Freedom vs Rights

A contribution to a conference, called ‘A Mirror Up To Nature’, on censorship and freedom of speech organised by Equity 30th November 2006 at The National Theatre

I won’t speak for very long although I do notice that you have got these things that you always have at conferences, these feedback forms. I did do a conference recently and there was a pile of them as I left and I just thought, well I will have a look at what they have said about me. So I sneaked a peek and somebody had written next door to my contribution: ‘If I only had an hour left to live in my life I would want to spend it listening to a speech by Simon Fanshawe.’ There was an asterisk at the end and I turned to the continuation page and they had written “because it would seem like eternity”. So I won’t go on very long.

I want to make three sets of distinctions, which I hope will be helpful to you. One is to talk about the difference between freedoms and rights, one is talk about the difference in words and actions, and one is to talk about the difference between offence and harm. I think that part of the problem with censorship is that people read down the left hand side of that list. In other words they confuse freedoms with rights, they confuse actions with words and they confuse actual harm with offence. So that has always been my kind of matrix of trying to deal with this and I was going to talk about two things broadly. One is what I think is part of the genesis of this religious sensitivity, because that is where we are particularly focussing at the moment, but only at the moment because we have had a number of other sensitivities that we have developed over the last thirty or forty years particularly in relation to writing and entertaining and broadcasting, so I want to talk about that. And lastly I want to talk about selfishness and responsibility.

There was a time at which we decided that we had to think carefully about the kind of jokes in my particular trade you tell about particular kinds of people. So we made a list of people who we were not supposed to tell jokes about or if we were supposed to tell jokes about them at some stage you were supposed to think about the kind of jokes we might tell about them. It started with blacks, gays, women, disabled. Then the list actually got longer and longer. Simon Hoggart told me the other day about a great description of a group of people in society in America, it is the Fat Acceptance Community. These are fat people who apparently are happy about being fat. This list got longer and longer and longer and longer, and one of the problems was that people began to feel that you could not tell jokes about these people. It was not about what kind of joke you told, it was that they could not even be part of the subject of the joke. And then this absurd idea arose that it was only Jews who could tell Jewish jokes, only gay people who could tell gay jokes, only black people who could tell black jokes. It took out of the entire calculation the notion of quality, but in there lay something important. The sensitivity was about the lack of confidence that people felt within the broader community i.e. the nation or the county or the city or the town in which they live. Clearly what you see is a series of hypersensitivities. So people like myself in the eighties were going on about positive images of gay men. Well, there comes a while when after a bit you have been to enough gay bars to know that actually a lot of gay men are absolutely awful and you cannot stand them, and actually there is another group of gay men who are really quite nice and you do not mind kissing them. Like any other group in the world, they divide into people whose behaviour you approve of and people whose behaviour you do not approve of. We are properly diverse.

The sensitivities were far too broadly applied. What happens, particularly in the political discourse, is that if politicians do not give us what we want we move on and find another politician to give us what we want. So politicians are forced into responding as bluntly to the expression of offence as the people who are expressing their offence are responding. So you have got this notion of groups. You say Muslims are offended, gays are offended. It is almost racist, almost homophobic to lump people together in that kind of way and I will give you an example.

I have a little column in The Guardian. Recently I interviewed a really lovely woman who has fast become a friend of mine. She is twenty-two years old, is called Isra Jawad and she is one of three daughters in a Muslim family. They are Iraqi political refugees; their father was very prominent in the Iraqi resistance under Saddam Hussein. They went to the Emirates, then they came to London. Their home has been in London almost all her life; she came here when she was three years old. I interviewed her at a conference and I said if we were on the radio and I said to the listeners that you were wearing the hijab people would not see in their mind what I am seeing in front of me. The reason is that Isra was wearing a pink hijab, a white jacket, a matching pink skirt and a pair of red ruby slippers. She said: ‘Yes. Me and my mates call ourselves the Hijabi Barbies.’ I said to her: ‘That is the first Muslim joke I have ever heard. She said: ‘Yes I know, it has been a bit dull since the sixteenth century.’

Now this is a twenty two year old modern Muslim woman who said to me on the phone the other day… well I said to her: ‘Articulate for me why you wear the hijab,’ and also I tested a joke out which I just love, which is: What did the woman who was wearing the niqab say to the woman who was wearing hijab? You slut! Now, it is a terrific joke and the thing about it is that I tell it to you because somebody somewhere will write that down and somebody somewhere will say that I have told that joke and somebody somewhere will say I am being offensive to Muslims. So I said to Isra: Give me the narrative on those jokes. She said: The awful thing is it is not so much funny as true. There are women who think like that, she said. Now this is a woman who says she has got more hijabs than she has got knickers. The point about saying all this is that here is somebody in a community which apparently is being offended. Yet she feels ambivalent about that community. She is caught within a difficult contradiction and that is that she feels enormous loyalty to the notion of the Muslim faith in a context where it is being demonised and attacked by certain kinds of people, but as a result of behaviour of which she thoroughly disapproves.

She said to me the other day: I had never heard of a madrassa until two years ago. This is a woman who lives in a highly politicised Iraqi Muslim family, now British. So one thing I would say is that we do have to sophisticate this debate and when people say Muslims are offended, Sikhs are offended, actually what we have to look to is: one, what they are offended by, what is our personal judgement about that; and the second thing is who is saying they are offended. Because as we all know leaders of communities get a great deal of political support and power by saying that they are defending the truth.

So that is one thing. There is another thing – another little story. I met a man the other day who used to be part of an Egyptian extremist group when he was a teenager. His narrative was all about what made him part of this group was the notion of love and love of God. That completely occupied his life and all his actions. The thing that finally got him out of this when he was about twenty two was the realisation in his heart he had room for love of other things – his family, football, his uncle, all these other things. He ended the speech by saying never again for me ‘one truth or one love’. I think that will stick with me for a very very long time. So that is one bundle of things. There is the sensitivity of groups, the extent to which they do or do not feel part of the community and our responsibility in making judgements about what they say they are offended about and the quality of their actions in return.

The second point is this notion of selfishness. What we are doing is living in a place where the notion of self-realisation is becoming something that guides what people think. It is almost like their identity, their destiny – what I want. I left that relationship because it was not serving my needs. I left that job because it was not satisfying my needs. You go on television, you go and you tell whoever it is, Jerry Springer or Jeremy Thingy or whoever, what you feel about your world and that is apparently sufficient and enough. I think if you extend that all the way down, what you find is people start to say: Who is responsible for fulfilling my needs? If you go all the way down that line it ends up in this litigious contract with the rest of the world where you expect somebody somehow entirely to compensate you for the denial of your needs. That is one of the things that people do when they talk about being offended. They don’t think about the world, they think entirely about themselves. And so the notion of risk and the consequent notion of litigation that follows from that risk I think plays a bit part in this. People are using the notion of offence to build up this idea that they have a right not to be offended and that if somebody offends them they will therefore take action. Well it is exactly the same if you go on an adventure holiday and unfortunately somebody jumps off a cliff and unfortunately they die and what do you do, you sue the adventure holiday company. Well, what happened to personal responsibility?

So I suppose what I would say in the end is if you are going to live in a situation where free speech is free what you do not have a right to, you do not have a right to the uninterrupted expression of your own view. What you have is a freedom. So when we have been trying, for instance I have been helping Ministers try to frame the Anti Discrimination Lesbian and Gay Regulations so that you cannot be discriminated against in the context of public goods and services and there are a lot of religious objections. What you say to people is: Look, you have a freedom to be a Catholic. You have a freedom to express your Catholicism. You have a freedom to express your sexuality. But your underlying right is about not being denied a job consequent on that expression. And your freedoms merely have to clash. The world is not that tidy. When we talk about offence do not let’s confuse it with the notion of actual harm. And when we talk about jokes, yes jokes lead to bullying, bullying is what we are tackling. And if jokes are part of that, yes in a sense they are not jokes, but let’s talk about policing actions and let’s not talk about policing words.

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The social landlord with a secret weapon: his tenants

Ian Fife is 62 and always wears a small sailing cap. It started, he says, because his girlfriend likes to sunbathe and, since he’s pretty thin on top, he was getting burned. He is a property journalist for South Africa’s Financial Mail, and one of the sharpest and most interesting property developers in South Africa.
His chosen area to acquire buildings is a district called Hillbrow, which sits above the city centre of Johannesburg. Nowadays it is almost always described in the news as “the drugs and crime capital of the city.” In the 50s and 60s, however, it was the most bohemian area in the country and the site of South Africa’s first gay bar.

The buildings are, in fact, beautiful apartment blocks, but since the late 80s the area has rapidly declined as homeowners moved out and slum landlords took over. It began to reflect the massive population volatility that has been Johannesburg’s history as people from all over Africa come looking for money and work. The population changes almost monthly as refugees and economic migrants pour in. Overcrowded and rife with crime, it is, to coin a South African expression, “totally hectic”.

One afternoon last month, Fife and his “apprentice”, a 30-year-old guy from Lesotho called Lehlohonolo and known as Hloks, walked me round the area. Without Hloks we would have been at risk from drug dealers and criminals or police demanding a bribe.

Despite his cuffs and tweed jacket, Hloks walks and talks with the savviness of the streets. The month before he had approached one building in which Fife had bought some flats and a squatter emerged with a gun. Hloks simply said: “Shoot me if you’re a man.” The squatter paused and asked him in for coffee.

Fife is no slum landlord. He is buying property because, as he says: “Decline happens fast and across a whole area. Regeneration happens slowly and building by building.”

His strategy is to acquire 30% of 100 buildings rather than 100% of 30. And here’s why. Flats in South Africa have what is called “sectional title”. In effect, everyone owns their flat’s freehold. Then they come together in what is called the body corporate to manage the building. What Fife does is to get a foothold by buying a few flats. Then he makes his presence felt by Hloks or another of his young team attending the meetings. And this is the controversial bit: they don’t try to turf anybody out, instead, they start to put together a committee by identifying leaders who live in the building. I tease Fife that forming cells of cadres like this must remind him of his young communist days in London. He smiles.

