70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen
It’s 70 years today since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen (#Belsen70), another example of man’s inhumanity to man and what happens when you scapegoat an entire – or rather several – people groups, dehumanise, persecute, incarcerate and attempt to wipe them out. It is also 33 years since I visited Belsen as a 15 year-old, the same age as the famous diarist, Anne Frank, who died there just months before its liberation. It left indelible memories on me and a life-long belief in human rights for all people.
The concentration camp had various purposes during the Second World War, from Soviet and Italian POWs, Jewish internment, as well as housing other people groups including Czechs, Poles, homosexuals, Christians who opposed Nazism, Romani and Sinti ‘gypsies’.
The Dutch Jewish teenager Anne Frank is remembered through her diary “The Diary of a Young Girl”. The UK based Anne Frank Trust, whose motto is “Challenge Prejudice, Reduce Hatred” ran a social media campaign on 14 April under the hashtag #NotSilent in which people recorded themselves reading one-minute extracts from her diary about life in hiding in Nazi-occupied Netherlands.
“We’re much too young to deal with these problems, but they keep thrusting themselves on us until, finally, we’re forced to think up a solution, though most of the time our solutions crumble when faced with the facts. It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!” – 15th July, 1944, Diary of A Young Girl, Anne Frank
Her hopefulness echoes the words of Nelson Mandela:
“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite” – Nelson Mandela
Another internee was Josef Čapek, from what is now the Czech Republic, a Cubist painter, cartoonist, writer and playwright. He wrote the utopian play “Land of Many Names” and is credited by his brother as being the first to invent and use the word “robot”. He was critical of Hitler and Nazism and was arrested in 1939 upon the invasion of Czechoslovakia, though he managed to write “Poems from a Concentration Camp” at Bergen-Belsen, though died in 1945 shortly before liberation.
British Liberation of Bergen-Belsen
Some 50-70,000 are though to have died, some 30,000 of them Jewish, among the 120,000 held there, escalating to 20,000 a month before liberation put a stop to it. It was far from the worst of camps, and yet it was enough to shock those that discovered it, almost by accident.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division who discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside and at satellite camps, mostly emaciated and/or seriously ill with typhus or similar. Lying, unburied, around the camp lay 13,000 corpses and even some still living among them. Another 14,000 died of infection and starvation in the 10 weeks following liberation.
“Over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live…This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
The BBC also recently interviewed one of the few remaining survivors, Gena Turgel.
Memorials to Bergen-Belsen
The SS destroyed most of the inmate records and the British, after making the SS build mass graves for the unburied, then destroyed the camp by fire because of the disease there.
Whilst nature was allowed to take over the remains, in the way that only nature does, the mass mounds of graves containing up to 5,000 people each remained obvious. Over the following months wooden monuments were erected by varying groups and a year later a stone monument was erected by the Central Jewish Committee of the British Sector.
We ignore growing ethnic & sectarian division and hatred at our peril – particularly in the #MENA region. We must never forget #Belsen70
In 1952 Germany’s president, Theodor Heuss, called on the German nation to never forget what had happened at Bergen-Belsen. Nor should we, whether Jew, Christian and other faiths, gypsy, mentally ill or disabled, political enemy or prisoner of war, all deserve human rights and not inhuman treatment or attempted genocide.
STOP PRESS: Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear team to return
But on Amazon Prime online video streaming in 2016 not the BBC. Meanwhile Top Gear will return to the BBC but with a different team. The schadenfreude is palpable as the BBC reports on their own loss of a profitable though oft inappropriate franchise.
In an Amazon statement, Jeremy Clarkson said:
“I feel like I’ve climbed out of a biplane and into a spaceship.”
Richard Hammond quipped:
“Amazon? Oh yes. I have already been there. I got bitten by a bullet ant.”
James May saw the perhaps double irony:
“We have become part of the new age of smart TV. Ironic, isn’t it?”
BBC suspends Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson amid mass Change.org petition
Whatever the “fracas” and nature of petulant millionaire star twat Jeremy Clarkson‘s “interaction” with a BBC producer, there’s nothing like a Top Gear fiasco (one of many over the years) to get the nation raging along with over 1 million signatories on a Change.org petition delivered this week by self-propelled big gun, aka tank (probably the slowest vehicle to appear in relation to Top Gear), to BBC HQ. It is just such a shame that this is what energises us and not more significant world matters.
Clarkson hinted that he was on the way out and had no fear, now that the internal inquiry is over – though not published, in berating his BBC bosses with a f*** laden foul-mouthed tirade at their idiocy at potentially ruining the Top Gear formula.
