Friday 20 March 2009

‘From Today Painting is Dead’

So said the artist Paul Delaroche, but don't panic; he was speaking in 1839 after the invention of the Daguerreotype, an early form of photograph. And he probably didn't say it anyway, but it's often attributed to him, and many at the time might have thought it a likely prediction.

Thankfully, Delaroche was wrong and for the next hundred years or so, painting just got better and better, with artists liberated from the ambition to faithfully provide a visual representation of their subject and instead were able to visually provide a faithful representation of it. In the process of forming an impression of the world in the mind of the viewer, that brief period of nanoseconds during which information is represented as a collection of photons was at last seen in its proper proportion.

More recently, over the past century or so, a similar question could have been asked regarding the potential effect of cinema on the theatre. Cinema would seem to beat theatre hands down with the ability to bring to its viewers anything that can be filmed anywhere on Earth, while the theatre's unworthy scaffold can only show what can be fitted into that small space of the stage. And with CGI and other special effects able to present on the screen not only what is, but whatever can be imagined to be, the contest might seem to be over. The benefit of being just yards away from stage populated by real people can hardly make up for the fact that that is all that they are – real people.

Happily, seeing War Horse at the National Theatre at the weekend proved to me, if I didn't already know it, that the theatre can still present us with experiences than the cinema can never achieve. The unarguable stars of War Horse are two puppet horses, Joey and Topthorn. No effort is made to hide the three puppeteers that operate each animal, and there has been little attempt to add any kind of finishing touches to the puppets – they are simple frameworks of wood and metal, resembling what a Victorian inventor might have come up with in his quest to create an equine robot. Only the creature's ears are finished with enough detail to have an appearance similar to the genuine article, but with the ears, as with every other feature of these wonderful illusions, the trick is not in how they look, but how they move.

To be honest, I haven't made any great study of how real horses move. I know (thanks to Eadweard Muybridge's ingenious application of photography) that they take all four hooves of the ground during a gallop, but this didn't actually come up during the play. The point though is not to represent the horses with indisputable accuracy; it's to make me believe I'm seeing them.

There's a certain irony in both of the film productions of Henry V that they include the Prologue, with the lines:

"Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them."

and then go on to actually show us horses, somewhat beating the point. War Horse does a little more than talk of horses, but we most certainly see them. What is more, despite the fact that the horses do nothing even faintly supernatural – they do not talk, nor lead their masters to a little boy trapped down a mine – they are as present as characters as any human on the stage. The original novel (which I haven't read, but will) is written from the horse Joey's point of view and so naturally he will be seen as a character in his own right, but since a play cannot in the same way have a point of view (and War Horse does not even try) it would be easy to lose this vital personality. (In a similar way, Bertie Wooster rarely comes across as well in dramatizations as he does in the books where he is there narrator of his own adventures.) Thus it is a glorious achievement that, without a single word, it is the horses that make the show.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see another play, again at the National, which relied on puppetry: the two part dramatization of His Dark Materials (which I'll be seeing again in a few weeks at the Birmingham Rep). In this case it's possible to make a direct comparison with the cinematic equivalent in the form of The Golden Compass. While the film may have been able to do better in terms of the spectacle, it is the daemons which make the story, and here, as more recently in War Horse, the theatre excelled. But compared to either, what's going on in my head when I'm reading the novel wins without contest. Again, the Prologue of Henry V explains it all:

"And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginative forces work."

Whether we're talking about painting, theatre, cinema or literature, the purpose of art is to inspire our imaginations, not supplant them.

And I forgot to mention the unsung star of War Horse – a remarkably convincing farmyard goose.

War Horse has moved from the National Theatre to the New London Theatre, where it opens on March 28th.
His Dark Materials runs at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until April 18th.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

First as Farce, Second as Tragedy.

I can already hear your cries of outrage at my misquoting Marx, so let us move on to a slightly more influential Victorian philosopher.

'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.'

Humpty Dumpty made this announcement, so Lewis Carroll records, in a rather scornful tone, and although I have only seen it print, rather than heard him speak, I would suspect that Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, used a similarly scornful tone when he came up with a phrase that meant just what he chose it to mean when he raised the spectre of 'passive drinking'.

It's a chilling phrase, and we all know enough about passive smoking to realize that the vaporous fumes that invade our nostrils, our lungs, our very beings are just as insidious if they are effervescing their way out of Auntie Edna's milk stout as they ever were wafting across the room from the tip of her Capstan Full Strength.

But, hang on a second – what do these terms really mean?

Passive Smoking (from Wikipedia, pending the Chief Medical Officer's anonymous edit):

'Passive smoking is the involuntary inhalation of smoke, called second-hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke, from tobacco products. It occurs when tobacco smoke permeates any environment, causing its inhalation by people within that environment. Scientific evidence shows that exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke causes disease, disability, and death.'

Passive Drinking (from Liam Donaldson himself):

'England has a drink problem and the whole of society bears the burden. The quality of life of families and in cities and towns up and down the country is being eroded by the effects of excessive drinking.'

