Monday, January 24, 2011

Layer 429 . . . Comedy, Justice, Miranda, Jonathan Ross, Michael Sandel, Fairness and Cruelty

I had a debate with my son on Saturday about whether Jonathan Ross is the right presenter for the British Comedy Awards. Ross still seems to have an image that's supposed to be cool, edgy, sharp, dangerous, alternative, hip, rebellious, sexy, post-modern and cynical - which are all deemed to be rather a good thing, apparently.

This is in contrast to someone like Miranda Hart who's persona suggests bumbling, unsexy, out of touch, foolish, uncoordinated, hopeless, unattractive, naive, desperate to be popular and distinctly uncool.

I put it to my son that there's at least a score of British comedians who would be a better presenter of the awards than Woss. The evening, was, after all, a celebration of the amazing talent we have in this country - some incredibly funny people. I could reel off the names of two dozen comedians and comic actors that I would gladly pay money to see.

In the event, Ross was pathetic. I kept half an eye on my son, and he was no more amused by Ross's schtick than I was - and I didn't so much as smirk or snigger at ANY of it. Not at all funny. Not even clever or vaguely amusing. In fact it would be true to say he was downright unfunny.

Whereas Miranda Hart carried off three of the major awards, and did so with aplomb. I admired her for the way in which received the awards too - since she seemed to do it whilst deliberately NOT being chummy or interactive with Ross, and in fact ignoring his foppish and unattractive presence as best she could.

Personally I couldn't give a damn about the outcry regarding Ross shooting himself in the foot by trying to outdo the brilliant Russell Brand in the Sachsgate non-scandal. Brand is still a genius. Ross isn't. He can't even get laughs from people who say they actually like him, such as my son. And it's to my son's credit that he didn't laugh at Ross's rubbish.

Obviously a lot of comedy is dependent on writers rather than witty improvisers. The lifetime achievement award went to Roy Clarke OBE - the  writer of shows including Last of the Summer Wine, Keeping Up Appearances and Open All Hours. These are not necessarily the kinds of programmes I'd watch myself, but I'd much rather watch Clarke's style of gentle, character-based comedy than watch any of Ross's preening, self-regarding , vastly overpaid wisecracking efforts. His radio programme was particularly bad since it was done with a sidekick whose role was to fawn and chuckle over each and every one of Ross's so-called witicisms.

It was good to see Simon Amstel's show, Grandma's House, getting some honourable mentions, and one award. In fact all of the awards were well merited. Just a pity about the man presenting the show itself. Will he still be doing it next year?


Earlier in the day I'd been reading a piece in the Guardian about comedians who try to get laughs from being deliberately cutting and cruel. People like the man Boyle, whose act seems to consist of picking on members of his audience and mercilessly taking the piss out of them. You might say his audience deserve whatever he dishes out, since they presumably enjoy it when he does it to others on TV, but that's a crap justification for a deeply unattractive individual.

Is comedy getting too cruel?

Was Ricky Gervais's Golden Globes turn funny, or just mean? Is comedy getting too cruel? Comedians Steve Punt and Shappi Khorsandi debate what is a joke too far

Some newspapers continued their campaign this week to have the controversial comedian Frankie Boyle purged from our screens for ever, and even suggested he has been snubbed by the British Comedy awards tonight. Are comedians really more offensive than ever?

SP: Television is driven by viewing figures. If really offensive comedy pulled huge audiences, they would continue to make it. The fact is, it doesn't; it pulls huge column inches and debate, but the shows people watch are Harry Hill and Michael McIntyre's Roadshow. What is comedy for? Is it designed to make you rush to the phone and dial Channel 4 in disgust, or designed to make you laugh? You don't want comedy to be bland and safe, but there's no reason why inoffensive should be bland.


This is a subject that's very close to my own heart. Michael Sandel's first programme on 'Justice' was on BBC4 last night. The two key themes were 'fairness' and 'the meaning of the Big Society'. Sandel is a terrific tutor, a professor of justice, and a skilled practitioner of this kind of interactive discussion. Unfortunately for him, and for this type of format, the contributions from the audience were leaden and plodding. You felt like you wanted Sandel to just speak to camera and cut out all the waffle from the Small Society in the studio. Most of it was standard boring waffle that you could hear on any studio discussion. Sandel was disappointingly low-key and indirect. The man's an absolute star, but he was guilty of being too democratic and too teacherly by allowing run of the mill comments from Joe Public to have equal time with his own contributions. The whole thing became too slow and too meandering.

Now it's fine for teachers to take this approach in the classroom, and in fact it's important to tease out from any group what they think about the issues before you can begin to move the majority of them forward. The problem is, this doesn't make for particularly riveting television, especially if the group you're working with is - what shall we say? - less than inspiring. Less than intellectually sparkling.

At the rate he was going it was likely to take several months before a lot of the people in the audience could be moved towards an enlightened attitude to social justice, fair pay, etc. This was a striking example of why it's so important, and why it's so necessary but also so difficult even for good teachers to differentiate for different learning needs and abilities - if you don't want to alienate individuals at both ends of the spectrum of understanding.

Justice - A Citizen's Guide

Beginning in January 2011, BBC Four is hosting a wide-ranging debate on the state of justice in Britain and the world today.

Today (Monday)

A specially-commissioned documentary in which renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel looks at the philosophy of justice.

Is it acceptable to torture a terrorist in order to discover where a bomb has been hidden? Should wearing the burka in public be banned in Europe, if the majority of citizens disapprove? Should beggars be cleared off the streets of London?

Sandel goes in search of Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant and Aristotle, three philosophers whose ideas inform much contemporary thinking on justice, and tests their theories against a range of contemporary problems.

Filmed in Berlin, Boston, Athens and London, this thought-provoking film includes interviews with the world's great philosophers, modern day politicians and thinkers from all around the globe.


More Under The Covers Cops

Mounting anger among women protesters will see female activists converge on Scotland Yard (today) to demand that the Met disclose the true extent of undercover policing. The demonstration is also, according to organisers, designed to express "solidarity with all the women who have been exploited by men they thought they could trust".

[A] former SDS officer claims a lack of guidelines meant sex was an ideal way to maintain cover. He admitted sleeping with at least two of his female targets as a way of obtaining intelligence.

"When you are on an undercover unit you were not given a set of instructions saying you could or couldn't do the following. They didn't say to you that you couldn't go out and drink because technically you're a police officer, that you shouldn't go out and get involved in violent confrontations, you shouldn't take recreational drugs.

"As regards being with women in very, very, very promiscuous groups such as the eco-wing, environmental movement, leftwing, or the Animal Liberation Front – it's an extremely promiscuous lifestyle and you cannot not be promiscuous in there.

"Among fellow undercover officers, there is not really any kudos in the fact that you are shagging other people while deployed. Basically it's just regarded as part of the job. It'd be highly unlikely that you were not [having sex].

"When you are using the tool of sex to maintain your cover or maybe to glean more intelligence – because they certainly talk a lot more, pillow talk – you would be ready to move on if you felt an attachment growing.

"The best way of stopping any liaison getting too heavy was to shag somebody else. It's amazing how women don't like you going to bed with someone else," said the officer, whose undercover deployment infiltrating anti-racist groups lasted from 1993 to 1997.

Amazing. But what's really amazing is that public money was spent on infiltrating anti-racist groups. That would be like Hitler using public funds to infiltrate anti-Nazi groups. You'd have to be a Nazi to want to do it.

The former SDS officer, who has now left the Met, said one stipulation by senior commanders was that undercover officers should be married, so that they had something to return to. He said the move was introduced when a spy never returned after five years undercover.

Some "thing" to return to?


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