nobody stands to gain so much from the outraged objection to ‘any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West‘. If his proposed airstrikes in Syria go ahead, it’s an attitude that places him entirely above reproach, whatever the consequences – because even while experts are say bombing will make the situation worse, that airstrikes are playing into the hands of ISIS, and that Cameron’s case for the strikes contains ‘straightforward deceit’, we won’t be allowed to mention any of that if there are repercussions. After a terrorist attack, any such criticism could be shut down as a disgraceful attempt to blame the West, to absolve the terrorists, and to justify their atrocities. So the Prime Minister can do what he likes and blow the consequences, because his critics are all jihadi sympathisers and if a responsible adult becomes an extremist it’s nothing to do with him.

And so the cycle goes on. Cameron blithely talks about ‘learning from the mistakes of Iraq’ without acknowledging any connection between fourteen years of military action in the Middle East and the fact that we’re less secure than ever. When the worst happens, he has a wall of moral outrage to hide behind, the truth that terrorism can never be justified merging with the outright lie that the West can never be blamed.

Unless, perhaps, we’re prepared to offend a few people.

What goes around comes around

David Cameron has already voiced his embarrassment over that Bullingdon club photo. Well, some more photos emerged on Sunday, as well as a story about a thing one person claims photographic evidence also exists for, though if it does it remains mercifully shielded from the public eye. Nevertheless, one imagines there has been more embarrassment in the Cameron household these last couple of days, something the nation has delighted in exploiting with a relentless stream of predictable and mostly not very good pig-based jokes on twitter.

As some have pointed out, we all did stupid things when we were younger (though, I would protest, not that stupid), but the real hypocrisy here is that the story comes from a single uncorroborated and uncertain source in a book written by a disgruntled Tory peer and revealed to the world in the pages of a notoriously capricious ‘news’paper. Essentially, it is revenge porn, albeit in prosaic and most likely fictional form. It’s ironic that Lord Ashcroft’s work is being championed by people who would normally contemplate demeaning pig sex themselves before getting behind the words of either a Tory peer or the Daily Mail.

One person who definitely won’t be talking about ‘hashtag piggate’ is the new leader of the Labour party. Tim Farron couldn’t resist a little dig on twitter (‘I’ve never been more pleased to be a vegetarian’) but Corbyn is still tweeting about railways, and is all set to disappoint those hoping he will ask a crowd sourced pig-based question at PMQs. Because whatever you think of Corbyn, he is making his leadership about real people and real issues, not dubious stories and character attacks. He probably doesn’t give a crap about whether Cameron stuck his thing in a dead pig or not because he’s much more concerned about £4.4bn of tax credit cuts, as heartless an attack on the poor as burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person (something else Cameron did not do at university). Cameron’s alleged porcine student dalliances have no bearing on his ability to do his job, at least compared to How He Is Doing His Job (and since his leadership puts the NHS in jeopardy, threatens to close down the BBC, demonizes the disabled, endangers the environment and continues to pour money into an obsolete defense system before the issue has even been voted on in Parliament, that is very relevant indeed).

This is worth noting because last week we were bombarded with stories about Jeremy Corbyn which, if less visceral than the pig thing, were just as fatuous. Stories about him snubbing England’s Rugby World Cup, or riding a communist bicycle, or having an evil great great grandfather. Only slightly less inane and equally unsubstantiated were stories about his disrespect for servicemen, his sexist shadow cabinet and his love of terrorists, splashed across newspapers as fact and gleefully retweeted by Conservative MPs and supporters ad nauseum. And lest we forget (as if we’re going to be allowed to), the Prime Minister’s first response to the announcement of Labour’s new leader was to brand him a threat to National security, a less specific accusation than the pig thing but as incendiary a claim (Cameron usually reserves such language for talking about ISIS). Is it any wonder that Cameron’s detractors have seized this opportunity to turn the tables? And when such hyperbole are being used by the Tories, who could truly blame Corbyn if started referring to them as a secret pig fucking cabal?

But he won’t. There will be no grainy monochrome scaremongering video from Labour about Cameron and pigs. Corbyn’s questions to the Prime Minister will continue to focus single-mindedly on Conservative policies. It may not be the first time Cameron has been embarrassed about his student days, but it is perhaps not the last time he will have reason to be grateful that Corbyn is a better man than him.