I love stuff like this – it speaks to the idea of a shared humanity and global culture, something that only the internet reveals.
And it is enriching art like this which is likely to be compromised by the propose SOPA legislation in the USA. Yesterday a number of sites, including Wikipedia, went ‘dark in protest at the proposed law. SOPA is a US initiative and so its difficult to know what we in the rest of the world can do to support it. Signing this Aavaz petition (along with a couple of million other people) might be a good start.
In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.
It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.
Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.
There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.
However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.
While everyone else has been banging on about the election, I’ve been banging on about free speech. Here’s a review that was commissioned for Index on Censorship and cross-posted at Comment is Free, so choose your forum for comments. As before, I’ll post a selection of CiF comments on this blog in due course.
Last Friday, British theatre took a small step in the direction of free speech. At the Soho Theatre, in the heart of London’s west end, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti was performed in the UK for the first time since it was controversially cancelled in 2004.
Let us be clear: this was no great stride for freedom, more an anxious shuffle. The performance was a rehearsed reading, not a full production, and received no publicity whatsoever. It was completely absent from the theatre’s website, and was only advertised to those who had been to see Behud, Bhatti’s most recent play. Buying a ticket felt a little like purchasing bootleg liquor from under the counter, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was, I imagine, how dissidents must have felt in the 1640s, when religious puritans closed the theatres and drama was performed illegally. Proper free speech has to be more open than this.
However, at the start of the performance, it became clear just how necessary and important this toddler’s step was to those who lived through the panicked, abrupt cancellation of 2004. I was surprised to hear Janet Steel, the director of the original production, say that she “thought this day would never come.” To an outsider, this modest reading was hardly radical. But to those who were threatened, who witnessed the picket lines first-hand, it is as if the cancellation happened yesterday. The first impressive thing about Friday’s reading was how many of the original cast had turned out to revive the script.
The performance revealed just how essential it is to the piece that it is set in a gurdwara. The rapist, Mr Sandhu, has built the temple, and is responsible for extending it. His office is his lair, and he derives his power over the other characters when he is in it. Choose any other setting (as some have suggested) and the key dynamic simply doesn’t work.
Behzti is often referred to as “that Sikh play”, a phrase which suggests a comparison with “The Scottish Play” (indeed, it has a lot in common with Macbeth, including a heightened realism and off-stage murders). This label suggests that it is for the Sikh community alone to determine its worth and relevance. This is a mistake – sexual abuse is, sadly, universal. For example, scenes from Behzti were mirrored in Two Women, which has just finished a run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In that play, too, we see the complicity of women in the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. And we all know that child abuse and even murder within a church setting is a long established theme for drama. Behzti is a visceral play that the British public, all of us, deserves to see.
Six years after its abortive first production, Behzti still feels current and relevant. The actors turned in a robust delivery with very little time to rehearse, as if they were picking up where they left off. They have reinforced the artistic case for a proper revival.
Over the past five and half years, all other barriers to a remount have also crumbled. The blasphemy argument is as incoherent now as it was then. Even in 2004, there was no consensus among Sikh commentators as to whether the play was an insult to the religion. Since then, the very idea that blasphemy is a reason for censorship has been discredited. After Behzti, controversies over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and the protests surrounding Jerry Springer the Opera have tested the public’s patience on the issue of “offence”. Public opinion is now firmly against censoring art for religious reasons, and it is now broadly accepted that faith remains strong even when religion is criticised. Even the hotheads who might disagree in principle know that, in practice, peaceful protest and counter-speech are more effective than threats. The violent demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep are a thing of the past.
Moreover, the police have shown unequivocally that they are prepared to guarantee the safety of the theatregoers at controversial performances. For Behud in Coventry, the West Midlands police force took this issue extremely seriously, and allocated their staff accordingly, at no charge to the theatre. They have offered to do the same for future controversial productions.