But he never wants control of the building. Instead, he wants to turn the people who live there into the instruments of regeneration; to take control of the body corporate and, therefore, the building themselves. Once they do, they enforce the rules – they police overcrowding, they turn out squatters, they insist on the ground rent being paid, they initiate security.

His plan is in three stages. First, immediately to make sure each flat has at least one light and the lock works. Phase two he calls roadworthiness, where everything is functional, and phase three will be the eventual gentrification with the original tenants still there. He expects this to take between five and seven years. And that’s where his long-term profit will eventually come from. But in the process, he will have encouraged a whole slew of new homeowners. Hloks will buy a flat soon.

It’s a pretty unusual model. And for an old lefty, Fife has managed to put behind him the traditional suspicion of homeownership. It’s community work through property owning. You can’t be selfish to own a flat in one of these buildings, he says. To improve it you have to join in, and if you’re an absent landlord you’d best sell up if you won’t.

“It’s the journey from we to I,” he says. “People want to own their homes and they also want to improve the area. But you can’t do that for them. They have to do it themselves.” Even if, at first, Fife and Hloks have to lean pretty hard on them. But, hey, that’s property development in one of the most hectic districts in the world.

Article originally appeared at:,,1807083,00.html

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Playing the race card belittles success stories

Simon Fanshawe on Leroy, 19. Tall, good looking, Leroy has ‘mus-cols’. He tried dealing drugs but decided it was not ‘worth dying for’. Now he is doing a part-time training course for young volunteers in peer mediation and conflict resolution skills. Today Leroy believes in education but had to lie his way into college

Leroy is 19. He told me his story at a conference I was chairing about community conflict. After the opening, the delegates all went off to yak about the policy in hand and I went to meet four young people I was going to interview in the plenary about actually living the issue.

Leroy is tall, obviously good looking, and possessed of a certain physical and social grace. Articulate, he still has a certain reserve. He talks with the angular emphasis and those staccato breaths so typical of young black guys. He pronounces muscles “mus-cols”. Why he was talking about them will be evident shortly.

To prep me and him for the interview he sketched a brief arc of his life. He was fostered from a very early age. I didn’t ask why. He does know his birth parents – he has contact with them – but he said with the poignancy of a wounded ego on the cusp of youth and manhood: “I’ve never had a mother who could say she loved me.”

Throughout the rest of his story, he talks about education constantly. It’s the undercurrent of his life and is the core of his attempts to survive. The “gang thing” started at school. They’re young men and the prize is girls, cars and designer clothes. Money and status, in other words. But it never sat well with him. He tried dealing drugs but “it was too much like hard work,” and more than that, “just not worth dying for”.

Leroy is part of an organisation called Leap, which has a project called The Quarrell Shop, a “part-time training course for young volunteers in peer mediation and conflict resolution skills”. It’s a remarkable process through which young people discover trust and potential and the power of resolution.

They are going to be interviewed by me on the platform in front of several hundred delegates and it is crucial that they are clear about what they do and don’t want to say in public. I am not John Humphrys on the BBC Radio Four Today Programme, with his trip-wire out for politicians. I am giving them a platform to talk about their lives in the way they want to and with confidence that they can trust me.

But I push firmly for the truth. Leroy tells me that he knew the young black man who had mugged and stabbed a guy at a cash point in Hackney a few months before. A discussion ensues among the young people, me and one of the workers from the Leap Project. She insists that these kind of crimes have their roots, in Hackney’s case, in “slavery, institutional racism and the government’s failure to invest”.

A gulf opens up in the conversation. What she has said seems to me to take away the power of any of the personal choices Leroy has made – or, for that matter, those the stabber had made. It’s as if they are both just powerless objects, swept inexorably around by social forces, any personal agency in their fate denied.

My mouth drops open. Leroy beats me to it. Laconically, he says: “But this guy had money. He came to my place once and he saw my weights. He lifted them. And I tried to tell him that you get your ‘mus-cols’ not for violence but to feel good about yourself.”

To get where he is today, which is doing an A-level in PE and sport science, Leroy has had to lie. But he has lied his way into college. He told them he had some GCSEs. For some reason, he has always known that education will be his escape. It’s the difference between him and his friends.

What I took away from that day and from Leroy is that if we try to use our understanding of the big forces that shape our worlds not to understand behaviour but to excuse it, then we take away choice from people like Leroy. He doesn’t want the stabber in Hackney to be excused; he wants him to go to college. The Leaving Care project in Hackney, and the educational maintenance allowance, have, in their own ways, given Leroy his springboard. But what has driven him on has been his own choice. Personal decision is the inspiration for living. Leroy doesn’t want alibis. He wants a life.

· Some names have been changed. Simon Fanshawe is a writer and broadcaster. This is the first in a series of individual portraits.

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Bring back the polite state

Good manners have become unfashionable. It’s thought authoritarian to point out that someone’s behaviour is bad, that there is a right and a wrong way to do things. Being called judgmental is an accusation. There were good reasons for this. Many of us used to be judged by who we were, not how we behaved.

But in the last century, we saw an explosion of personal freedom, which enriched our lives beyond measure. However, we have come to value individual freedom far above the collective good. As a result, we are in danger of having no manners at all.

It is simply not illiberal to object to gangs of kids barging along the street pushing people out of the way, 4×4 roadhogs selfishly blocking up the yellow criss-crosses, stretching across someone to get the ketchup while they’re eating, swearing at traffic wardens, drumming until 3am and flocks of hen party ladettes dominating restaurants with screeching profanities.

After the Selfish Revolution in the Eighties, better-off people just shut themselves away behind their garden walls and moaned about the chav-nots. But there are ill-mannered people across all classes and ages. And it’s not enough to grumble – we need to do something.

Let’s be clear. When we talk of manners, we are not talking about which way to pass the port or the correct weight and size of a party invitation. Such rules are just tripwires for the uninitiated. If you know them, you feel smug. If you don’t and someone points it out, you feel embarrassed. The notion of manners has fallen into disrepute because it has become encrusted by the gothic detail of etiquette.

Manners, as opposed to etiquette, manage the fact that there is more than one of us on the planet. They don’t change the world, they merely make it easier to live in. They reduce the possibility of conflict between us and demonstrate that we have an obligation to each other.

You open the door for me; I say thank you. We share a train carriage; you don’t scream down your mobile phone and dominate the space. I invite you to dinner; you bring wine. You drop litter; I point it out. Manners are a conscious balancing of our freedom and other people’s.

The greatest difficulty is in agreeing the rules and asserting our legitimacy in enforcing them. In our attempts to understand the complexity of social problems, we have gone to enormous lengths to recognise the differences between us.

But we have then fallen into a trap of dangerous relativism. Fearing to make judgments, we excuse other people’s appalling behaviour on the basis of little more than some misplaced sense of social justice, cultural difference or because of their background, material poverty or lack of education. This is patronising piffle masquerading as diversity.

Good manners know no boundaries of class, wealth, age, gender or race. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ in the array of their varying expression cross all social boundaries. ‘Please’ is universally polite, however it’s expressed. And ‘thank you’ is a gift in any language.

We know this but we have become scared of saying it because we think it means looking back to the age of our parents and grandparents, where the social rules were rigid, oppressive and, in many ways, based on fear and class.

We don’t want to revert to them. But we can learn from their experience. The Second World War left them with two powerful understandings. The first was a sense of unified national purpose which moves us still when we see the straight backs of the veterans on the anniversary celebrations, as much because we know we have never experienced that degree of national comradeship. And second, they lived after the war with the sense that sacrifice paid dividends.

It is dangerous to be nostalgic about manners, but I am struck, when we do experience moments of mass togetherness, by how much more considerate we become. When 250,000 people descended on Brighton in 2002 for Fat Boy Slim’s beach party, I remember walking home sober, happy and arm in arm with my boyfriend. A thuggish type shouted abuse, but before we could say anything several people in the crowd made it quite clear to him that that wasn’t what the evening was about. He slunk away, admonished.

We have got into the habit of thinking that it is not our business to challenge bad manners. We doubt our legitimacy because we don’t feel part of a crowd, the expression of a social force.

But in the absence of the old authorities on behaviour, we must be the authority. We have to temper our individual freedom. The collective good must become paramount, because there is such a thing as society. Manners, not selfishness, are the sign that we are living that.

· The Done Thing: Negotiating the Minefield of Modern Manners by Simon Fanshawe was published last week

This article originally appeared at:,,1499591,00.html

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Round and round the houses

He’s a Home Counties boy who flays the middle-classes from his base in Yorkshire, a shy man whose inner turmoil comes out in his plays, a comic writer of world renown – yet the critics are divided about his reputation. Simon Fanshawe on a very modern Molière

Alan Ayckbourn was explaining how his plays become hits to a man who runs amusement arcade slot machines in Scarborough . First, they’re tried out in the resort’s theatre, next they transfer to the West End, “then, if I’m lucky, they go to America or Holland or wherever. And each place they go, I get paid.”

The slot machine man, “a bit of a wide boy,” Ayckbourn admits admiringly, was intrigued – “but how do you get the actual money?” There was no mystery, said the playwright, with his usual anxious modesty, “the theatre collects a percentage and just sends it to my agent”. The slot-machine man bellowed, “they just hand over the money? That’s fucking brilliant. I have to empty these machines myself, every day. ‘Ere, George!” And Ayckbourn had to describe the whole system to George again.

