Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dawn of The Sun

[Rupert Murdoch launched a Sunday edition of The Sun this morning, following the demise of his News of the World title]

The newspaper delivery man was insistent. “The paper quality’s good – heavy as The News Of The World”. Now there’s a man who knows class journalism when he feels it.

I’d gone to the village store early in case there was a run on the Sun on Sunday. I needn’t have worried: piles of them sat unloved, despite their 50p price tag.

I guess he was surprised to see me loading up with tabloids; I’ve always been a strict broadsheet buyer. They’re so much more substantial, especially good for lighting fires through the rest of the week. This time of year it’s so cold I can normally reach the Appointments section by Saturday, but with Newcastle forecast to be as warm as St Tropez this week, my new collection of tabloids will probably suffice.

I confess I’ve not been a fan of Sunday tabloids since I was 19 and the Mirror ran the headline “Students In Sex Film Shocker” about my university film. Mum was mortified – we got hate mail and everything.

It was all a bit of a misunderstanding. I’d made a little film called Corridor with some money from the local arts association, about life in a university hall of residence. It was supposed to be a comedy.

The camera travelled along a corridor (hence the title), peeking into each room in turn: the usual naïve stuff, certainly nothing to win an Oscar. It was a silent movie though, so perhaps I was 40 years ahead of The Artist.

The camera reached the bathroom, wherein a voluptuous blonde called Mary Jane lay up to her neck in Matey bubbles, attempting to seduce a thin bespectacled geek called Dan. She failed, and the camera moved on. We all thought it hugely funny, but shortly afterwards I got a call from a freelance journalist who wanted to ask about my “sex film, made with an Arts Council grant”.

“Was the girl naked?” he persisted after I tried to defend the raison d’etre of my oeuvre. “Well yes, but you couldn’t see through the bubbles”, I reasoned. Nevertheless, the following week, Fleet Street struck and I was instructed to organise a private viewing for the Vice-Chancellor. York City Council even called a special meeting so the councillors and their mates could see it. At the premiere there were queues round the block. The following morning the Yorkshire Post splashed the disappointed headline “Why All The Fuss Over This Film?”

Yesterday’s inaugural Murdoch paper failed to match even that level of journalism. There were five pages of a “World Exclusive” with Amanda Holden, a page of fashion tips from “style guru” Nancy Dell’Olio (seriously!), and a column from super-mammaried intellectual Katie Price. It was like an in-house magazine for celebrity has-beens.

There was also a column from the Archbishop of York entitled “Sentamu’s Sunday Service”, though I’m not sure it wasn’t ghosted, for I can’t imagine him actually writing “Today is a new dawn…When I think that we can now get the latest news, politics and sports stories seven days a week from our country’s favourite paper, all I can say is “WOW!”

I found the Sun a bland reflection of its predecessor. No sex and drugs exclusives, no investigative backbone, unless you count Katie Price’s admission that she can’t book tables at restaurants under her own name because they fear she’ll bring down the tone.

The People fought back, even hiring ex-NOTW columnist Carole Malone to spout her deranged nonsense. The three competing tabloids each had 40 pages of sport, only of which one was devoted to Newcastle United. The rest should light a lot of fires.

“Do you want something to actually read?” said the delivery man. “Yes please”, I said, and he handed me a copy of the Sunday Sun, the local paper produced here in Newcastle.

Its 4811th edition was witty, compelling, and an incomparably better read, with just as much sports coverage – almost entirely about our local teams. There was a whole page on yesterday's mock funeral for the "death" of the St James Park name.

If it hadn’t been for the launch of the other Sun I wouldn’t have bought it. So thanks, Mr Murdoch: for me a new Sun has indeed dawned.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Exam Time

Poor Jo. Every night for the past fortnight she’s been tucked into a corner of the sofa with her face buried in a terminally dull book called “Life in the United Kingdom”. As if living here through a fifth freezing winter weren’t bad enough, she now has to study like a fifteen-year-old and prepare to answer completely pointless questions like ”In the 2001 General Election, how many first-time voters used their vote?” For this week my wife takes her citizenship test.

Despite the fact that she’s married to me, has lived here for half a decade, has a child who is beginning to speak with a Geordie accent, and is paying our Exchequer three times the average amount of UK income tax, she must overcome this hurdle to be allowed to stay here for good.