Diverse Top Gear Replacements
Suggestions to replace him have included Sue Perkins, Julian Clary, and Alan Partridge. Whilst they are all comedians, at least Perkins would not be sexist (towards women at least), neither she nor Clary would be homophobic, and any of Partridge’s foreign jokes would be obvious parody and satire. Other comedians who’ve appeared in the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car race around the Top Gear test track have included Eddie Izzard, Omid Djalili, and Sanjeev Bhaskar – all of whom would counter the alleged racism of the show.
Having Ellen MacArthur, Jennifer Saunders, or Jodie Kidd, on as the fastest women on the track would prove it doesn’t need 3 blokey blokes to present it – although that is the formula to date, and a politically correct presenter team would be as bad as the minimum female comedienne to be included on all panel shows which smacks of tokenism and harms female comedians standing in their own right.
Top Gear Matters to the BBC
Forget the impending General Election, Islamic State, Boko Haram, austerity crisis, the real serious issues of the day are the state of England cricket team – actually, that is pretty bad – and Clarkson’s latest open mouth (insert foot, boot, and massive car) bad boy laddish humour, allegedly watched by an audience almost equally split between men and women (60:40).
Top Gear, Clarkson, and his 4.63m twitter followers, are the BBC’s greatest export (yes, bigger than Doctor Who), greatest that is in financial rather than cultural terms. Bedder 6, as the anonymous company is called, helps to draw in £150m a year for BBC Worldwide from Top Gear from 150-350m viewers across 170 countries and spin-offs.
Just this week it was announced that in December Top Gear had somehow been cleared by the BBC of using “pikey” in a derogatory manner, to the utter dismay of representatives of Traveller communities.
The show is often no-holds-barred macho-masculine pub banter comedy that has comprised insults around race, nationality, sex, and disability. Just read some of Clarkson’s own attempts to be positive about women and yet explain the lack of female representation on the show itself:
“if one presenter on a show is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed heterosexual boy, the other must be a black Muslim lesbian. Chalk and cheese, they reckon, works. But here we have Top Gear setting new records after six years using cheese and cheese. It confuses them… Unlike furious thin-lipped feminists, I tend not to draw distinctions between men and women, apart from in bed where you really do need to spot the differences. At work, girls are just people.”
Conservative MP Maria Miller, has offered support for Clarkson, despite her being a former Disability, Women and Equality Minister. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The World at One, she said:
“The BBC needs to be better at managing its talent … there are other organisations that have to deal with larger-than-life characters…[he] is…a legend, not just in this country, but around the world.”
Legends, however, are extinct people, like the dinosaurs, something that Clarkson himself, in his column in The Sun, admits to being.
“The fact is that you can sign as many petitions as you like and call on the support of politicians from all sides, but the day must come when you have to wave goodbye to the big monsters and move on… I think it’s fair to say that nature made a mistake when it invented the dinosaur. It was too big, too violent. So one day, all the dinosaurs died and now, many years later, no one mourns their passing. These big, imposing creatures have no place in a world which has moved on.”
Does this mean that Clarkson should go the way of the dinosaurs and gas-guzzling cars? That a petition to reinstate him is as pointless as one to bring back Terry Pratchett – however, wonderful a tribute to the latter author?
Change.org Petition to #BringBackClarkson
A record making petition on Change.org had accelerated to nearly 600,000 signatures in barely a day (now over 1,112,000), easily eclipsing more political or ethical campaigns such as the pardon for 49,000 gay men prosecuted in the UK for acts now considered legal. The site’s popularity is such that I could not even get on to it to check the count at 10pm Wednesday night, as it was down with an “Error 502 Bad Gateway” , unless that was some political ploy due to the embarrassment of its success. Well it’s back now, seemingly the site is crashing under Clarkson’s popularity, and advocating the “Freedom to fracas” and with comments including:
“I pay my TV license to ensure that irreverent people can express themselves. If you become boarding [sic] and politically correct, you may disappear BBC.” and “A minority of over sensitive people should not ruin one of Britons [sic] favourite shows.”
I wouldn’t call allegedly hitting a producer over a lack of hot food and xenophobically referencing his Irish nationality, an act of irreverence nor suspending someone for that act, “over sensitive”. That the two most popular comments both had spelling mistakes should not lead anyone to any stereotypical conclusion. They were probably texting whilst driving their fast cars!