During rehearsals for his 54th and 55th plays, the linked House/Garden, Ayckbourn said: “Suddenly I’ve got credibility in Scarborough – for this scam. And I’ve managed to explain what I am doing there now: I am running an international racket.” And he laughs, not his guffaw, but his other one – the funny internal sort of gurgle, an almost private sign of some personal satisfaction.
It’s a revealing tale. In the theatre world Ayckbourn is decisively a man of the people. His friends say he feels it is important to be accepted by ordinary people with ordinary jobs for doing something real. So his plays are designed to be immediately accessible. Nothing matters to him more than getting the audience in. It always has. It was a ground rule imparted by his mentor, Stephen Joseph, after whom Ayckbourn’s theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough is named. He was the wild and inspiring son of Michael Joseph the publisher and Hermione Baddeley, the great revue comedienne of the 30s and 40s. Joseph’s brief to the then 20-year- old actor was “to write plays that would fill the theatre”. He’s been doing that for 30 years. But Ayckbourn adds now: “They also had to be worthy of my peers and colleagues who were sharing the dressing room with me in Scarborough. They’d mostly come a long way up from London and made quite big cuts in their living standards to do so. If I’d given them tacky seaside stuff they’d say, ‘Look, I could have been doing telly.'”

Ayckbourn is acutely aware of the importance of his adopted home town. The Stephen Joseph Theatre has been his laboratory all his working life. Sir Peter Hall, who vigorously championed him at the National in the mid-80s, describes it as “a large playroom for him to work out his fantasies and anxieties”.

Ayckbourn first went there as an actor aged 18; then in 1970, three years after Joseph died, he became its director. His artistic policy has always been dictated by the need to fill the theatre. But Scarborough isn’t London, where there’s an audience for anything – for a while, says Ayckbourn. So if he were to do a season of Beckett, he’d probably have to close the theatre down: “They wouldn’t come. There would just be a few from the technical college saying, ‘Great. You should do more of this.'”

This determined populism has been the basis for his theatrical credo, combined with the playfulness of his technical craftsmanship, a belief in comedy as a vehicle for his social comment, and his uncanny ability to flirt with the middle classes’ sense of themselves – to flay them alive before their eyes and yet have them come back time and again to watch.

The milieu of his plays was set very early. Despite having lived in Yorkshire since he was 19, almost all his work is set in the south of England, where he was brought up. He always says that most of his plays are located “somewhere north of Reading”. They are populated by ruthless little go-getters, philanderers, small men, brave women, bullish opportunists, dreadful do-good ers and, often the only admirable characters, the feckless and the failures. They are all sharply aware of their place in the pecking order and most of them are determined to change it to the disadvantage of others. Men torture their wives emotionally and women go quietly mad through neglect.

There is a darkness in his view of human relationships. He watches us inflict awful cruelty on each other, more often than not during the family rituals of birthdays, Christmasses, meals, funerals and marriages. He appears to be deeply pessimistic about the state of relationships between men and women. And in his own tentative way, he’s a moralist. He was shocked by the 90s, by what he has called “all that Thatcherite money-making on everybody else’s back, which made us a completely uncaring society”.

He told the cast rehearsing the new plays: “You’ll notice in my plays that anyone who mistreats, misbehaves or deceives tends to get their comeuppance. [However] I am probably guilty of tidying up the world a bit because things tend to happen rather quicker in plays than in the real world. Although Robert Maxwell did fall overboard.”

Perhaps his greatest distinction is as an experimenter with comic form and theatrical diversity. He is a puckish manipulator of dramatic structure, deriving enormous pleasure from the fact that audiences go along with the devices. “The myth that you have to write sim plistically for the masses is so patronising. Audiences love to be challenged.”

And he has altered the rules quite considerably by taking light comedy and using it to tackle ideas and subjects that, when he started as a dramatist, wouldn’t have been included. A Small Family Business, possibly his best work, which in 1987 took £1m at the National Theatre box office, was a comedy which nonetheless ended with a girl dying of an overdose on a lavatory seat while a party was in full swing downstairs. As he says: “It might have been written in a lighter moment by Sarah Kane”.

His daring with dramatic structure is reflected in the form he has constructed for House/Garden, which open at the Royal National Theatre in London next Wednesday, where the two plays are performed simultaneously in adjacent auditoriums. Members of the cast appear in both, running between them backstage. In House/Garden each audience knows there is another play going on and that feeds the sense that it is all happening at that moment specifically for them, which Ayckbourn believes is what his job is about – “giving people the impression that they have arrived at just the right moment, in just the right seat, to see the right sequence of events”, as he wrote in 1993.

Alan Ayckbourn was born in London in 1939. His father, first violin in the London Symphony Orchestra, ran away with the second violin when Alan was only five. His mother then embarked on what he has called “a series of highly unsuitable and unrewarding relationships”, including marrying the local bank manager when they moved to West Sussex. He went as a boarder to the local prep school and then, from the age of seven, to the minor public school Haileybury . “It was quite strange. You had no family really. Your life became more and more about those months at school because you came home and you knew no-one. Women were a bit strange, too, because you didn’t see them much.”

His father, Horace, “was a great philanderer. I liked him very much, though. He was quite a bit older than my mother. He lived in Norfolk and bred St Bernard dogs. He died when I was 12 or 13.”

The major influence in his life was undoubtedly his mother, Irene, who supported herself and the young Ayckbourn by writing for women’s magazines under the pen name of Mary James, although, to most family friends, she was always known as Lolly. Her attitudes and experiences determined much of what he has written. It is seen in what the Guardian critic Michael Billington calls “his frankly feminist viewpoint”. Ayckbourn confirms this: “If you live with your mother after a succession of men have left her, you tend to be slightly biased. Men are pretty unreliable.” On the front cover of his collected plays is a seaside postcard with a rhyme – Mother’s Boy – about a boy kissing a girl and being teased by her about what his mother will think.

He left school convinced he was going to be an actor. At Haileybury he did a great number of plays, including the Brian Rix farce Reluctant Heroes. It was an ambi tious project for a 16-year-old. He was lucky to have one master who was “a theatre nut” – Edgar Mathews. Every year in the summer holidays he took the boys on tour abroad with a play. But Ayckbourn’s housemaster was pushing him towards higher education. “He called me in before I left and said ‘What do you want to be?’. I said ‘an actor’. I remember him slamming the careers book shut and saying, ‘Well, my friend, if you want to make a howling ass of yourself, who am I to stop you?’.”

The school now has a fully equipped theatre named after Ayckbourn. When he opened it he met the housemaster again, but didn’t mention the incident to him. As he tells it, “he just said ‘My friend, you seem to have done very well for yourself’.”

Ayckbourn was married at 19, to Christine Roland, and by 25 he had two sons, Steven and Philip, and was a drama director at BBC Radio. Both boys now work in theatre, Steven in Scarborough. The marriage did not last. It made Ayckbourn very angry that people so young were pushed into marriage. “I still think we never allow kids to consider what it means to have children. It’s an unbelievable responsibility for the rest of your life, if you’re going to do it seriously. And if you’re not, then have a dog or a canary or something. You end up with abandoned babies or girls who want to kill themselves. But when I was growing up it was all about finding someone and promising yourself to them for life. And I was very angry that anyone allowed me to make that sort of vow. It wasn’t an easy thing to walk away.”

Eventually he did, after about six years, although he didn’t get divorced for another 35. “I went through a stage when I thought it would be good to stay married to Christine so that she couldn’t marry anyone else. I couldn’t let anyone else go through that.” He married his long-time personal assistant, Heather Stoney, in 1997. Legend has it that, with a knighthood possible, he waited until the honour was bestowed so that he could divorce and then remarry: that way there would be two Lady Ayckbourns. He doesn’t demur.

Ayckbourn is undoubtedly a writer for women. His men are emotionally stunted and, you imagine, small in every way. His women are a much richer canvas. Julia McKenzie, who had particular success in Communicating Doors and Woman In Mind, says simply, “he likes women, he understands women and he does write for women. You just feel with him that you could chat about any women’s problems. He’s in no way not butch, but I can natter on to him like I would to a girlfriend.” She also confirms something everyone says about him, that he is very shy. Roger Glossop, the designer, who has now worked with him since 1986, says, “He’s still a bit of a mystery. I really don’t think I know him. His mind is elsewhere a lot of the time.”

The shyness masks an emotional turmoil. Ayckbourn says of himself, “I have a great cauldron of emotional mess and it all spews out in the plays.” Mackenzie says. “You feel he might blow, although I’ve never seen him do so.”

There is particular vehemence about a set of recurring characters in his plays who apparently have no emotions. There is one in House/Garden, a speechwriter, obviously Tory, and in Ayckbourn’s tradition of characters with names like Marmion Cedilla, Lester Trainsmith, or Carla Pepperbloom, is called Gavin Ryng-Mayne.

Ayckbourn describes him as “able to control his feelings, unlike the rest of us who fall in love, care, sometimes feel vulnerable. But these people manage to turn away. And they’re frightening. They watch and they have a strength as a result of that. They’re the people I fear I might have been, could have been or even am.” Peter Hall rather grandly calls this his “divine discontent with himself”, and adds that as he gets older Ayckbourn’s plays “reveal more and more of himself”.

This ability to experiment and stretch as a dramatist comes from his position in Scarborough, where he writes, produces and directs. As he says, “I am not the best director of my plays, but I’m the best one I know. It cuts out the middle man.” Michael Billington points out “there are simply no other writers who have their own theatre”. Ayckbourn constructs a company around him, and people work with him again and again – Glossop, the designer for 14 years; Michael Gambon, his star actor for 20.

But Scarborough gives him more than control. It gives him a regular audience which allows him to practise theatre in a community where he belongs. He has, in the way of those who are rootless in childhood, zealously adopted this Yorkshire seaside resort as home. And it colours his view of what theatre is and why it matters. “I strongly believe – I’m a regionalist of course – that theatre is the forum where we discuss ideas and also ourselves. And we do it in a way that you cannot do in the movies, which are one-sided arguments made by someone a million miles away, purveyed by people who are 17 times your size. Which is just nothing like watching Hamlet die a few feet in front of you.”

In an eight-month season, the theatre produces one new show of his a year – said to be gestated for months but actually written at great speed in just four weeks – and as much new writing as it can risk at the box office. It seeks out new work by writers who wish to reach a wider public, the people Ayckbourn describes as the ones who believe they’re not theatregoers.