The test, which every prospective immigrant has to take, is purportedly about life in our country. That would be totally reasonable, of course, if it actually were. I’d have no complaint if there were questions of real relevance: like how to pay your TV licence or your ex-wife, or who has the right of way on a roundabout, or does Sainsbury or Tesco has the cheapest hummus, or who should be the next England football manager. Sadly none of these are in the book. Instead it’s an old-fashioned history exam torture, with questions about 16th century Huguenots, the Irish potato famine, and whether Indonesia is a member of the Commonwealth: in short, it’s mostly a collection of dull, dry facts with little bearing on living in the UK today. I don’t know which government official dreamed this up: clearly someone who doesn’t have a life at all.

At least back at school, history lessons gave you a flavour of the past, the human stories and drama behind the facts. This book is all percentages and dates, some with vaguely racist undertones: “How many refugees from South East Asia have been allowed to settle here since 1979?”; “In which year were centres set up in the West Indies to recruit bus drivers for the UK?”; and “In which year did married women get the right to divorce their husband?”

“Now that’s a good one”, said Jo. “Much more of this and I’ll be exercising my historic right”.

There are sample tests you can try out on the internet. I had a go with some of my friends, including one with a first class history degree. We all failed. My Mum, who this week passed her 91st birthday and who still has an inquiring brain that’s as quick as lighting, did pretty well but missed several trick questions like “how many Bank Holidays are there every year?” Has it made her less of a British citizen not to know that there are only four official bank holidays, and the rest are called public holidays? Not a bit of it. Despite having worked through the book myself in an effort to be supportive, I tried it again last night – and still failed.

If the test itself is hard, arrangements to take it are even more complicated. You have to book the appointment online but the test centre in Newcastle was so overbooked that there wasn’t a single date available on any day in the future. The system only takes bookings six weeks in advance and every slot was full.

I rang the “helpline” to complain and a woman said coldly “You’ll have to find another centre”.

“But Middlesbrough and Carlisle are hours from where we live – are you going to pay our petrol costs?”

“I can’t help”, came the icy reply. “But you’re supposed to be a helpline”, I replied. “You’ll have to find another centre”, she said with arrogant finality.

“I’ve thought up a great new question for your test”, I said tetchily: “How far does the average person have to travel to take the ill-conceived, chauvinistic, anachronistic Life in the UK exam?” Not surprisingly, she didn’t know the answer.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hooking Mum Up With King Edward VII

Early on Saturday morning the sleepy calm of Newcastle’s Grey Street was shattered by excited screams from hundreds of tiny theatregoers. They were there for a rare performance by Britain’s latest superstar, Peppa Pig.

For those without toddlers, I should explain that Peppa and her little brother George, who live in a cartoon cottage with their overweight parents Daddy Pig and Mummy Pig, enjoy celebrity status with every pre-school child in the land. You can tell this porcine phenomenon has taken off because its national tour around our regional theatres has sold out.

According to Jo, Daddy Pig is modeled on me. Personally I don’t see the resemblance: he has a circular tummy, gets grumpy when he loses his glasses, is hopeless at odd jobs around the house, scared of spiders and pretends to be an expert on everything: “I’m a bit of an expert” is his catchphrase. Whenever he appears on television Izzy screams out “That’s you, Daddy”.

I have to admit that this performance in the Theatre Royal was probably the most exciting event in Izzy’s life to date. The sight of the Pig family driving onstage in their little car had her bouncing in ecstasy – though I only saw a tatty set with half a dozen actors carrying puppets scarcely resembling the characters they were supposed to represent.

Polished it most certainly wasn’t, but the promoters used every trick to empty our pockets: illuminated whirry things for £7 instantly became a must-have accessory for every child; a gratuitous interval encouraged us to buy Peppa handbags and ice cream; then, at the show’s climax, Peppa found some golden balloons, which magically appeared for sale in the foyer for another £4 a pop. We blew over £60 in an hour and a quarter.

But for Izzy, it was a memorable first trip to a big theatre. I will never forget mine: it was Close The Coalhouse Door at the Flora Robson Playhouse in Newcastle. I was 16, and it cost 2/6d with a special discount coupon from Northern Arts.

Samuel West
I suspect there are thousands of people in the north east who share my nostalgia for that special play. Written by Alan Plater, with haunting music by Alex Glasgow, it uniquely captured the spirit of our region. I’m seriously excited about this year’s revival by Northern Stage and Live Theatre, with additional material from Lee Hall, who wrote The Pitman Painters. This theatrical highlight is being directed by Samuel West, the son of our national thespian treasures Timothy West and Prunella Scales. Earlier this month Jo and I found ourselves sitting next to Sam at Northern Stage’s glamorous annual dinner.

One of things I find most endearing about my wife is that, despite having lived in this country for almost seven years, she remains oblivious to British celebrity culture. As a result, going to industry events with her can be rather dangerous.

