Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Laughter On The Edge

Euclides Montes @gatulino

If, like me, you’ve welcomed with incredible excitement the news that Chris Morris’ new film
has finally made its debut in the festival circuit, or probably chuckled at one of Frankie Boyle’s frankly daring BBC-aired jokes. Or maybe found yourself bewildered by the nationwide parody response to that Ross and Brand prank call, then it probably means that, like me, you enjoy your comedy edgy, satirical and, dare we say, anarchic and reckless with an ironic heart. In other words, funniness with teeth.

You will probably also have noticed then that a backlash of sorts has been occurring over the last year or so against exactly this kind of comedy. And in its place is an increased appetite for middle-of-the-road, big stadium routines; whilst the critics of edgy comedy have been growing more vocal and becoming more influential, and this has got me thinking: are we perhaps experiencing a turning point in the comedy environment in the UK?

The signs would indeed indicate so. After all, Morris’ film hasn’t even been shown to most reviewers in the UK [at time of writing] yet the rumbles of the "film treading on the limits of what distributors and broadcasters might tolerate" are already doing the rounds. Russell Brand went straight away after Sachsgate and Ross is going now, a few months afterwards [after doing enough to salvage a much more ‘publicly-funded’ career than Brand]. And anyone who went to see one of Boyle’s warm up shows for Mock The Week will know that although he officially left the show to ‘pursue other projects’, his despair at knowing that a large part of his routine would never make the final edit probably played a pivotal role in his decision.

I understand that some will argue that rather than a shift in comedy, what this reveals is a shift in what is acceptable in television or radio [particularly on the BBC] with people more willing to complain and demand a more conservative kind of comedy. And I think they’re probably right to an extent. After all, live comedy is still going strong and catering to all tastes, with the likes of Richard Herring and Stewart Lee selling out dates throughout the country.

But what concerns me on a personal level is that if edgy comedy were to be entirely pushed off our screens and radios, it would inevitably affect the way the circuit behaves as tastes are indiscriminately shaped by whatever or whomever is being given the oxygen of publicity as the much-maligned yet incredibly successful Michael Mcintyre proves. So, I ponder again, are we really going through a game-changer in the world of comedy [at least in the UK]?

I certainly don’t know the answer to that and I doubt that anyone does for sure. But in an age when bigots are getting organised, religious extremism is on the rise and politicians keep treating us all as if we are bewildered children who’ve just experienced a magic trick, surely we want our comedy to be cutting, edgy, pushing boundaries and not gagged. The efficacy of comedy has been proven many times. From Chaplin’s Hinckle to Carlin’s Seven Words, from Pryor's riffs on race to the wave of right-on British comedians during the Thatcher era. Edgy comedy too has proven to be a successful tool when aimed at the right targets and allowed to flow. It’d be sad to see comedy toothless, without bite. Hopefully I’ll reread this ponder in a year or so and laugh at how wrong I was. Feel free to let me know what you think please.

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Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Ponderings Of A Reality TV Junkie

by Candice Carboo-Ofulue (@candaloo)

We all have vices of which we are desperately ashamed. Those guilty delights that we publically denounce but secretly indulge. Seeking solace for our conflicted minds, some of us hide in the shadows of self-delusion, fruitlessly attempting to convince ourselves that we abhor these unspoken pleasures even as we enjoy them. Mine, regrettably, is philanthropic reality TV. Know it? It comes under the guise of “Secret Millionaire” and the rest. At present I am hooked on America’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, which purports to transform people’s lives by building their dream home. Arguably, this entire ponder is my attempt to delude myself that my interest is purely sociological.

The truth, of course, is that I’m addicted to the anesthetising, happy coma into which I plummet, as I succumb to the improbability that nice guys from television programmes with corporate funding, simply come along and build poor people monstrously large houses. State of the art houses, I might add, fully equipped with solar energy, ensuite bathrooms, gyms, butlers...you name it, they’ve probably done it. Add to this altruistic recipe a deserving poor family that has dedicated itself to teaching sign language to deaf monkeys, or painting classes for armless war veterans.....and the whole experience leaves you...well...fluffy.

But it's precisely this fluffy paralysis that underlies my mental anguish. Is it justified? Why should evidence of extreme poverty and failure of the government’s wealth distribution policies evoke fluffiness? Surely we should be hyperventilating with anger and rushing to the streets in protest?

Which brings me to my ponder: is our obsession with philanthropic reality TV destroying our collective conscience? I mean, are we investing in this falsehood because we’ve abandoned our social obligation to alleviate poverty, amongst other social inequalities? What’s next “Get Me Out of Guantanamo Bay?”