For this the theatre gets £450,000 a year from Yorkshire Arts, £53,000 from North Yorkshire Council, and £207,000 from Scarborough Council. Despite the theatre also earning £650,000 in commercial income, the town has wobbled in its commitment. In 1997 there was the celebrated “luvvies versus lavvies” dispute when the redoubtable philistinism of the British reared up in the form of a local councillor who said that the theatre grant would mean closing the town’s 22 public lavatories. The headline writers could hardly believe their luck. The local paper was full of inarticulate praise for the public conveniences as a major Scarborough attraction, and Ayckbourn lost his rag. “If you happen to be teetotal in this town, then God help you – because there is little else to do apart from get drunk and buy shoes,” he wrote. The council later relented.

For all the ongoing debate about the best way of keeping theatre alive, in his book it comes down to one thing: “I have been out to lunch with successive arts minis ters who say, ‘OK, Alan, tell us what the problem is’. And I say, ‘money’. And they say ‘Apart from that’. It’s nothing to do with anything but money. I feel like a man in a house with no roof, the rain pouring in, and people offering money to build a conservatory. I just want some roofing tiles.”

In the town, Ayckbourn retains the affections of a great number of locals. Ian Grundy and Bob Harris, who run the guesthouse, Interludes, whose clients come just to see the plays, say, “Scarborough can’t buy the kind of publicity Alan brings”. They have seen every play and their verdict is that “he is getting even funnier”. Bob Watson, a retired local English teacher, was a reluctant convert, chaperoning his wife and daughter under protest to his first Ayckbourn, Confusions, in the early 70s. “I was just staggered,” he says, starting the kind of knowing commentary on the writing that can only come from an intense involvement in the whole body of work.

Ayckbourn is richer than he admits. His agents put the royalties alone at “well over a million a year”. Ayckbourn says “a million a year? I wish it was. I work in theatre, you know, I don’t do movies.” But he also gives a lot to his theatre. It is a matter of record that he has worked as artistic director without drawing a salary for 30 years, and that he pays for a casting director. But, according to friends, he also donates a considerable amount of his royalties to the Stephen Joseph and he bought the lease on the current building for an estimated £200,000, in partnership with Charles McCarthy, the UK chairman of McCain’s chips, and Lord Down, both great local supporters of the theatre. Some estimate that his personal contribution to the bid for National Lottery funding which enabled them to buy and open the new building in 1996 was about £400,000.

Ayckbourn is not only part of a great but now-fragile tradition of regional civic theatre, but also of the stream of English dramatists from Shakespeare through the Restoration to the Kitchen Sink, although perhaps not yet including the smack and sodomy kids of Shopping And Fucking and Blasted. But he grew up in theatre’s changing landscape. Emerging as an actor just after 1956 when Osborne, Pinter and Wesker were beginning to get established, he also had the advantage of playing Coward and Rattigan in weekly repertory. It is clear that he feels part of both movements but ultimately he decided on a commitment to popular work and to write plays which he says “are simply about people”.

It is that which, out of snobbery, prevents some people taking him seriously.Peter Hall says that there “is still some feeling that if a play is commercial it somehow doesn’t belong in the subsidised theatre and that we should be doing plays about distant indigenous tribes in loose poetic rhyme”. If you want a reputation of significance, that’s a fatal error. And it’s compounded if you not only choose to write comedies but produce one a year – and then in the provinces. Yet, as a writer in English, Ayckbourn is second only to Shakespeare in terms of the number of times his plays are produced around the world. Every year in Britain there are 25 to 30 professional productions of Ayckbourn, and his work goes around the world, with translations in 34 languages. Later this year the National Theatre of Taiwan in Taipei will revive its hugely successful national tour of Communicating Doors in Cantonese. The German theatre critic Gerhard Stadelmaier called Ayckbourn, whose popularity in Germany almost tops that in Britain, “the Molière of the middle classes”.

Critics, however, are divided about his reputation. Is he just a “pretty farceur” – a populist boulevard writer churning out commercial comedy hits based on theatrical trickery, and a writer with no sustainable claim on posterity? Or does a body of work which contains Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Absent Friends, Bedroom Farce and A Chorus Of Disapproval, make him “one of our most serious dramatists, comparable with Pinter, Hare and Stoppard”, as Michael Billington described him?

The two new plays are about the deceptive nature of reality; they show people from different angles, so certain things appear funny until you see them from a different perspective. Ayckbourn is reluctant to intellectualise, but will admit that his work has some kind of philosophical impact. But he has a horror that people will draw back from going to his shows if they feel they’re going to be preached at.

He saw this happen to one of his contemporaries, Harold Pinter, early on in his career. Ayckbourn says, “to me, he wrote wonderful plays. But they became so studied, so interpreted that you couldn’t walk near them without having a BA.” Analysis clouded the theatrical experience, and even Pinter himself resisted that. In his early days as an actor, Ayckbourn was once directed by Pinter in one of Pinter’s own plays. As he was feeling his way into the part, he asked the playwright, “Where does this guy come from?” Pinter replied: “Mind your own fucking business.”

Despite the critics’ snobbery it is clear that he is one of the nation’s most intuitive chroniclers, particularly foreshadowing what would come to fruition in the 80s with the decline of the professional classes before the advance of thrusting opportunists. As Hall says, “He has an acute social sense of what it was like to live in England in the last half of the 20th century. And for that, as much as any dramatist, he is required reading”.

• House/Garden open at the National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 on August 9

Life at a glance – Alan Ayckbourn

Born: April 12 1939, Hampstead, London
Educated: Haileybury, Herts.
Married: 1959 Christine Roland (two sons, Steven, Philip), dissolved; October 1997 Heather Stoney.
1957 actor, Theatre-in- the-Round, Scarborough; 1962-70 BBC radio drama producer, Leeds; 1971- artistic director, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; director, National Theatre 1986-7.
Some plays: 1959 The Square Cat, 1965 Relatively Speaking, 1972 Absurd Person Singular, 1973 The Norman Conquests, 1977 Bedroom Farce, 1979 Joking Apart, 1982 Way Upstream, 1985 A Chorus Of Disapproval, 1987 A Small Family Business, 1996 Communicating Doors, 1998 Things We Do For Love, 2000 House/Garden.

Honours: 1987 CBE; 1997 knighted.

This article originally appeared at:,,350592,00.html

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Zoë Wanamaker

“More Vodka, please” goes up the shout. The shoes have come off. The feet are tucked under the star on the sofa in the press office of the National Theatre. The umpteenth liquorice roll-up has been smoked and as it’s a Friday evening a second double seems entirely reasonable after a long week and only the second complete run-through of her new play, Battle Royal about the marriage between George IVth and Caroline of Brunswick which opens on December 9th. The PR obliges and the conversation about Greek tragedy, because of her huge success on Broadway earlier this year with Sophocles’ Elektra, and Caroline continues, punctuated by much amusement and the throatiest of laughs, somewhere between Tallulah Bankhead and a much rougher sandpaper.

Talking to Zoë Wanamaker is fun. After a while you realise that she has a certain bag-lady quality about her. Despite being physically neat, her mind is a laundry basket of thoughts and she swears a lot, the f-word being her emphatic of choice. In an hour and a half she is as passionately in favour of Mamma Mia, for being gloriously tacky and fun, as she is not of some well-know (nameless) actress she heard on Woman’s Hour recently. “’She was saying ‘The trouble with young people today is that they have no sense of language…. blah, blah, blah’. No. No. No. No. You just sound like a f***ing a***hole. You sound…you sound like an…. old fart. You sound like, and I hate the word a, luv-vie.” She pronounces the last with deliberate distaste. “You sound so precious”. Wanamaker is anything but precious. She is frank, committed and like her father Sam, whose sheer cussed resolution is witnessed for eternity by the stone and wood of Shakespeare’s Globe in Southwark, a very determined person.

“When I was doing David Mamet’s play The Old Neighbourhood in London. I went to see one of the producers. I said I hear you might be interested in putting money into the transfer of Elektra from the Donmar Warehouse to Broadway. He said,” and here her American accent is perfect, as well it might be since she has an American passport, “ ‘ I have to tell you Greek Drama doesn’t go down to well in New York’. Right, I thought, that’s it. I’ll show you.” And she has. A Tony nomination and the breaking of all box office records at The Barrymore Theatre later, she was such a hit on Broadway that the New York Times had her as the answer to a crossword clue. ‘British Actress, 9 letters beginning with W.’ “That was heaven. But I really resented it too. I wanted to be an American actress.” The trouble is that she had two American parents but she and her two sisters grew up in England after their father came here in the early 40’s during the McCarthyite persecutions. Most people assume she is English, and even more so the wider British public who know her best from playing Tessa opposite Adam Faith in the Marks & Gran TV comedy “Love Hurts”.

Being a sitcom star had never really been her destiny. Her mother, Charlotte, as well as her dad was an actor, but she gave it up to bring up the girls and support her husband. Both of them tried valiantly to discourage Zoë from the stage from the age of ten, when seeing her father at Stratford entranced her. Brief spells painting and typing eventually led to them supporting her at the Central Drama School. She started to make her name at Nottingham Playhouse and the RSC in Streetcar named Desire, the musical Once in a Lifetime and Mother Courage. In a career with few breaks she has taken Piaf to Broadway, played opposite Ian McKellen’s Iago in Trevor Nunn’s benchmark production of Othello, played Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible and created Amanda the lead in Terry Johnson’s hit Dead Funny. The laughs and the tragedy have run easily into each other and miles apart as they are, it was probably Love Hurts that lead her to Elektra, Sophocles’ Oedipus for girls who persuaded her brother to kill their mother to avenge the mother’s murder of their father, whom Elektra loved.