BBC Public Service Priorities
As a public service broadcaster with essentially a tax or compulsory licence fee, the BBC’s priorities should not be mere entertainment or subsidised insults.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama
The limits of Satire, Comedy & Humour
In my past I’ve enjoyed Top Gear, some of the banter and car challenges, but I’ve squirmed at the sexist racist humour Humour is one thing, the question is whether it’s actually deeply held bigotry disguised as humour, or an ever-so clever parody of “UKIP white van man racism” – which will no doubt be seen as offensive to white van men. The thing about satire and parody is that they often fail, as with Comedy Central’s Colbert Report on race and trans issues, when delivered by people in the majority who’ve not experienced prejudice, whereas the Kumars making fun of being Indian is.
What makes the parody both unlikely and unbelievable is that either Clarkson is a bigot or he maintains the persona off-screen as well. To Clarkson, even his suspension is just another joke, despite knowing he was on his last warning.
I’ve done stand-up comedy myself, and made it a rule to only insult and offend myself, not others – although I can’t stop some still choosing to take offence.
Top Gear‘s humour is pub or front room banter, the kind you use when you think nobody is watching – but there are tens, if not hundreds, of millions that are.
And this is the “British values” we should be so proud of exporting? I’m all for freedom of speech, but allegedly hitting your employer’s staff, insulting other nations, and expecting to not only get away with it but get paid millions for it?
Whilst the infraction was off-air, it is no less abusive of workplace colleagues and bullying, despite it not being part of an aired programme. According to The Mirror, he called Oisin Tymon:
“a “lazy, Irish c***” before splitting his lip with a punch that left the 36-year-old with blood running down his face and needing treatment in A&E, the BBC investigation will be told.”
Hitting is not humour, and nor was it his first public punch up. If the rest of the show is very clever parody like Alan Partridge or Comedy Central, then it does not work. It is very hard to successfully satire racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia, all of which have appeared on Top Gear. All the more so when it fuels the white male entitlement patriarchy rather than challenges it.
“Top Gear is an escapist post modern light comedy entertainment show; the vital ingredients being Clarkson, May, Hammond and cars will keep it on the Beeb for a while to come.”
Apart from what may be a short-lived 2011 prediction of its long-term longevity, I beg to differ. Their lives on and off the screen are making stereotypical jokes, setting chauvinist poor role models, and should not be the BBC’s best export. The fact that it is popular in human rights violating China and Putin’s Russia should not be a cause for celebration if it encourages their sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, rather than challenges it.
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou
Jeremy Clarkson – change your attitude, everyone else sign some petitions and be the change! If we are evolved at all, it is time the politically incorrect (such a polite term for sexist racist ableist homophobes) dinosaurs died out.
We can’t get enough of Benedict Cumberbatch and the BBC‘s Sherlock, fortunately the Beeb have announced they are to return with filming of a 2015 Special beginning next January and then another 3 episode fourth season later in the year to hit our screens in 2016. The dripfeed of tantalising information began last Tuesday with a BBC One tweet:
Of course the hashtags, #221back and #Sherlock, gave it away but talk about teasing foreplay and dangling this before us and yet making us wait over a year. It is because both the actors and writers are so good that they are in such demand elsewhere too. Cumberbatch on Star Trek, Martin Freeman on Fargo and both of them in The Hobbit. Then at precisely 2:21pm GMT, simultaneously in the UK and US, the BBC announced, and serially re-announced, the news formally, again via the trending #221back hashtag:
We’re ready to unleash the most shocking and surprising series of #Sherlock yet. The only thing is to expect is the unexpected… #221back — BBC One (@BBCOne) July 2, 2014
The new series will be “deeper and darker” than before, and Moriarty could be back. Steven Moffat hinted that “the very next thing to happen to Sherlock and John, is the very last thing you’d expect.”
And so “the game is on” – again!
What has become a catchphrase of Sherlock, “the game is on”, is an update to “the game is afoot” which was originally uttered in just one Sherlock story, The adventure of the Abbey Grange:
“It was on a bitterly cold and frosty morning during the winter of ’97 that I was awakened by a tugging at my shoulder. It was Holmes. The candle in his hand shone upon his eager, stooping face and told me at a glance that something was amiss. ‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!’ Ten minutes later we were both in a cab and rattling through the silent streets on our way to Charing Cross Station.”
“The game is afoot” was not an original Conan Doyle inspiration but rather a phrase borrowed from that other English master craftsman, Shakespeare, some 300 years earlier. It first appears in a Shakespearian play, spoken by the Earl of Northumberland, in Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 3:
“Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.”
It also appears in the famous speech of King Henry beginning, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” and ending:
“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'” (Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1)
Appeal of Sherlock Holmes
Many people, especially women, find intelligence attractive – “brainy is the new sexy”, but self-confessed cold aloofness and detachment?