I suspect that this particular happy high we get from philanthropic reality TV appeals to both our modern fixation on sensationalism, as well as our sense of justice? In this fictitious world where poor people prevail and corporations build houses, there is a happy ending. We’ve become more comfortable with depending on the televised generosity of affluent altruists and corporations than the promises of our politicians. If this is the case, then should we explore the possibility that our reality TV obsession is a product of our political apathy?

Needless to say, the probability of a random rich man offering to build your house, or pay your debts is so outrageously non-existent that disillusioned or not, this is really no alternative.

So how to conclude? Call me a cynic but there has to be dangerous consequences in investing in the falsity of philanthropic reality TV. By transforming poverty into entertainment, do we make it an abstraction free from its social determinants? What about our responsibility to address the uncomfortable truths of life: poverty, climate change, terrorism etc?

Personally, I have little faith in a junked up society hooked on a happy high in dealing with our questionable future, which is why my New Year’s resolution is to stop watching philanthropic reality TV and start writing to my local MP. So what are your thoughts?

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Farewell To The Album?

by Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a fairly brain draining programme whose name I have not only forgotten, but is also in no way relevant to this ponder. What I do remember is one of the plastic faces declaring that the growth of music downloads has changed the industry so significantly that producers and musicians alike are warning that they may be forced to give up on albums altogether, and instead devote their resources to releasing stand alone singles.

My immediate reaction: so what?

It goes without saying that illegal downloads and music sharing have had a role to play in this latest development but a) that’s not what I’m talking about and b) I think that rather than fundamentally altering the music industry, downloads have simply accelerated the inevitable.

What I am talking about is the way that our preferred way of consuming music has been altered to become more diverse, more dynamic… more flippant? And in fact, is that precisely the point? We’re now consuming music rather than enjoying it? Or is such a distinction simply pretention all dressed up with nowhere to go? It could well be both, but regardless, what drove this change wasn’t a clever marketing ploy dreamt up by the suits at Sony. It is technological advance that has enabled us to have more control over what we listen to and how we listen to it… and to be more flippant? So perhaps it’s the correct order that musicians and producers recognise the shift as well?

I fully understand why individual artists would fight a process that has made creating albums unprofitable. But, should the consumer really care? If artists are still producing blinding singles and consumers are enjoying them, should that same consumer show an interest in the artistic angst of the world’s next Hendrix? Sat alone in an airless bedroom desperate to create an album but finding that the taste for it, and so by default funding, is no longer there?

In a recent interview with George Michael, Simon Hattenstone writes that "he says he thinks albums are passé, that you have to work in a different way today for a market that listens to music by the song." Maybe he's right.

I’m not anti-album by any stretch of the imagination. I’m listening to this as I write, you should too – it’s beautiful. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very much a Beatles girl. I think that Revolver is the best album ever created. Not because it has the best Beatles’ tracks (it doesn’t), but because it is conceptually stunning. But that was a different age, an age when music and occasionally politics drove album creation, not sales. And sad though it may be, those days are gone. They were given their warning call when Britney hit us one more time and gave up their last gasp when Cheryl fought for her love.
There are plenty of musicians out there who are still making incredible albums. They’re the minority in the plethora of over-produced, over-commercialised discs being spun out every year, but there are nevertheless still a lot of good ‘uns about. And surely, surely those with real talent, real drive will sacrifice their profit margins for the sake of their art? Too romantic? Isn’t music itself our greatest romanticism?

Think of the image of a young writer desperate to publish his or her first novel, or get a front page headline. Somehow I very much doubt that you're imagining a literary equivalent of Britney Spears with her overnight fame and bags of cash. Art in any form should not be about the accumulation of wealth – if it happens then lucky you, but it shouldn’t be the driving force. By the same token if the monetary incentive of producing albums has been removed I’m convinced that we’ll still get the Dylans and Cobains of our time, but maybe Peter Andre wouldn’t have bothered. Do you know what I mean?

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Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Why Are There No Gay Footballers?

by Joshua Surtees

My ex-girlfriend physically despises professional organised sports. Apart from figure skating. But then, she is Canadian. And Canadians notoriously have difficulty understanding any sport that doesn’t involve ice. Or snow. Or both.
Above all sports, however, she had a particular dislike for football (or “sah-kerr” to use her North American terminology). The instant football came on the TV she would magically produce a book or magazine and start reading, steadfastly refusing to glance at the screen even for a millisecond. Unless of course Cristiano Ronaldo was playing. She liked CR9. Although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his sporting prowess she was admiring.