“She was a terrorist who at the same time was looking for and believed in beauty.” The link is that once Wanamaker proved with a hit on telly that with her turned up nose, idiosyncratic sexiness and record for doing what she describes as “socially committed TV once a year”, she was nonetheless a real star, a real leading lady, she got cast in leads. She could carry a play. And with Elektra in London she needed to. Not well served by a wooden supporting cast, she nonetheless was rivettingly the centre of the piece, her acting clear, spare and pure. It was re-cast for America with Clare Bloom playing her mother. “I knew it would work on Broadway because the Americans love drama. I knew it would arrest a Broadway audience. I’d always worried about Greek drama myself before. It made me feel stupid and I don’t want to feel stupid in the theatre. But this was so good. And in New York theatre is ‘an event’. Culturally there’s an energy and excitement about what happens in the theatre. Anyone who comes back from doing theatre in New York feels rewarded, whereas here – I’m not sure why- everybody’s rather blasé about theatre.”

And in New York everybody goes to the shows. That’s “everybody” with inverted commas. “Al Pacino, Meryl Streep. They all come. Some actors keep a list.” Did you? “No” Big Laugh. Bag Ladies don’t keep lists. “And I can’t really remember all of them now.” The most exciting? “Jessye Norman. She came twice.” Why so excited by Jessye Norman? “Because she’s f****ing Jessye Norman. She’s f****ing brilliant.” The grandeur of the Diva is made very funny when coupled with the fierceness of the expletive. The Gods brought to earth. But despite playing court to all the stars, Wanamaker wasn’t the girl about town in Manhattan. Her social life was in her dressing room, then home to an hour of TV and to bed. Classes in the morning, lunch, and a nap and by five or so, to work. “I am always the first to arrive at the theatre and the last to leave. And I had to be a good girl. I know the show was only 90 minutes but it was shattering. So I had to be really disciplined. Finally towards the end of the run though I just thought f***k it, this is silly. So I started to go out. Early on I was so frightened of being ill in the first weeks.” Then she says vehemently as if talking about an article of faith. “I don’t believe in eight shows a week. It’s a killer. I just don’t believe in it. Every kind of work has its own trials and strains but people always think that actors are so f***ing precious when they say things like that. Ha ha ha ha.”

She fitted in New York, a city overflowing with eccentrics, since one of the most vibrant symbols of Elektra’s visceral, heartbreaking grief was a haircut Wanamaker describes as being “chopped with great holes in my scalp, which made it look like I was having major chemotherapy.” No one paid a blind bit of notice. But she was in the Museum of Modern Art one day, visiting the Jackson Pollock Exhibition and a woman came up to her. “All afternoon people had been talking to me and saying very nice things about Elektra and how marvellous I was and all that. Then this woman approached me and I kvelled -it’s a Yiddish word – I started to puff up with pride and arrogance and then she just pointed at my head and said ‘I have something for that. Folic acid. The alopecia just goes right away’ ”. Wanamaker falls about rasping with nicotined merriment. “I was properly deflated by that.” And that’s when she yelled across the National Theatre Press office for more vodka.

The play she is doing there is a new play by Nick Stafford. It took her a long time to decide to do it. “I am terrible at reading scripts. I always get them wrong. I thought Glass Menagerie which Sam Mendes asked me to do at the Donmar Warehouse was very dated.” It turned out to be a huge hit with a modern audience and transferred to the Comedy Theatre. “I thought The Crucible was very old fashioned. With Dead Funny I thought that Terry Johnson has written something that was just very vicious and so the first night and all those laughs came as a huge shock really. And this one I felt was rather pedestrian. Plus I just thought everybody would compare it to The Madness of King George.” So what changed her mind? “When Howard Davies, the director said that he thought maybe he’d like to begin with something like… something like Caroline doing cartwheels across the stage. And I just thought ‘That’s great’ I’ll do it.”

That seems to fit with her central idea of theatre and of the vivid sense of colour and energy you get spending time with her. “When he said that about the cartwheels, which we’re actually not doing because in the end it didn’t look right, I thought ‘That’s the point You take something and you grab it and throw it out of the window. He changed it so it was much more outrageous and it grabbed my imagination. It took it off the page.” What motivates her about the theatre is that when she goes herself she likes to be “engrossed in the story and forget what else is going on in the world. I want to become fascinated by the characters. And the other thing that motivates me is that I love dressing up. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I just like dressing up and I like being somebody else.”

The role of Caroline will certainly satisfy much of that. She was an extraordinary woman. She smelt and had legendarily bad breath. She was a great naive and in Wanamaker’s words “The stuff I’ve read about her is absolutely crazy. She was barking really”. The play is the story of the arranged marriage between the Prince Regent and Caroline who was his German cousin. She arrives in London and he is repulsed by her. She increasingly becomes an absolute anathema to the Royal family who seek to sideline her. Nonetheless with the French Revolution in the air and the unpopularity of the British monarchy she becomes a focus for republican dissent and much beloved of the British people. The bad breath and lack of dress sense apart, remind you of anyone? “Yes I thought you might say that. I am afraid that people might try and read something in to the play about Diana.” At this point Wanamaker reaches into her bag and brings out a piece of paper with notes. She has done homework. “I thought you might ask me what I thought the play is about.”

Fine. What is it about? And sounding for all the world like a thirteen year-old girl in class, she reads out her disjointed essay. “It’s a new play with 25 characters (aside: ‘and that’s pretty amazing’). It’s a tragi-comedy (we’re back into GCSE mode) about an arranged marriage; a turbulent clash between private desire and public image; and spin doctoring and being English; and England and France at the time of the Revolution; and the fear of revolution in England; and Machiavellian politics at court and that’s what I’ve written.”

And yes it is about all those things. But paired with the superb Simon Russell-Beale, surely playing a part towards which he has been heading for much of his career, it will also be about another surprising facet of this unpredictable and versatile actress, who can move with an ease unlike anyone else except the Dame Dench, between TV sit com, Greek tragedy and royal romps. She chose the part deliberately as something very different from Elektra, about which she still cannot stop talking. That affected her in the way that only Greek tragedy perhaps can mirror one’s own tragedy. She nightly relived the grief of Elektra for her parents while Sam and Charlotte Wanamaker, her own mother and father died within a short space of each other. With Caroline of Brunswick she will have less intensity and more laughs, certainly on stage. But it is a delicate play. For all her outrageousness and wildness Caroline was a broken woman who was refused entry to the Abbey at her husband’s Coronation and died within three weeks. Even comedy with Wanamaker has an edge and it’s a racing certainty that this will live up to her own aspiration for theatre. “You just want drama to be completely f****ing arresting and involving, don’t you?” Yes.

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Flying high on the ‘screaming ovations’ that greeted his American solo concert debut in Las Vegas in 1955, Noel Coward booked into a hospital for a check-up. The doctor advised less alcohol. Coward wrote in a letter “it is bad for my colon, which apparently is over sensitive, like so many of my friends”. Later a nurse asked him “How ya coming?” He replied that in his present state he “saw little chance of such a contingency arising.” Speed was half the trick. Coward merely opened his mouth and out leapt the toad, no inhibitions, no holding back but beautifully crafted through a great deal of practice. He just learnt how to do it. Which is well over half the battle with wit.

Over twenty years after his death we are still captivated by Coward, By the end of this month, Peter Bowles will have installed himself in the Vaudeville Theatre in the role of Garry Essendine in Present Laughter, which the author created for himself, and Coward’s last accompanist, Peter Greenwell will bring a show of his songs to the West End. Coward inevitably fell out of favour in British Theatre when in the mid-fifties french windows gave way to the kitchen sink. But what he referred to as ‘Dad’s Renaissance’ when he came back into favour in the late sixties with the revival of Hay Fever, under his own direction at The National Theatre, has reinstated his wit as unendingly appealing to British audiences. Is what they recognise and continue to pay money to experience essentially the enjoyment of pure wit?

Most people think they’re witty. But inhibition and lack of practice conquers it. People either think of a reply but allow fear to get the better of them, or they just forget that comedy is about timing. The essence of wit is that you thrust and parry straight away – not a day and a half later and in the privacy of your own mind. Journalist: “Any comment for the Star, Mr Coward?” Noel, as the lift doors closed, “Twinkle”. Not particularly funny but very witty. And asked about a show starring the very young and unbearably cute Bonnie Langford, in which a horse had covered the stage in manure, he gave no quarter to the little twelve year old’s feelings: “If they’d stuffed the child’s head up the horse’s arse, they would have solved two problems at once.” When it came to wit, he was what the great drag comic Mrs Shufflewick would have called ‘the very soul of epitome’.

Wit is a joy. When Blackwell the American designer described Elizabeth Taylor as “looking like two small boys fighting under a mink blanket”, we worshipped him. Whoever wrote in Time magazine that Susan Hayward was an actress “whose lightest touch as a comedienne would stun a horse”, we wanted to ask them round to dinner immediately. We can almost forgive the dreadful Sir Thomas Beecham his bullying manner for calling Herbert Von Karajan “a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent”. To write (sadly anonymously) that “if white bread could sing, it would sound like Olivia Newton-John” gets close to genius. And how many right arms would any of us have been prepared to give up to have said what George S Kaufman did about a Broadway Comedy: “There was laughter at the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that someone was telling jokes back there”? Wit explodes on our palette, invigorates our lives and relieves the strain of existence more cheaply than massage. When PG Wodehouse pitched the severity of a hangover by saying he was lying in bed suffering when a “cat stamped in”, you know there is at least a literary God.

Wit is a game. And we had, according to Mathew Parris, who has edited a ‘personal molehill of an anthology’ called ‘Scorn’, reached that stage in our conversation about it where “we must always mention Nietzsche”. Nietzsche, says Parris, “regarded the game as the highest expression of humanity. When animals begin to play they begin to be divine”. Wit is a game because it’s about the playing not the winning. It is designed to achieve no practical purpose whatsoever. There is not the remotest possibility that the act of putting up wallpaper will ever be witty. Witty people do not do things like that. What witty people do is talk about doing things like that. Furthermore, for something to be witty there has to be someone else to understand that it is. It is not a game of solitaire. It is not in the least onanistic. It is verbal copulation and the ultimate form of aural sex. David Frost once invited the Duke and Duchess of York to dinner and rang Peter Cook to ask him to come as well. Cook thumbed listlessly through his diary and replied “Sorry I appear to be watching Television that night”.