So why the appeal of Sherlock with his narcissistic superior personality not to mention narcotic escapism on the side. Just why is Sherlock so addictive? Is it that we too are escapist fantasists wishing for an attachment with someone so detached, or do we want to be him, as intelligent and as apparently not needy? Although, it is clear from his weaknesses for drugs and Dr Watson, that he is, however idealised, still far from emotional self-sufficiency.
“My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.” – Sherlock Holmes
It’s not as if Sherlock is great marrying material, given his views on the subject:
“Let’s talk about…murder. Did I say murder? I meant to say marriage. But, you know, they’re quite similar procedures when you think about it. The participants tend to know each other, it’s over when one of them’s dead. In fairness, murder is a lot quicker though.” – Sherlock, BBC
Sherlock himself was not one for emotional attachment, as the modern Sherlock says, “Sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side”, but his one weakness was for Irene Adler, whom Conan Doyle describes thus:
“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen…. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.” – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
I’ve loved Sherlock ever since reading all 60 stories – published over a 40 year period, aged 15, and writing my English OA level special paper on him. I love his intelligence, but not his supposed rational avoidance of emotion for it is clear he loves Watson, not to mention the allusions to attraction and love for Irene Adler.
Elementary my dear Watson
Whilst the US adaptation of the Sherlock brand, the TV series Elementary (Season 1 – 2012, 2 – 2013/14 and Season 3 announced), has been running nearly as long, it takes a different road. Sherlock, played by Jonny Lee Miller, gains the first female crime-busting sidekick with Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson – Sherlock’s sobriety companion, a form of addiction counsellor. Sherlock in this is more gritty, troubled, emotional – indeed more human, but no less intelligent despite essentially being in rehab.
It would be a massive SPOILER ALERT for watchers of the US series to reveal the clever twist in just who Moriarty may be. More details, if you already know, or don’t care, on the Wiki list of Moriarty portrayals.
Whilst Elementary is quite different, both play upon the original stories and cleverly leave us guessing as to how they will interweave Victorian plots and book references whilst remaining gripping narrative arcs with surprise twists. That said, Elementary drifts ever further from the originals and seems to exhibit little loyalty to the originals, not that Moffat and Gatiss are renowned for traditional faithfulness either, especially with the way they’ve reinvented Doctor Who – albeit, in my opinion successfully and brilliantly.
Holmes, House and 221B
Although, contextually further away from the criminal detection, the American series House, again with a British actor playing the lead, transposes Holmes and to a lesser extent Watson, to a medical milieu. In many ways, it has been argued, the series is more faithful to the character of Holmes whilst straying almost completely from the plots. In this case it is Dr Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie with his medical friend Dr James Wilson, same initials as Dr J Watson. They both live at 221B’s, House actually on Baker Street. Their first patient is named Rebecca Adler and later a reference is made to another patient, Irene Adler.
Modern Film Interpretations
Sherlock Holmes has also been brought back to the big screen, so that we have three adaptations of him running simultaneously, along with the BBC version and US Elementary. In 2009, Guy Ritchie directed the first instalment of a British–American film series, produced by Joel Silver. It was more than sufficiently successful to merit a sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, coming out for Christmas 2011. A third film announced that year by Warner Bros is still, according to Jude Law in 2013, at scripting stage. Robert Downey Jr played a believably narcissistic Holmes to Law’s suave updated, rather than bumbling, Watson. Whilst the films were more action based than the originals, they have been updated for our times, just like the TV series, but with bigger budgets.
David Stratton, writing in The Australian, in a piece called “The Swinging Detective“ disliked the first film’s Indiana Jones-styled interpretation of the original stories concluding, “The makers of this film are mainly interested in action; that, they believe, is all that gets young audiences into cinemas today. They may be right, but they have ridden roughshod over one of literature’s greatest creations in the process.” The fact that there are literally dozens of versions, though, and that each may drive young readers back to the books, is surely a good thing. Just like stage plays and films of Shakespeare one can go for authenticity or adaptation, if not reinvention, it does not diminish the original, rather it shows how versatile and enduring the stories are.
Actors who’ve played Sherlock Holmes
Holmes is the most portrayed character in movies, of all time, with some 70+ actors playing him. Of all his portrayals, though, I’ve always loved the classic Basil Rathbone on TV and the sharper, perhaps less likeable, Jeremy Brett. Probably the worst, for me, at least, were Charlton Heston, Roy Hudd, Roger Moore and Edward Woodward – not that I didn’t like these actors in other roles, the latter in Callan, for instance.
On radio, a medium quite well suited to the stories, I loved Clive Merrison, the only actor to cover every story and thus the entire canon of Sherlock Holmes. Carleton Hobbs managed 56 of the stories in 80 radio productions. In the war years, Sir John Gielgud performed several radio versions.