Most importantly, Bhatti herself is positive about a revival of Behzti. In past years, she was (understandably) reticent about new productions. But on Friday evening she said to me that she “would love to see a new production”.
For too long, the British theatre community has been embarrassed by the Behzti affair. Its response to the crisis was positive but far too slow. Half a decade later, theatre directors can no longer wish the play into obscurity – its continued censorship is a boil that must now be lanced. The only barrier that now remains is the British theatre community itself, which needs to purge itself of the cowardly and ignorant assumption that the play is still “off limits”.
No more of this apathy. Let it be known that, as of last Friday, this excuse of last resort has been demolished. Behzti is no longer taboo. It can be performed, properly and publicly. What are we waiting for?
Last Monday night I spoke on behalf of English PEN alongside Tony Benn at a meeting a Goldsmiths College Student Union, on the problem of the UK’s new points-based visa system. The system has caused hundreds of writers and artists to be refused entry to the UK, even for short-term visits such as a one-off gig or book launch. Academics and university support staff are particularly concerned with how the system affects relationships with their students: The system places new monitoring requirements on professors to log attendance at individual lectures and inform the UK Border Agency of any ‘suspicious behaviour’.
It was clear that, at Goldsmiths at least, neither staff nor students support the new measures. The general mood is that staff should boycott any extra tasks that the UKBA demands they perform. Many were frustrated that such a boycott is not already in operation. However, co-ordinating such action – which really amounts to a simple work-to-rule action, because there is nothing about surveillance of students in any staff contract – nevertheless requires organisation and a sense of momentum.
From the floor, we heard the story of a student who has been harassed and harried at every turn in her bid to stay and study at the college. She has spend over £2,600 in legal costs and ‘fees’ for processing various immigration applications. The university cannot give her much help, since they do not want to “act as solicitors”, and she even had to represent herself and an immigration tribunal. The ‘helpline’ she has been given to assist with her problems costs £1.20 per minute to call… and she is frequently put on hold whenver she calls.
Belle Ribeiro, the NUS Black Students officer, said that in general, international students do not get enough support when they come to study in the UK, despite contributing a huge amount in fees. The new rules that insist that foreign student carry an ID card will mean that BME students are likely to be disproportionately hassled to identify and justify themselves. And when ID card fraud inevitably occurs, it will be the overseas students who suffer.
I thought it was better delivered than the Prime Minister’s, although that was to be expected. The rhetoric flowed more easily too, and several of the passages could resonate with undecideds, despite being deceptions:
For Labour there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in.
This looks like nonsense to me: Labour politicians know that neighbourhoods and communities and families are important – they are where much of the state intervention is directly targeted, and the place where state agencies deliver the rest. Regardless, the Big State meme will take hold, especially with ‘Brown-the-Control-Freak’ at the helm.
The passage where he attributes “there’s no such thing as society” to the current Government was a brave gamble, but one that I suspect will fail. In reminding the voters of one of Thatcher’s most offensive quips, he also plants the idea that the current societal problems are the result of her destructive policies. It is tightrope rhetoric.
However, it was here that he lost me:
This attitude, this whole health and safety, human rights act culture, has infected every part of our life. If you’re a police officer you now cannot pursue an armed criminal without first filling out a risk assessment form. Teachers can’t put a plaster on a child’s grazed knee without calling a first aid officer.
Health and Safety Culture is surely inspired by Litigation Culture. When a child comes home with a plaster on its knee, angry parents are going to ask, not unreasonably, for a full account. Likewise, who would not want a police-officer to consult with his superiors, before accosting someone who may be armed? I’ve listened to several exchanges on police frequencies, where officers were considering approaching such suspects. It takes time, but its safe and sensible.
Such legislation, however inconvenient, is inspired by an actual concern for the Health and Safety of our children, and our police officers, &ct. I seriously doubt the Conservatives would change these laws substantially. Its a populist platitude.
Oh yeah, and attacking the Human Rights Act is a deal breaker for this blogger.