Wit is impulsive but it bears repetition. It must be honed. And it is entirely different from a ‘sense of humour’, which is what people who have no wit at all go to great lengths to prove that they have in abundance. They are the kind of men who put in personal columns that they have a ‘GSoH’ because they once heard a woman say that Mel Smith was sexy because he made them laugh. The mistake that they make is that instead of being funny, they merely say that they are. Sue Townsend identifies her creation, Adrian Mole, as precisely this kind of antithesis to wit. “He makes a few plodding jokes and then writes ha!ha!ha! With exclamation marks to prove that they are. A complete disaster”.

However, being witty is a very self-conscious exercise. Barry Cryer once described himself in a diaphanous moment of false modesty as “entering stage left to the sound of the bottom of a barrel being scraped”. Bette Davis called a rival “the original good time had by all” and Mrs Patrick Campbell said, “Tallulah is always skating on thin ice. Everyone wants to be there when it breaks.” Remarks, every one of them, carefully constructed, meant for an audience and made not so much to hurt the target as to provoke laughter.

Wit thrives through conversation. It is a way of working off our competitive and aggressive instincts when it is socially undesirable to hit or hurt each other. The Middle Ages, presumably because they had no compunction in hitting each other over the head and dragging each other off to the rack, the stake or other forms of what are now merely regarded as the outer fringes of sexual gratification, was not a witty time. According to Mathew Parris it “was all faeces and balls”. After the First World War in Britain however, the desire for peace brought an explosion of wit. And in American TV right now, in a time when hostilities between men and women take place on the language pitch between increasingly equal participants, they are on the edge of another Golden Age with Roseanne, Friends, Cheers, Seinfeld and Frazier.

Friends particularly is the new salon sit-com. They are six twentysomethings – 3 women, 3 men – who do nothing. They just talk. Whole scenes are built around witty lines. Friends exemplifies exactly why British sit coms are so less witty than American ones. In British ones people are always doing things. They’re always mowing lawns and having greenhouses collapse on them. The writers will insist on having plots. And then worrying about resolving them. But who cares what happens? It’s only fiction and someone made it up anyway. All that matters really is who the people are and what they say.

It was Coward’s supreme skill as a technician to be able to invent in his plays the flimsiest excuses for people to say things to each other. The resulting chaos, away from which his main protagonists always tiptoed at the end, was just a hook on which to hang spontaneous and inventive cross talk. He recreated the exact environment in which wit flowers. What he did was to edit our very best dinner party conversations.

And in his songs his pure love of the language and its manipulation is even more evident. In ‘The Bar On The Picola Marina’ there is a verse about three sailors who only come from Messina because it rhymes with Marina and in which the most important thing that happens is not the liberation of a middle aged widow from her dreary past, but instead that “Mrs Wentworth-Brewster” is rhymed with the fact that they “abruptly goosed her”. Coward famously said that all he ever had “was just a talent to amuse”. That this was false modesty is only slightly less likely than it being real modesty. Coward understood exactly what his talent was. It was just to amuse. A true wit.

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Victoria Wood

The first fifteen minutes of Victoria Wood’s first ever sit com, the self-explanatory ‘dinner ladies’ seems a terrible disappointment. You’ve been here before. You know what a Victoria Wood joke sounds like. Sex, net curtains and a Gypsy Cream.
Two minutes in and the randy factory canteen manager says to his deputy Bren, Wood’s own salt-of the-earther,
“Get any at the weekend?”
“Sex? No I had to go to the launderette”
Collapse of studio audience.
“Are you too busy to have an orgasm?”
”Orgasm? I haven’t blown my nose since Wednesday.”
Hysterical roars from the women in the studio and what sounds like some of them making up for lost time. In ‘dinner ladies’ the deliveryman has “fallen off diving boards in Guernsey” and consequently is “unable to stand on coconut matting” and the poignant middle-aged handyman asserts his authority via old-fashioned values and the Dunkirk spirit of lower middle England. “My father was a desert rat, he shaved in the sand. So that toaster stays put.” It’s bungalow, semi-detached comedy of working class domestic detail. What makes you laugh is ‘Guernsey’ and ‘coconut matting’, the juxtaposition of a World War against the Nazis and where the toaster goes in the kitchen. It’s a way of elevating normal language so that it’s almost naturalistic, but not quite. Joe Orton knew how to do it, Alan Bennett still does and Victoria Wood is now a past mistress. She’s been at it for fourteen years since Victoria Wood… was first ‘Seen On TV’ in 1984. And it’s beginning to feel like a formula.

But then as you carry on watching, something dawns on you about ‘dinner ladies’. The structure may be old fashioned and familiar but the content is quite strong stuff and surprisingly post-watershed. And the point about Victoria Wood is precisely that she makes you feel comfortable and then slips material in under the guard of people who would normally be offended. In this particular case for instance, ten minutes after sex and the launderette the dinner ladies are talking about artificial insemination of lesbians by turkey baster with sperm off the Internet. It’s very funny precisely because the way she writes it, it all sounds so very ordinary. And the ordinary is her planet. So much so that most people who interview her always say she’s cosy or snug.

But in fact she’s not. She’s spiky. She’s not shy like so many of them think, just very controlled about what she lets you know. “Yes”, she agrees wholeheartedly, “I think I’m quite spiky”. “I’m naturally bolshy”, she cheerfully admits when we’re talking about the Royal Family one of whose least impressive genetic representatives turns up in episode two, “I don’t like anybody telling me what to do. Although I don’t really act it out because I don’t need to”. No she certainly doesn’t. With fistfuls of BAFTAS, two 15 night sell-out runs at the Albert Hall, the record for any performer there, and an adoring public the BBC is happy to take from her what she offers – sight unseen. This time she says, “I rang them up and said ‘Can I do a series?’ They said ‘Can we see the scripts?’ I said ‘Actually no because I haven’t written them yet. I was just asking now so you can book the studios’. It’s almost arrogant. But she’s earned it. And the way she said it, it was funny.

She looks much younger than 45. She has a girlish face but with a working mother’s lined hands, evidence of her two children with the magician Geoffrey Durham. She herself was the youngest of four and was brought up in Bury, Lancashire. Her parents sound seriously unusual. “We lived in a house on the hill with no visitors. It was very isolated. All the other girls lived in little semis with nice gardens. Our house looked like an explosion in an Oxfam shop.” Her father was in insurance but he really wanted to write rather than underwrite. He also played the piano. “They were slightly bohemian except my father had a proper job. My mother wouldn’t do things just because people did them.” Is it too flip to draw the conclusion that this childhood, one remove from the normality of her friends, made her an acute observer of her surroundings? “No it isn’t. All writers have a sense of being slightly apart. You don’t observe as well if you were in the netball team or the school play.” And being the youngest? “I think it probably makes you more competitive.” And Wood is certainly determined. Her journey to the top is encased in self-discipline. “I don’t tend to go to parties because I don’t drink. So it’s lots of people talking rubbish and I’m sober. I used to drink and talk rubbish too. But I’ve got two children and I work. If I added drinking to the pot, I’d be totally knackered.” Yes, but most of us drink nonetheless and just get exhausted.

What ‘dinner ladies’ does superbly is paint an affectionate and comic picture of working class British lives. “ I am more comfortable writing about that… and also I have deep, deep lack of interest in the middle classes, even though I am one myself.” What makes Wood laugh – and that seems to be pretty much her only bench mark – are “people who think a lot of themselves. I’m interested in them, never having been one myself. You know, anybody who thinks they’re terrible interesting“. Does she never think she is interesting? “No not particularly. But I’m doing my best.” She laughs as she does a lot. And you really have no idea if she means it or not. She’s delightful to be with but very unnerving because as she says of her stage show “I never say who I am.”

‘Dinner Ladies’ shows again just how accomplished and funny she is at being the detached observer. But now you long for her to go the next step and reveal more of herself. It would be very exciting for the audience. “Well when it’s exciting for me, I’ll do It.” she replies. Definitely spiky.

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When Saturday Night Fever became a global epidemic in the late seventies it gave fat office workers, thin shop assistants, in fact wage slaves the world over a path to stardom in their own heads. White flares were their flight path to fantasy. Bouffant and blow drys were their halos of self-confidence. Couples pranced to the beat like ridiculous Lipizzaner horses owning the world if only for a night. And Travolta was King. The story of Tony Manero, the boy from a Brooklyn paint store made Divine by the flashing chequerboard of the neon dance floor, at last gave a dramatic thrust to the frustration of millions of blue collar workers whose window of freedom lasted only from six on Friday to clocking on again on Monday. Dancing was the elixir of lives lived only at the weekend. Disco was the Ecstasy of the Seventies. And before anyone else realised it, the producer Robert Stigwood did. He understood people who lived to blow it all on a Saturday night, because that’s how he lived. Only he did it every day.

In June 1976 he had read an article published by New York magazine, by Nik Cohn called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” about the disco craze that had started in black gay clubs in New York and filtered through to mass consumption by the Latinos in the Bronx, West Indians on Staten Island and the Italians in Brooklyn. The magazine came out on Monday. His lawyer and subsequent President of his company in America, Freddie Gershon, says “Robert rang me from his car on Friday evening on the way to The Hampton’s and said ‘Freddie, get me the rights. This is a $100m movie’.” Like all the stories about Stigwood, it’s just a little too perfect. But like many of them, it’s true. By the following Monday, according to Nik Cohn, Stigwood had optioned the story for $10,000. “I seriously believed that disco would sweep the world. I am lucky. I just have a gut instinct with things,” he says with a wave of the hand. According to Variety, the movie has now taken $139.5million and is the 69th biggest grossing film of all time. Maybe he was right about his gut.

By 1978 Stigwood had become the world’s most successful impresario. On stage he had produced Hair, Oh Calcutta, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. He managed the careers of Rice and Lloyd Webber, The Bee Gees, Eric Clapton and Cream. He had John Travolta and Mel Gibson under contract each for a three-picture deal. In the second week of March of that year, with the films of Saturday Night Fever, Tommy and Grease under his belt, the Stigwood Organisation had 5 singles in America’s Top Ten – unheard of for any record label.