The updated television versions make extensive use of visual demonstrations of Holmes’ thought processes, not to mention texting and phone technology, an advantage of television over radio, which lends itself to modernisation rather than authenticity. It may surprise you to know that John Cleese played Sherlock Holmes in a 1977 comedy spoof The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It. Other unlikely actors included Larry Hagman of Dallas fame playing him in another comedy drama made for television movie as a motorcycle cop who after an accident believed himself to be Sherlock Holmes. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore also paired up in a comic version.
More seriously, Leonard Nimoy, perhaps as the emotionless Spock well suited to the role, played Sherlock on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).
A Growing Audience
It is to be hoped that modern reworkings of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, Elementary and the film franchise will create a new young audience for Conan Doyle’s character and send them back to books to marvel at Victorian penmanship.
Sherlock’s Facebook page has 3.7m likes and no doubt after 10 million Brits watched him rise from the dead, that figure will just rise and rise again.
[An earlier version of this article first appeared here]
“This house will become a shrine, and punks and skins and rastas will all gather round and hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader. And all the grown-ups will say: “But why are the kids crying?” And the kids will say: “Haven’t you heard? Rik is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!”” – The Young Ones
“Bum”, I mean “Bottom“, Rik Mayall has died a Young One at just 56, the B’stard. The near-30 year married family man was a comedy genius and genuine talent. He will be sorely missed and was working right up to the sudden end, despite his own near-death experience on a quad bike back in 1998 that left him in a coma for days and with epilepsy. Ironically, his most recent project was a Lupus Films/Channel 4 animated comedy about the joys of being dead – “Don’t Fear Death“!
Death “is your passport to complete and utter freedom. No pulse, no responsibilities. Carpe mortem – seize death”
Mayall and Ade Edmondson were contemporaries at Manchester University – where they also met writing partner Ben Elton, and performed together as 20th Century Coyote, their first performance was an improv called “Dead Funny“. As members dropped (not dead) off, the comedy group became a duo, renamed to The Dangerous Brothers, and shifted to London’s Comedy Store, where Alexei Sayle compered. Later they started their own comedy club, The Comic Strip Club, which ran out of Soho porn baron Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar, whilst conventional adult strip acts performed on the other two stages. This is also where they met Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, who Edmondson later married in 1985.
>Together they formed the TV series “The Comic Strip Presents…” which ran from 1982, 5 years before French and Saunders aired as a separate series. Their first episode was a parody of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures as “Five Go Mad in Dorset“.
In 1981 Mayall played “Rest Home” Ricky in Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Picture Show follow up musical film: “Shock Treatment“. Curiously, Rik has managed to play a Rick, a Ricky and also a Richie, aka Richard Rich in Filthy Rich & Catflap (1986).
In 1991 he got to play a Fred, the eponymous mischievous imaginary friend in the film “Drop Dead Fred“. He also squeezed in a Micky in “Eat the Rich” (1987), a Mathias in “Little Noises” (1991), a Marty in “Bring me the Head of Mavis Davis” (1997) and a Mario in “Eldorado” (2012). Not to mention the voice of Prince Froglip in “The Princess and the Goblin” (1991) and Mr Toad in “The Wind in the Willows” (1995).
Another animated character he played was was the voice of Kehaar in the series version of “Watership Down” (1999) and Edwin the Eagle in the spellbinding “Shoebox Zoo” (2004-5). He also played an unnamed man in the pub in “An American Werewolf in London” (1981). In 2000 he managed to play character opposites Robin Hood in “Blackadder: Back & Forth” and King Herod in “Jesus Christ Superstar“!
The Young Ones first aired in 1982, the BBC was not entirely convinced, but went ahead to compete with the emerging popularity of Channel 4. Spike Milligan, commenting on Mayall’s farting, nose-picking “Rick”, described him as the “arsehole of British comedy”. (Quoted in McSmith, Andy, No Such Thing As Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s, Constable & Robinson, p149)
Until then most successful comedians and comedy writers had emerged from establishment universities like Oxford and especially Cambridge. Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson stemmed from Oxford, whilst Cambridge and its Footlights Theatre produced talent that went on to make Monty Python, The Goodies,Yes Minister, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Alas Smith and Jones, Fry and Laurie, Newman and Baddiel, Punt and Dennis, and more recent acts like Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, Mel and Sue.
Rik portrayed the crude, pompous poet, anti-establishment anarchist and redbrick university sociology student, “Rick” with great energy and voracious vulgarity. In the “Bambi” episode, somehow the four students end up on University Challenge, appropriately competing against Footlights College.