A few years ago she spent more than an hour talking to Oscar-nominated actor Tom Conti over dinner before asking him “And what do you do for a living, then?” As Pauline Collins was sitting next to him, I assumed Jo had never seen Shirley Valentine. So I knew we’d be in for some delightful confusion when we saw the seating plan for the Northern Stage event. Sam, an extremely successful actor and director, clearly loved the fact that Jo hadn’t the slightest idea who he was.

Edward VII
Timothy West

“Does your Dad work in theatre too?” she asked, as I tried to whisper in her ear: “His father’s incredibly famous – he was Edward The Seventh”. Still she ploughed on: “How old is he?”.

When Sam replied that Timothy was in his late seventies she said sweetly “you must bring him to the house and we can introduce him to Tom’s Mum. She’s 91 next week, but looks much younger: maybe they’d hit it off”.

Sam paused, smiled politely, then said with unflappable charm “I’m sure that would be delightful, but perhaps my mother would have a view.”


I spent the rest of the evening giggling at the image of Sybil Fawlty angrily storming up to Mum’s cottage with a frying pan to retrieve her husband. Now that would make good theatre.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Over The Hill

I could sense Jo’s growing panic as we listened to the weather forecast. “Maybe we should just cancel?” she suggested. “Nonsense,” I said. “We have four-wheel-drive, and it’s just over the hill”.

The hill in question was the North Pennine range that separates us from Cumbria: we’d booked a weekend in the Lake District and I was determined to enjoy it.

Mum was insistent: “You must take a shovel, blankets, lots of spare clothes, hessian sacks, a flask of hot tea, enough food for two days…” the list was endless. With pressure from three overwhelmingly persistent women – Jo, Mum and the Sky weather girl – I loaded the car with enough provisions for an arctic expedition. Despite Jo’s misgivings – over breakfast she wanted me to check that our wills were up to date – we set off into the unknown.

We felt like brave explorers as we sped along the Military Road towards Carlisle. The roads were empty, the sky heavy with impending doom. The local traffic news was sombre – snow from the West will engulf the entire region, traffic will be immobilized, you have been warned. “We just have to get past Haltwhistle by midday, that’s the highest point”, I said reassuringly, wondering if the hotel would reimburse us if we didn’t make it through.

We reached the top in half an hour. “There”, I said with a sigh of relief, “it’s all downhill from here”. That’s when it started snowing.

It’s an appropriate metaphor, of course. Having just reached the summit of my own life by passing the milestone of my 60th birthday, I’m only too aware of the double meaning of the phrase “it’s all downhill from here”. By rights, the next few years should be a breeze – a ten-year glide down the gentle slope towards comfortable retirement. Fun weekends in nice hotels, country walks, foreign travel and the opportunity to enjoy the rewards created by forty years of hard uphill slog: with Izzy and Jo by my side, it should be a relaxing amble towards the twilight.

Or perhaps the bad times are only just beginning. Will the road get even tougher as I encounter the snowdrifts of old age? With a toddler just starting out, and a 14-year-old whose mother has just put him into an expensive boarding school, I can’t see the welcoming hamlet of retirement anywhere on the horizon. I’ll be working till I drop, and through the multiple troughs of a double-dip recession too. Perhaps it really is downhill from here.

It was as a teenager in school camp that I learnt that going downhill is every bit as hard as the ascent. “In mountain climbing, there are more deaths from the descent than the climb” keen teachers in khaki shorts bellowed at our disappearing shapes as we fearlessly tore down the slopes towards the waiting bell tents and burnt cocoa in the valley. They showed us how to keep our knees together to protect our ankles. It slows you down and hurts your shins like hell but it stops you breaking your legs, apparently.

So, with the flakes getting heavier, I gently edged the Volvo down the hill towards Greenhead.  Within minutes, the snow miraculously stopped. We made Ullswater in another forty minutes and the sun was shining. “There’ll be some red faces at the Meteorological Office tomorrow”, I said. “What were all those warnings about?”

On Sunday morning the lake was calm and majestic. The spectacular view of the lightly frosted hills spread before us as we breakfasted.  The Sunday newspapers were full of the snow chaos throughout England -- indeed, it seems to have fallen everywhere except on top of us.  Let's hope I have the same luck for the rest of my Sixties.

Sharrow Bay Hotel’s menu cards carry the inscription “60th anniversary: The Diamond Years”. Sadly it’s not wearing too well since its owners, the Von Essen group, ran out of money. Now it’s like a favourite old pair of slippers: worn but comfy. I guess that’s what happens when you’re sixty: you need regular makeovers to avoid gradual decomposition.

Speaking of which, I really must do something about all those emergency rations, slowly rotting away in the boot of the Volvo.