But by the early eighties he was in danger of burning out. The Bee Gees and he had sued and counter sued each other for a ridiculous total of £206m and parted company – although they have subsequently settled and become friends again. Lloyd Webber had set up his own company. Clapton was managed by one of Stigwood’s previous employees. So he scaled down his companies, semi-retired to Bermuda where he lived a Gatsby life of great excess and hospitality. One friend says protectively “he had never seen anyone dole out such a staggering degree of punishment to their body in the pursuit of such an astonishing degree of fun”. Lloyd Webber says he’s “a survivor against the odds.” But adds discreetly “I’m sure you understand what I’m saying”. Well you could be more specific. But yes, we probably do. I guess everybody in rock and roll overdid the risks and undervalued the consequences in the Seventies. And Stigwood seems to have trumped most people in spades.
But after more than a decade away he is back. Or so he hopes. In May his production of the stage show of Saturday Night Fever will premiere in the West End. The question is whether he still has his legendary touch, whether Night Fever can be more than just a flash in The Seventies’ second fifteen minutes of fame.

“I’m going to interview you now” Stigwood drawls in a voice that wavers bucolically between Sir Les Patterson without the spittle to English squire – encompassing a little camp on the way. He’s flushed with the Fernet Branca he has been happily chucking down all afternoon. “I’ve had bronchitis you know”. Which he has. But it’s an unconvincing excuse. He just likes to drink.

He has appeared at the side of the pool in his house, Barton Manor the sister house to Osborne, looking older than his 63 years. He plonks down a mobile phone to mock my tape recorder and a pad on which he writes down the few details that he has extracted from me in the three hours I have been on the Isle of Wight. His butler, Paula, brings in a bottle of Louis Roederer Crystal. “You can write down that I support women’s lib. I’ve got a lady butler”.

“Parents – army,” he scribbles. “Sex life. Food. Radio.” The list becomes a little wobbly. He is setting a pattern. Every time I get personal, he turns it on me. I try and make a bargain with him that everything he asks me a question about, I can ask him one about. I realise that I am flirting, that I have been drawn into his orbit of charm, which is a very reassuring place to be. Stigwood may play the game of being an old lush but he knows what he’s up to. In the end he will divulge very little about his inner self. The moral of which is never try and make a deal with him because he plays a better game of chess. Our conversation through the afternoon has been interwoven with The Cheltenham God Cup. He keeps on apologising about watching it rather than talking to me. As a host he is very solicitous. He calls the chef in and invites me to chose the following days lunch.

On the main race he lost more than £1750, including £250 he had insisted placing for me, despite the fact that in my total ignorance I had chosen some nag who I thought looked nice but fulfilled its complete lack of promise by hobbling in fifth. Stigwood was unmoved by the loss, but then it’s barely a gnat’s bite of his estimated fortune of £160m. And he’s lost money before. This is a man who was a millionaire at 28, went bust at 31 but got it back by 34. And if you ask him what drives him he finally admits to “novelty”.

Stigwood was born in Adelaide to a well to do South Australia family, one of the original Squatocracy, as they are known. They were some of the first shareholders in the South Australia Company. But one of his relatives a few generations back gambled it all away. “My great Uncle got drunk and fell under a train”, he says. His Mother is now on her 5th marriage. “She is totally wonderful and wonderfully insane”, he says. “She refused recently to allow me to give her an 80th birthday party”. From the cuttings you can work out that she’s 83. “Well yes, but I didn’t tell you that.” He clearly adores her. “From her I learnt love and compassion. From my father, truth.” His father died eight years ago and what he feels about him hangs in the air. “No I didn’t like him. I wasn’t an engineer and he was a rather brilliant one. He didn’t like me. I was too artistic. I wasn’t allowed to go to University. I was given a choice ‘you do engineering…’ “ He trails away. “I wanted to do arts of course. But he wasn’t keen on the arts.” He looks out from the gazebo in the garden over the large pond and says, “I’m telling you some extraordinary things. I don’t do interviews normally. This is just to promote Saturday Night Fever. I want it to appear in your article at least twenty times.”

His parents got divorced when he was 13 and so they sent him and his brother, with an unconscious stroke of irony, to a Catholic college, where Stigwood converted. Here he showed signs of his future cosmic sized ambition and Conservative politics. Aged 15 he founded a religious lay group. “It was called the Holy Rosary Society and its object was to convert Russia from communism. The rule was you had to do a decade of the Rosary every day and we would convert Russia by prayer. I think we had about 1500 members”. When the Berlin Wall finally did come down an old wag school friend rang up and said ”‘Well you’ve finally done it, so what’s next?” It would be nothing religious because Stigwood lost his faith when he was about 19. Why? A very long pause and then a cop out. “I was probably having a good time in nightclubs.” Guffaw. Although it’s not such an evasive answer because ever since he’s worshipped the God of the Good Time. His friends queue up with the anecdotes.

Richard Taylor his interior designer remembers a party for 200 in Bermuda on the Wreck Hill Estate for which the invitations were scrolls inserted into antique bottles and delivered by men on horseback dressed in eighteenth century gear. Freddie Gershon remembers once going to stay at Barton Manor. “Robert suggested a stroll before lunch. He and I and my wife set off through the woods to the beach and in a clearing we came across a picnic table and chairs, carved out of tree trunks. There was a sign “Have some more wine said the March Hare in an encouraging tone.” And laid out on a linen table cloth with crystal and porcelain and flowers was lunch for three. There was no sign of any staff. We ate and then continued to the beach. When we came back the table had been cleared and re-laid for coffee and pudding. There was still no sign of servants. It was as if the elves had been.”

Gershon also remembers a time when he had a huge list of very important decisions that Stigwood and he needed to take. “Robert asked me over. When I arrived at his apartment, which was on the top of the San Remo building on Central Park West, he got into a limo and flew me to Bermuda for lunch. I said ‘Robert you’re fucking with my head’. But he said to me we’ll eat and drink, you’ll be away from the front line and we can think properly. And we did. We sat on the edge of a cliff in the howling wind; with the trees bending and he said ‘OK let’s get to work’. We went through every permutation of every problem. He told me to look at all of them from above. Let’s play God. And for months afterwards we were prepared for anything that they threw at us.”

Great times, huge success, wonderful parties. Hasn’t anybody got a bad word to say for Stigwood, apart from the fact that he over indulges himself and his friends and can’t quite describe a straight line for most of the day? The only person to call him “a ruthless bastard” was he himself. And he clearly is when it comes to business – but the which millionaire isn’t? Digging for dirt was getting desperate. I was hitting the wall until a call to Variety put me onto a new track. “Stigwood?” said the researcher, “What an appalling man. A director friend of mine worked with him and all his hair fell out.” The bald director turned out to be Alan Moyle; the film a cultish flop, starring Tim Curry, called Times Square. But Moyle just says now “the whole Stigwood organisation was partying pretty hard by that time. Everybody was so out of it. So you could never actually talk to anybody. Stigwood was a reasonable and gentle kind of guy but he was just a real combination of weak and strong. You felt he was living some kind of lie. I think he was living in a certain amount of shame with himself.” And then he signs off in California-speak. “Hey tell him if you see him, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

Money is clearly not Stigwood’s guiding light never mind how much he obviously like to spend it. You wonder what is. “I’m a perfectionist. I’d rather not do something than not do it properly. I never do anything to be defeated”. Yet he does not have the air of a decisive man. He is physically shambolic. His clothes, which are inevitably bought from all the best names, look like they’re in a pile on the floor even when he’s wearing them. He is what the French call a vieux garcon. You can bet that when he plays with children they won’t be able to place his age. He appears the dotty uncle figure as he wanders round his garden, yet Barry Gibb says of him “the minute you think Robert doesn’t know what’s going on here, he does. He just gives the impression that he isn’t listening. He’s a brilliant man who appears flawed, when he isn’t.” Even at one in the morning the wrong side of what felt like several buckets of Armagnac, his eyes still had a snake charmer quality. He is a shark in a shawl. A wolf playing at being a granny.

It’s this quality which has made him such a legendary negotiator and secured the deal which elicits unanimous admiration from his peers in show business. Awestruck, three of them said. ‘When Robert Stigwood made Saturday Night Fever you know he secured 45% of the gross profits from Paramount Pictures’. Their admiration stems from the fact that this deal means that he gets 45% of every single cent that goes into Paramount’s bank account from the movie, with no deductions by the studio. This is unheard of in the world of film financing. “I picked Paramount because it was doing badly at the time. They needed movies.” is all he says now of how he got the deal. To add to the Studio’s discomfort Fever also had a lots of “fucks and sucks” in it. Paramount wanted them removed. Stigwood refused. “It was a street movie and I told them no kid going to see it would believe it, if it was full of ‘goddams’. Anyway Norman Wexler’s script was brilliant. So I said to Barry Diller, who was the studio head, right at the end of a very tense meeting, that I would ‘consider’ taking out five fucks if they gave me another 3%. They said yes”. And Diller admits these days that his Head of Business Affairs at Paramount had said after that: ‘Never let Diller loose with Stigwood again.’ “

Stigwood had learnt the money game the hard way. He had arrived in England in 1959, with what he variously claims was £1, £3 or £5 in his pocket. Showmen need such myths. “I came from quite a middle class family but my mother did have to work to send us boys to school. And when I arrived in England there was a letter form my mother saying ‘I’ve put up with your nonsense, now you can stand on your own two feet’”. Constant scepticism about this Dick Whittington story merely had him verbally stamping his foot, smiling and saying “Look I wasn’t spoilt. OK.”