On the show Rick’s namecard has a scrawled ‘P’ added to it and Vyvyan jokes that his name has a silent ‘P’ before it. In the same episode Neil reads out graffiti from Rick’s ‘O’ Level History text book – “Prick is a wonker – signed, the rest of the class”, although Rick dismisses this as classroom banter until Neil then reads out a further scribble – “I agree with the rest of the class – signed teacher”.
“I live on the limit, Vyvyan. The limit, because I’m a rider at the gates of dawn and I take no prisoners!” – Rick in The Young Ones
For all his character’s pseudo-anarchy Rick seemed to have a conservative background and was a Cliff Richard fan. He didn’t seem to know much about the politics he claimed to believe in and was a lazy socialist, in terms of political theory.
“If you’re a wild eyed loner at the gates of oblivion then hitch a ride with us, because we are riding on the last freedom moped out of nowhere and we haven’t even told our parents what time we are coming home…” from the introduction by Rick to Cliff Richard’s “Living Doll” for Comic Relief (1.5m views)
It was no surprise when Rik evolved Rick into slimy sleazy scheming Conservative politician Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, which ran on ITV from 1987 to 1992 for 4 series. I completely forgot that Vyv’s surname was also Basterd in the Young Ones.
Rik Mayall also reprised Alan B’Stard MP, or rather PM, in a political advertising campaign by the No2AV group in 2011. Parodying David Cameron and Nick Clegg entering into coalition and office together he promised no tax or tuition fees, free housing and electricity, and then gleefully burnt the manifesto and its promises.
“You know the really great thing about a fudged coalition is that neither of us need to carry out a single promise of our election manifestos.”
At the same time as the New Stateman was airing Rik also popped up in Blackadder II and Blackadder Goes Forth, playing the loud lecherous bragging Lord Flashheart. In 2006 he returned to the nobility as Lord Reginald in “SpongeBob SquarePants” (2006).
Whilst Flashheart was crude in an upper class slimy sexist way, Rik returned to the gutters again for “Bottom” (1991-1995). Mostly containing scenes of frying pan bashing and slapstick violence akin to classic Laurel and Hardy or old Warner Bros cartoons. For all its base comedy, Rik and Ade had acted together in Waiting for Godot in 1991 and created Bottom as a crude take on the play. The characters, again a Richie, Richard “Richie” Richard, and Edmonson playing flatmate Eddie Elizabeth Hitler, went on to appear in four series, a film “Guest House Paradiso” (1999) playing Richard Twat, and a touring stage show – “Bottom: Live“, which left them in hospital, on occasion! Bottom last toured in 2003 but the 1997 stage version, “Bottom Live 3: Hooligan’s Island” nearly made it back to our screens in 2013, but was cancelled due to competing projects that Ade Edmondson wanted to pursue.
One of my favourite banal Bottomscenes from Season 2 Episode 2, bemoaning what to do in the absence of television…
Richie: What about “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”?
Eddie: We haven’t got a donkey.
Richie: Well, “Pin the Tail on the Chicken”
Eddie: We haven’t got a tail.
Richie: Oh. Well, “Pin the Sausage on the Chicken”?
Eddie: We haven’t got a chicken.
Richie: (Annoyed) Well, “Pin the Sausage on the Fridge”.
Eddie: Or a pin.
Richie: (Angrier) “Sellotape a Sausage to the Fridge”!
Eddie: We haven’t got a sausage!
Richie: (shouting) “Put a Bit of Sellotape on the Fridge”!
Eddie: (Beat) It’s not much of a game, is it?
[Richie and Eddie have just played stick a piece of sellotape on the fridge. Eddie won]
Eddie: Who won?
Richie: Ha ha ha ha. Eddie, it matters not who won or lost, but how you play the game.
Eddie: Oh, you mean I won? Ha! Ha-ha. [wets his finger, draws a figure 1 in the air, waves his hands in the air]
Richie: Yes, I suppose so, yeah, I mean if it’s so important to you, yes. Yes, you did win. I mean for Heaven’s sake, Eddie, it’s only a game! [walking away, to himself] Shit, shit
Waiting for Godot, was not his only conventional acting role, he also appeared made a “brilliant debut” as Ivan in Gogol’s The Government Inspector at the Olivier Theatre in 1985. Indeed, The Telegraph ran an article back in April this year on the 2012 film Eldorado, “the worst film ever made…weapons-grade awful”, in which Mayall played a Verdi-singing, cannibalistic chef, Mario – in contrast to the dire film, his scene stood out as “fairly watchable”!
During the 2000s Mayall was marketed by Playstation on games and ads, to be seen as more “edgy” over Sega‘s success. The money he made from this bought him a house which he jokingly named “Nintendo Towers“.