Apropos of nothing, a thought about Scottish Independence:
In the event of independence for Scotland (presumably following a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum, in the wake of an SNP victory in the Scottish Parliamentary elections), what would be the criteria for citizenship of the new country?
Now, I am registered to vote in Scotland (I even own a flat in Edinburgh, off Dalry Road). I would presumably become a citizen of the Independent Republic of Scotland, if it came into existence. However, I am at present a citizen of the United Kingdom, a country that will persist (albeit in a leaner form) should Scotland choose Independence. In that event, will I be stripped of that UK citizenship? Any mechanism to do so would, I think, be an odd an illiberal thing. In any case, having been born in London to British parents, I would be an unassailable candidate for dual citizenship, even if I did have to actively apply for it.
I imagine the reverse case would be true for the Scottish diaspora elsewhere in the world. They are citizens of other countries, but would be eligible for Scottish citizenship too. Personally, I don’t have a problem with a high proportion of the population having dual citizenship (I am, after all, a dangerous multiculturalist). But surely such a situation would be undesirable for the Nationalists. Gaining independence from the English, only to see hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of people applying for dual citizenship, would seem to be a hollow victory.
What are the lessons from other partitions and secessions? The Scottish Nationalists claim to be ‘different’ from the English, and yet there are no clashes of religion, ethnicity, or language. Therefore the choice over which side of the border to stand is less obvious. And the reasons for drawing a border in the first place are less clear.
Anaradhapura: A serene and shaded park conceals the ruins of a vast ancient city, which was a centre for Buddhist learning and civilisation, a thousand years ago. For centuries the city lay hidden beneath the jungle, but the foundation walls peek above the grassy banks, like milk-teeth breaking through a baby’s gum. We see stores for rice, plenty of areas for meditation and prayer, and some swimming pools in which monks would bathe.
We lean on some modern iron railings to view a moonstone. These are semi-circular floor sculptures, which lie at the entrance to temples – a kind of door mat for the soul. Our guide tells us that this is one of the finest examples in all of Sri Lanka, and explains that the four layers to the pattern symbolise the obstacles on the path to nirvana. One set of animals represent cravings, and another set symbolise desires. We have a short semantic debate about the difference between craving and desire, and decide that one is physical, the other cerebral.
Strolling back to our bus, we are approached by two young men in grubby T-shirts. They each have a tray of souvenirs, and I cannot help but steal a glance at their merchandise. They have an interesting selection of brass trinkets and bangles, but nothing that I crave or desire.
I try to walk on. “No thank you.”
“You are British?” I know they want to engage me in a sales pitch, but I owe them the courtesy of answering.
I nod, and smile. “Yes, I live in Scotland.”
“Tell me,” he says, “why is it that the Germans and the Americans will buy from us, but you British always say ‘no thank you’? Then you always go and buy the same things from the shops in Columbo!”
I am taken aback. This is not an effective method of endearing oneself to the customer.
“I’m not going to buy anything from the shop in Columbo,” I retort.
He looks at me with scorn. “You say this, but then you will buy somewhere else for a higher price. You won’t get these prices in the hotel shops.”
Now I am quite agitated at this effrontery. He is missing the point. “I realise that, I really do. But please understand that I don’t actually want any of those things.” I almost say, I have enough tat in my house already, but I bite my tongue. “Even if you offered me these things for one rupee only, I wouldn’t take them.” I also do not mention that the Buddha suggests we relinquish, not accumulate, worldly goods.
He shakes his head in disgust, turns his back on me, and wanders off to greet the next tour bus that has pulled up to view the moonstone. His silent companion follows a few steps behind. A few Japanese in wide brimmed hats and big sun-glasses step off the bus and into his path. Perhaps he will have more luck with them.
Rejoining our group, we find that Jude our tour guide is getting excited. “Now,” he gushes, “Who wants to see a well in the shape of a key?”