It may well be a problem, but it's not really quite the same as passive smoking, except in terms of the structure of the phrase, which is all that Donaldson is concerned with, being nowadays more of a politician than a doctor. On the upside, it does open a new vista of similar phrases. A pedestrian knocked down by a car becomes a victim of 'passive driving'; when you step in something nasty on the pavement, it turns out that you are actually indulging in 'passive dog-walking'. These are both genuine problems, but they don't need silly new phrases to describe them.

Now I have to declare an interest here, being a member of that sadly neglected subgroup in society, the well-heeled functional alcoholic, and as such I have some sympathy with Liam Donaldson's proposals for a minimum alcohol price of fifty pence per unit. It's unlikely to have an impact on the price of any but the rankest of clarets, and might actually do something to shorten the queue in Threshers at 10.55 of a Friday evening. While the Conservatives may argue that it is unfair for us all to bear the costs of an irresponsible few, the fact is that we do so anyway through the cost to the NHS in dealing with alcohol related diseases. While I can see some value in the Tories implicit case that the NHS should not treat self-inflicted ailments, I suspect I would one day find myself hoist on my own petard if I supported it.

But whatever the merits of the case, it does not deserve this ridiculous abasement of language, particularly from someone whose role is supposed to me as an impartial government advisor. There is no such thing as passive drinking. Standing next to me when I'm supping on a pint does not make you less able to drive, more prone to liver disease, less prone to heart disease or more attractive to women. It may mean that you have to give me a lift home, roll me out of the car and nod indulgently when I tell you I love you, but there still not one drop of alcohol in your body. The tragedy is that Liam Donaldson is so close to the government that he imbibed deeply of their propagandist style of talking – a case of passive spinning if ever there was one.

But enough of tragedy, what of farce, to return to my reversal of Karl Marx's observation.

It must be fifteen years or more since I regularly read Viz comic since it's not, as it admitted itself even back then, as funny as it used to be. And I do remember one strip called Modern Parents and one particular episode in which the eponymous parents, their newborn dangling in a pouch around the father's neck, walk past a pub where a man is sitting outside drinking a pint and smoking a cigarette.

In horror, the modern father stubs out the cigarette, complaining of effects of passive smoking on their child. The man apologizes, but then the father notices the pint, picks it up and tips it in the gutter. As the drinker complains, the father utters the phrase which somehow became lodged in Liam Donaldson's mind, to be regurgitated years later.

'Haven't you ever heard of passive drinking?'

It was funny at the time.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

A Pause for Thought

Politician 1: First, I would like to express my condolences to the families of the soldiers killed in etc., etc., etc.

Politician 2: I would like to add my voice to the sentiments expressed by the Right Honourable gentleman... and so on.

Sinn Fein: Erm... well... hang on, let me think about this for a few hours.

The weekly roll call of deaths of soldiers, commiserated over at Prime Ministers questions unceasingly for the past few years is a cause of sadness for at least two reasons. By far the greater of these lies in the misery of those deaths itself, but a lesser consideration is the increasing valuelessness of the statements themselves, metamorphosing from genuine expressions of shock to automatic reactions which seem, however unjustly, that they could have been muttered involuntarily by the politician’s lips as he snoozed.

Death has always been surrounded by a certain amount of etiquette – termed mourning when applied at a more personal level – whose purpose is to save us from having to think too much at a difficult time. Doing what tradition dictates should be done, rather than deciding for ourselves what should be done, immunises us from committing gaffs at a time when we are unlikely to be thinking clearly and when any faux pas could be more hurtful than usual. We don’t have to consider which of our neckties will best express are true feelings at the funeral, since we know that the rule is to wear a black tie.

The rules today are far more scant than they were a hundred years ago, but there are still rules, and the fact that they change over time is not a problem as long as they do so slowly enough for everyone to keep abreast of them. The most famous counterexample was twelve years ago, after the death of Princess Diana, when Buckingham Palace followed established etiquette by not flying the Royal Standard when the Queen was not in residence. The fickle crowd, led by the People’s Prime Minister, decided to make up its own rules of mourning – which I suppose is fair enough – and then was enraged that Her Majesty hadn’t somehow managed to guess what the new rules were – which isn’t.

The increasing tendency for politicians commiserate and/or condemn at every death that comes about in war or through terrorism is something different. It’s a form of slow inflation which, whether we like it or loathe it, we are at least all well aware of. Although the sentiments can be taken for granted, it’s still a matter of form that they should be given voice.

Thus if any politician fails to join in the chorus at such a time, it jars.  And if with the politician in question those sentiments cannot be taken for granted, eyebrows are raised, and raised high.

So when Sinn Fein this weekend took fourteen hours to make any comment on the murders of two British soldiers at a barracks in Northern Ireland, it was a perfect opportunity for the press to beat the Republicans at their own game, by fighting yesterday’s battles.