Such a shame, that like Faulty Towers there were just 12 episodes of the Young Ones, a 1980s classic “sign of the times” series – it always felt like there were many more, I wish there were, and now there won’t be a comeback series as The Old Ones, perhaps “only the good die young”. The Young Ones page on Facebook has nearly a million likes.
Ade Edmondson had this to say of his long time friend and creative collaborator:
“There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing. They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him. And now he’s died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard.”
Nigel Planer, hippie Neil in The Young Ones, described him as:
“…inspirational, bonkers, and a great life force”.
The Guardian described Mayall’s characters as “full of life” and “vast mad scribbles, jammed to the margins with noise and energy”.
The level of talent portraying anarchist poet Rick and punk revolutionary Vyvyan, and their reprised characters in Bottom is clear when one realises that both men went on to conventional marriage and fatherhood. They both married in 1985 and had 3 kids each. Prior to, and overlapping, that, Mayall had been in a relationship with Lise Mayer, co-creator and writer of The Young Ones, and who is now married to Angus Deayton. He leaves behind his wife, Barbara Robbin, and three children, who if they were ever told how to behave after seeing daddy in The Young Ones and Bottom, must have been a struggle to get to behave!
Bonnie Mayall, Rik’s youngest daughter, posted on Facebook:
“We will never forget him and neither will the world, R.I.P to the man, the myth, the legend – my wonderful, generous, foul mouthed and hysterical father.”
For a man whose career went from “Dead Funny” to “Don’t Fear Death” via a near-death experience in 1998, Rik Mayall died full of life, love and laughter. He leaves behind a comedy legacy that will keep us laughing for many years to come.
[An earlier version of this article appeared here]
May 3 is the twentieth World Press Freedom Day, a day to be celebrated, whether you like the media you read or not. Doing their job and trying to write free of political pressure or censorship has meant 200 journalists are currently imprisoned worldwide in countries like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Iran, Palestine, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Freedom of the press means several things. Firstly it should be free of government influence, free to criticise in-power politicians, free to champion the causes of out-of-power ones and those who may have become political prisoners. As the recently deceased Tony Benn MP once said of democracy and those in power: “To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you?” – surely one of the tools of challenging politicians is a free Press which should go hand-in-hand with democracy. No journalism will ever be completely free of personal or political influence, therefore to be truly free, we need journalism of all flavours, passions and persuasions. From long established broadsheet papers like The London and New York Times, The Telegraph, Washington Post and Guardian, to Internet HuffPost, Wikileaks and even tabloid or so-called “gutter press” papers, and combative Radio 4 Today Programme and interrogative Paxman Newsnights – they are all necessary. If we believe in freedom of speech/writing then we cannot seek to control that based upon personal preference for a different style of news or belief on what constitutes news.
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” – Thomas Jefferson
Journalists should equally be free to write without editorial or media-owner pressure to toe a particular line. Any piece that bears their name should carry their opinion and theirs alone. They should even have input and a veto on headlines, which are so often written by others after their piece has been edited and approved. This is a part of journalistic transparency which we should be able to see in every article or story. Either in tandem with this, or in addition, there should be rules preventing monopoly and/or government ownership of the Press.
A sad but now inherent part of newspaper history was the so-called “Yellow Journalism” of the 1890s as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer II of Pullitzer Prize fame battled it out for readership, lowering the tone and truth of reporting in the process of pursuing profits over accuracy. We would now call much of this “Tabloid Press” now, though the shape and size of a paper need have no bearing on its quality of content. The “Yellow Press” has, however, still been responsible for bringing people and politicians to account, even if it can also be blamed for causing offence, ‘outing’ people – whether their sexuality, gender or infidelity, it has been cited in cases that have led to suicide – so I am not saying that the media is perfect, just that it is necessary in an open, if not for, an open society.
“Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose” – George Orwell
Whilst writing should, in principle, be free of ‘hate’ speech, libel and slander, it must, however, be free to express opinion and should only incur sanctions when breaking human rights, equality and defamation laws. A right to disagree and be disagreed with is paramount to press freedom and journalistic integrity. That said, opinion pieces should have a right to reply and/or comment with moderators being sure to only police hate speech, insult and injury, and not rights to express personal, political or religious beliefs. Noam Chomsky said that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”, it is freedom for all or it is censorship. “You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. You must defend all of it or be against all of it.”, as Scott Howard Phillipssaid, albeit concerning the US 2nd Amendment and right to bear arms. In John Stuart Mill’s 1859 book, On Liberty, he wrote much that holds as true today, if not more so, as 150 years ago:
“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
In the Danish political drama, Borgen (Season 2 Episode 2), the female PM, Birgitte Nyborg, is encouraged by her faithful friend and gruff colleague Bent Sejrø that a clever politician gathers around themselves people who may disagree with you. Not just as part of the episode’s Sun Tzu “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer” theme but in order to create better policy. Only surrounding yourself with people who agree with you will not save you from mistakes.