He started working for a rather staid outfit called The Joan Underwood agency, whose big earner was touring a musical called Lilac Time. Quickly Stigwood saw an opening in another part of the business. Commercial TV was just starting. “I began to put up our actors for advertisements. Soon I was casting about 40% of all the ads on TV”. Then he came across an actor, John Leyton, who wanted to be a pop star. Stigwood, an outsider from the big three labels EMI, Pye and Decca, gambled and financed Leyton on his own. He recorded the single independently and leased the tape back to the record company. Johnny Remember Me went to number one in August 1961.”It was the breakthrough for me”. By the mid sixties, aged 29, he was a millionaire. “By this time I was very grand,” he says amused at himself, “I had a chauffeur and everything. But then I had my downfall”. He overreached with tours of Chuck Berry and PJ Proby and in 1965 his company went into voluntary liquidation for £30,000. “My image was bigger than my money. I remember walking down the street and seeing the Evening Standard headline “Top Impresario Bust”. And I thought ‘top?’ That can’t be me.”

It was a blow. “I thought I’d failed. And then I realised that 30 is a depressing age anyway. I always advise people that if they haven’t got their career on track by 30, not to worry because they can always turn the corner.” He turned it by starting a new agency with new clients. He signed the band that became known as Cream, once Stigwood had added one of his solo artists, Eric Clapton. And then the group with whom he will always be most associated, The Bee Gees. By the age of 34 he was a millionaire again.

Stigwood’s style from then on was daring, as Cameron Mackintosh says, “Extraordinary is a very good word. He is a great gambler and a genuine entrepreneur. He‘s not a producer like me, interfering every step of the way. He has an instinct for something that he’ll think will work and then he gets other people to carry it through.” And Mackintosh, who made his millions form Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, has reason to pay tribute. Stigwood was the first to understand how to take a musical and duplicate it around the world. And he did it with Jesus Christ Superstar. He kept an iron fist on what are called the grand rights thus retaining total control over it. This might not matter much to you or I, but if you’re in entertainment, this is the business that has made the shows over the last twenty years. It is what has made Cats the global theatrical equivalent of Macdonald’s. “I get terribly annoyed when people say it was Cameron or me who invented the global approach to musicals”, says Lloyd-Webber. “It wasn’t. Robert taught us all how to do it.” And the instinct that drove that entrepreneurial ability is what Tim Rice calls “a genuine love of what’s popular. He doesn’t have to pretend that he likes what’s commercial. If he likes it, it’ll be commercial.” And this isn’t empty fawning. You only have to look at what Stigwood did with The Bee Gees.

Their wind tunnel hair and unfeasible helium inspired falsetto was always the musical equivalent of a lounge with a leather sofa and a button-backed bar. They were terminally naff writers of brilliant tunes. But Stigwood says bluntly of Barry Gibb “He is one of the great composers of all time.” However in 1970 they hit what Barry Gibb calls “the years of nothingness”. According to Gershon Stigwood couldn’t book them out anywhere in the States at all. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records remembers telling Stigwood to drop them. So, long before the world saw Queen’s career rescued by Live Aid, Stigwood rented the 20,000-seater Madison Square Gardens and invited the Police Athletic League to bring 10,000 inner city school kids. According to Freddie Gershon he made the league “a donation” of $50,000 to smooth the arrangements. They gave and sold the remainder of the tickets away and the Bee Gees played to an audience most of whom had never been to a live gig before. They would have lapped up clowns. They loved the Bee Gees. Stigwood took ads in the entertainment press congratulating The Bee Gees on standing room only. As Gershun says “With smoke and mirrors he re-invented them.”

In a curious, but not quite libidinous way, Stigwood seems to be in love with all his acts. “Passion is the key to life,” we agree late on into the evening. “You don’t just make a film for the sake of fucking money, it’s belief”. He is vulnerable to his stars, as he calls them. The slightest rejection and he’s hurt. On a whim I suggested getting Barry Gibb on the line from Florida. It turned out that he was in the studio. “I was at the microphone”, he told me later, ” but with Robert you never know what it might be about.” Clearly miffed at the time though he became what Stigwood described afterwards as “antsy”. And as Stigwood listened to his telling off, his face flashed with a silent childish rage. But it didn’t last. He was keener to show off his new discovery, the stage John Travolta, and a 23-year-old actor called Adam Garcia. “I always knew I was going to cast him, but we had open auditions because you have to let the creative team chip in.”

And there on the tape, between Cheltenham races, was young Adam on the National Lottery swivelling his hips in French cut trousers and pouting effectively. And there he was again with Brucie on his 70th birthday TV celebration. The young pup and the old dog. Stigwood had engineered flattery by association, a blessing from the Light Entertainment Pope on the latest Stigwood epic and its star. Garcia has the right combination of swagger and vulnerability in his performance. He has the puppy sob in his voice that betrays Italian. And unlike Travolta, who did his dancing with edits and never sang, this boy has to dance and sing all the way through the show. And all conversations lead to him. “Isn’t he fantastic? He’s going to be a great star” I was told until it became boring. “I’m a real producer, you know. I don’t do interviews and I’m only doing this for my show and my new star. And if you don’t put him on the cover I shall ring Rupert.” Murdoch and he are both from Adelaide, they have known each other for most of their adult lives and even produced a film, Gallipoli together. Not that they seem to like each other much. It didn’t seem a serious threat. Made much more just for the fun of it. But you look at Stigwood’s eyes and you just never know. It was slightly unpleasant.

So we sit in the elegance of the drawing room at Barton Manor and listen to the new Garcia version of the title song, Night Fever, very loud on the stereo. And there is something rather odd about what we’re doing. We’re listening to Disco. We’re boogying – what else do you do to disco – on the sofa. They are still great tunes. And I‘m wondering if the 63 year old opposite, whose now got the excited beatific smile of a thrilled Buddha spreading across his face, can sell this again to a new generation? Is Stigwood really back in town?

Stigwood shouts across the music “Clubs are going to go mad for this. The album is going to be all hits.” And you realise that there is no bull about the man and no cynicism. He really loves it. He may live like a potentate and as Barry Gibb says, “If there is re-incarnation Robert will come back as Louis XVI”. But somehow he’s still got his feet on the ground and his finger on the pulse. The movie of Saturday Night Fever created Stigwood’s glory days. And it wasn’t just a movie, it was a whole decade summed up. That won’t happen again. But Saturday Night Fever can hardly avoid being a success. It looks like flares might be coming back to the suburbs. And Stigwood has got the rights.

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South African comedy

Sitting in a Jo’berg deli, eating the entire Jewish breakfast paraphernalia while simultaneously chain-smoking, is one of South Africa’s longest standing comics. His VW parked out side has “Mel Miller Live and Gatvol” painted down the side. “Gatvol” means “pissed off” in Afrikaans. At 50 he still does 200 gigs a year. He’s a big guy. “You and me” he says to another fatttie in the audience “have fought anorexia and won”. And since the early 1960’s this ex-folk singer has been lumbering onto South African stages and going on the attack.

“In the late eighties at a gig here in Jo’berg I did a routine about why the President should give the cabinet some spliffs to calm them down. Afterwards in the car park four heavies jumped me, took me to the police station in Hillbrow and beat the shit out of me. I was very anti-government. I still am. Then they said I was a communist. Now I say something against the government, I’m a racist”.

With his own roly poly charm he’s has the air of a genuine foot stamper. No breast beating, no mission, no Bernard Manning-like money spinning, niche carving, cynical defiance of the Aunt Sally of political correctness. Merely some pretty good jokes and a pretty bad attitude. Of the right wing in South Africa today he says, “Figure this. They’re against abortion and for the death penalty. Spoken like a true fisherman I say, throw ‘em back when they’re small and kill ‘em when they’re big”. Ouch.

Despite appearing on stage in a cardigan and doing a good impression of your strange friend’s nasty dad, he is really a child of the sixties. Being able to say what he wants matters more to him than any offence it might cause. And he’s a comic not a politician. He rails against attempts by both left and right to ban things.

“Don’t try and ban this book ‘The Pink Agenda’ because it’s anti-gay. These ideas are only dangerous if the government starts practising them. Two intellectuals and a ferret with a wooden leg would have read Salman Rushdie if they hadn’t tried to ban it.” And then apropos of nothing, “If you didn’t know Blair, from his voice you’d think he was gay”. And then he gives it to the Mbeki government for their attitude to AIDS. “If AIDS is caused by poverty then Freddie Mercury must just have schtupped poor people”. He is reminiscent of George Carlin, the original American hippy comic who made anger his trademark. Which just goes to remind one that the Americans invented stand-up comedy.

And you can see that most clearly in David Kau. At 23 he is South Africa’s “first black stand-up – “supposedly” he says a little wearily. And the comic he most admires in the world is Chris Rock. There are no role models for him in South Africa. The first stand-up gig he ever saw, he was in. He was spotted doing sketches as a drama student and he ended up at the closing gala of the Cape Town Comedy Festival in October 1999.

His mother is a prison warder and he doesn’t know his dad. Talking at the end of a long night of seemingly hundreds of comics at Cool Runnings comedy Club in Jo’berg, which felt like any of the hundreds of comedy clubs one has ever sat in from Melbourne to Los Angeles, he says rather balefully about his dad “He doesn’t exist basically”. His family has never seen him perform. And he has not yet returned to his roots in the “average, beleaguered working class town ship” in Kroonstadt a small town in the Orange Free State, to do the returning hero gig. He has always performed to mainly white audiences “Stand-up is a white form of entertainment”; he says “It’s not odd playing to a white audience because that’s where I started.”

On stage in his yellow sock hat, he has a permanently surprised look and a leonine sexiness that reminds one of his heroes, Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy. In some ways he is an American. But he has no time for their sentimentality about Africa. “Whitney comes here and talks about Africa as the motherland. Well America sure is the fatherland then. Because the USA has been fucking Africa for years.”

But for all his American style, only in crime ridden and oh so recently racially segregated South Africa is it really funny for a young black comic to say. “Any white women in the audience? I don’t want your house, your car keys, your wallets. I just want a coloured kid.” His will be a truly uncompromising career in a new country. And between David Kau and Mel Miller South Africa has finally got black and white telly. Welcome to the new South Africa. Oddly the stand-up is a bit like America.

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