I think we can all agree that most of Sinn Fein’s leadership are pretty unsavoury characters. Most were involved to some degree in terrorism, and even when dealing in politics, they have not been averse to, say, persuading their comrades to starve themselves to death to further their own political ends. Circumstances have changed, but the personalities have not. They were not ‘nice people’ then and, to many observers, their failure to step into line with other politicians and quickly condemn the murders demonstrates that they are not ‘nice people’ now. And thank heavens for that.

Only Nixon could go to China, and only Adams could go to Stormont. Well not quite – only Adams could go to Stormont and have the hope of bringing anyone with him. Any more extreme and he wouldn’t have wanted to try to be part of a power-sharing government; any more moderate and he would have been happy to lead a life of obscurity in the SDLP.

That’s not to say that the current Sinn Fein leadership has deliberately placed itself in this ‘balanced’ position, disguising its true beliefs (that may be the case, but if it is, we shouldn’t really care). Clearly there are others out there with more moderate and more extreme views, but for that very reason, they don’t emerge as leaders. The leaders of Sinn Fein, whether by accident or design, are at precisely the point in the political spectrum where they are able to represent Republicanism. That doesn’t mean we have to like them, but it does been they’re our best bet to deliver and maintain peace.

And that, of course, is what the Real IRA (along with the Continuity IRA) is trying to disprove. If Sinn Fein can’t keep violent Republicans in check, then what’s the point of them? The majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly may pretend to listen politely to Sinn Fein’s opinions on Education and Agriculture, but the real reason that they’re allowed in is the fear that if they weren’t a part of the Assembly they’d be trying to blow it up. Innocent soldiers and police officers may be the victims, but the target is the Sinn Fein leadership.

Thus Sinn Fein’s reaction to the murders on Saturday was fourteen hours of circumspection. They know just how dangerous and fickle Republican terrorists can be – they only need to look in a mirror. Whatever discussions and consultations took place during that time, and between whatever unsavoury characters, their goal was to produce a reaction that best allowed them to remain in power. And having them in power is what we should all want, however it may make our flesh creep. An instant condemnation might have made them appear a little more likeable, but they are not there to be liked – they’re there to bring the vast majority Republican extremists with them. If that takes fourteen hours of silence, then it’s a price worth paying. You think you could have done it quicker?

So it may be a bit a fun for journalists to get Sinn Fein representatives to tie themselves in linguistic knots trying to condemn – but not too much – terrorist murders, and I doubt whether it’s got any more chance of doing harm than of doing good. But the day that Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness does speak out quickly and unequivocally against all political violence is the day he loses his constituency, and it will all be over - one way or another.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Not That Much of a Challenge

I have to start by confessing that I was at university during those dark days of the late 1980s when University Challenge was not on the air. Bambi had left Granada to work on the Babycham commercials and the Disney Nasties, and most people would be more likely to look for Paxo in the body cavity of a chicken than on BBC2, and certainly not on a quiz show.

Thus, with no prospect of ever having been on the show, I can bask in the illusion that if only it had been running then my college would have won the series, probably three years running, with 'Trinity Hall, Kent' captaining his team to victory week after week.

As it is, I was denied the opportunity, and so no one can deny the possibility of my fantasy scenario, even though in reality, I probably would never have made the team, not even as the nerdy bloke who sits to the left of the captain and was only there because the other three contestants (reading classics, history and classics respectively) didn't know the first thing about science.

For a few brief moments this week my hopes of perhaps still representing my alma mater were raised, with the news that one of the members of Corpus Christi's winning team, Sam Kay, was no longer studying at the college when the final was recorded. If he could still represent his college months after leaving it then could not I represent mine, two decades on?

The answer came quickly from the BBC - before I'd even had time to fill in my application form. It was a resounding 'no', as Corpus Christi was disqualified and Manchester became victor by default.

An isolated incident, you might think - a blip. But no! Further news came in today that one of the members of last year's winning team, Christ Church, had also fielded a player, Charles Markland, was no longer a member of that college by the time the final was recorded, having moved to Balliol to study for his PhD. In this case, the victory has been allowed to stand.

Of course, it would be very easy for you just to say, 'Well, that's Oxford for you, isn't it? Typical of the underhand, oar-clashing, wrong-end-of the-punt-standing behaviour you'd expect from the institution that brought us Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.' And for the most part you'd be right. But I can't help feeling that the BBC and Granada, who actually make the programme, are also to blame.

The real problem is that the series begins recording in May and ends in November. Now, it's been a while since I graduated, but I still feel that I may be able to give the BBC some insight into university life. Unless things have changed without my being informed, the academic year runs roughly from October to July. Anyone see what I'm getting at? By having the end of the academic year slap bang in the middle of the recording schedule, the producers are virtually guaranteeing that final year students will have left their institution before the end of the series, or that they will be forced to throw the competition at the second round. I would be surprised if there weren't far more cases than these two out there, waiting to be exposed by the diligent journalists of our laudable Sunday papers.

So come on BBC, solve this problem once and for all. Don't disqualify the teams; change the recording schedule. Simples.