Other than Ronaldo, the only other aspect of association football that fascinated my ex was the inherent homoeroticism of the game. She would point out homoerotic aspects which many ‘sah-kerr’ fans choose to ignore but, when examined, are clearly present. E.g. that 60,000 men (and football crowds still are 90% male) crammed into a stadium very close to each other watching 22 men run around in tight shorts, mimicking the players’ kisses, cuddles and embraces that follow each goal, is quite a ‘gay’ thing to do. Bear in mind she is a staunch supporter of gay rights and has more gay friends than any other straight person I know. Her point was that the majority of the men doing these ‘gay’ things at football matches are, generally, rather homophobic. The beautiful irony she saw in fat, unfashionable, largely illiterate, straight men getting “all homosexual” with each other was hilarious to her. “Are you off to the game now to be gay with your friends and all the other guys?” she would goad. “It’s not gay,” I would respond, “it’s what’s known as male bonding. It’s about as non-gay an activity as you can get”. But I was only fooling myself. It is gay. It’s very, very gay.

The question she would ask me about football, above all others, was: why are there no gay footballers? This ponder is dedicated to her musing…

So, why are there no gay footballers? And I do literally mean none. The only footballer in the entire history of the world game to come out publicly was Justin Fashanu in 1990. Upon coming out he was instantly mocked and reviled by supporters, even disowned by his own brother, the cretinous John Fashanu. Sadly, Justin Fashanu, a talented footballer in his mid-80’s prime, took his own life in 1998. As a black man, having put up with years of racism within the game, he became unable to deal with the homophobia, the general turbulence of his life, the taunts of managers, fans and players and an unfounded sexual assault claim filed against him by a teenaged boy he coached in the US.

Other than Fashanu, no footballer has ever admitted being gay. Marcello Lippi last year claimed there are no gay players in the game. Now, in a sport played by 250,000 people world wide, around a quarter of whom are professionals, it’s simply not possible for them all to be straight. That’s just a question of simple logic. Some, perhaps as many as 10%, must be gay. If they are, then it’s very sad they have to live in the closet through fear of what might happen if they were public about it. Sadly, such fears are well founded. Football in many ways is still truly a philistine sport.

To put homophobia in football in context; within very recent memory in the UK, loud open, vitriolic racism was heard at nearly any game you went to. In some places it still exists: Millwall, Oldham, Stoke, Burnley, Leeds or Cardiff to name a few. You will still hear racist abuse at all of these places. In Italy and Spain racism is commonplace and barely questioned, even by the authorities. Given this fact, you are probably able to imagine what attitudes to gay people are like. Homophobic abuse is already directed at players who are not openly gay but simply suspected of being so. Or even just because they read books! Graeme Le Saux, an intelligent former player and league title winner, was one such player subjected to taunts. Sol Campbell is another. “Have you ever seen Campbell with a bird? Have you fuck.” they sing at him. And far far worse things I’d rather not repeat here.

While anti-racist policies such as the FA’s Kick It Out have been in place for a while, the intolerance of homosexuality in football circles is only just beginning to be challenged at an official level. The FA has a Homophobia In Football working group. Shamefully, professional clubs are neglecting to support its aims.

Other sports have featured openly gay players. Rugby, with the recent example of Gareth Thomas, basketball player John Amaechi in the US, even the ultra-macho, Irish sport of Hurling recently had a gay revelation in the form of star player Dónal Óg Cusack.

So, what is football’s problem? Clearly one can accept the culture of football is decisively masculine, aggressive and centred around male posturing. But I don’t see that this stops a player from coming out. Gay men can be just as masculine, aggressive and posturing as straight ones. The question is: why would they choose to expose themselves to the hatred by disclosing their orientation? The hatred would not necessarily come from fellow players. David James, Portsmouth and England goalkeeper, demonstrates this, writing rather eloquently here about his hope for a gay player to come out.

And yet, to come out in the Premiership in England would take a huge amount of bravery. PR guru Max Clifford believes there are gay footballers out there who are too scared to come forward. But somebody will have to take the first step. While initial reactions may be harsh, I feel that if a strong role model gay figure was to emerge, somebody with the equivalent status to a David Beckham or Wayne Rooney, the bully boys and homophobes in the crowd could be silenced. All human rights campaigns require trailblazers, groundbreakers and martyrs. Gay football already has its martyr, Justin Fashanu. Let us hope there will be no more martyrdom but at the same time let us hope that one day somebody will emerge with the courage and conviction to cope with the stress and to change footballing attitudes, just as Clyde Best, Brendan Batson, Cyril Regis, Viv Anderson and Laurie Cunningham did for black players and fans in the 70s.

There are gay men involved in some ways with football. Elton John owned Watford FC in the 1980s. Matt Lucas is an Arsenal season ticket holder regularly seen at games. It would, however, be a giant step forward into the 21st century, if an actual player or indeed manager, intimately connected to the sport came out. One day it will happen. Maybe not necessarily in the UK. Maybe in Holland, Germany, Sweden; places with more forward-thinking, European attitudes. Not that homophobia in the UK is generally a huge problem. Historically we are one of the most tolerant and supportive countries when it comes to gay rights. It’s just such a shame our tolerance and support does not extend to our national sport.