World Press Freedom Day
World Press Freedom Day was declared at the end of 1993 by the UN General Assembly. It is commemorated on 3 May, the anniversary of the 1991 Declaration of Windhoek (Namibia) to promote “Independent and Pluralistic Media”. Among other principles Windhoek declared that:
Consistent with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.
By an independent press, we mean a press independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals.
By a pluralistic press, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community.
Back in 1946, the UN had declared “freedom of information” to be a “fundamental human right”. Press Freedom Day, therefore, seeks to:
Celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
Assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
Defend the media from attacks on their independence;
Pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize
On 2 May an independent panel of media professionals declared Turkish journalist Ahmet Şik the 2014 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize winner. An investigative reporter and exposer of human rights abuses and corruption, Şik was injured whilst covering the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul last summer.
Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom Award
On 1 May Al Jazeera English Egypt producer Mohamed Fahmy, who is currently under arrest and detention, was awarded the Canadian Press Freedom Award for a “Canadian journalist who has made an outstanding contribution to the right to freedom of expression in the face of inordinate persecution.” Fahmy had previously worked for the BBC and CNN, and wrote an account, Egyptian Freedom Story, of the Arab Spring of 2011. Fahmy has donated the $2000 prize money to the family of another journalist, Mayada Ashraf, who died whilst covering political demonstrations in Egypt last month.
Al Jazeera Journalists detained in Egypt
Among the hundreds of journalists gagged, detained, or killed, worldwide, are two other Al Jazeera English staff – former BBC journalist, Australian Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed, held in detention by Egypt for “broadcasting false news” – for “false”, whatever your opinion, read “disapproved”. In the prison where they are being held pen and paper are banned yet the power of journalistic truth and persuasion won Fahmy access to them and he was able to smuggle out a letter this week:
“I hereby appeal to the global advocates of press freedom not to hold Egypt, the country of my birth responsible for our wrongful detention. Only certain individuals in the system who lack the understanding of the fundamentals of journalism are to be held accountable. One way to reverse this misunderstanding is to start with the man next to you, and in my case that would be the illiterate prison guard convinced that by broadcasting protests in Egypt to the Western world simply makes me a traitor. His more educated disgruntled boss who has prevented me from having a pen and paper in my cell has become more lenient by time when I continuously highlighted certain values of journalism like transparency and the importance of having a watchdog to question the government that pays his salary and evaluates his performance. The metamorphosis has begun and the fact that this letter has been released from prison and published is in itself a victory to be celebrated and hopefully not the last.”
Another Al Jazeera journalist, Arabic correspondent Abdullah Elshamy, has been imprisoned without trial since last August and has now been on hunger strike for weeks and lost nearly 35kg and not received medical attention. [Update: Elshamy was released on 17 June after 10 months in prison without charge or conviction.]
Fahmy described this as a blatant “breach of human rights” and added in his letter:
“I see no better occasion than today to remind the world about the plight of these men and that there are dozens of respected, local Egyptian reporters and citizen journalists who are suffering in prison awaiting trial, they are simply prisoners of conscience.”
(See and hear the letter read out in an Al Jazeera English video) The Egyptian judge at the 3 May bail hearing wished the 3 detained Al Jazeera journalists a happy Press Freedom Day then refused bail with no sense of irony at all. At the hearing Peter Greste said for the benefit of other reporters present: “You can’t have a free society without a free press. In Egypt today you know that you can’t provide balance as long as you can end up in prison like us.”
[Update: Sadly, the 3 reporters – Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were handed down guilty verdicts on 23 June for 7 years for spreading “false news” and supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, charges they continue to deny and say they were only carrying out their duties as journalists and reporters. Nine other defendants tried in absentia, including three foreign journalists, received 10-year sentences, two have been acquitted. Of the twenty defendants in total nearly half are Al-Jazeera journalists. #AJTrial]
Early 20th century Ukrainian-Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov – he was born in Kiev, but moved to Moscow – managed to simultaneously both offend and please Joseph Stalin and have books and plays not only banned but also protected by him! He superbly put that a journalist without freedom is like a fish without water:
“To struggle against censorship, whatever its nature, and whatever the power under which it exists, is my duty as a writer, as are calls for freedom of the press. I am a passionate supporter of that freedom, and I consider that if any writer were to imagine that he could prove he didn’t need that freedom, then he would be like a fish affirming in public that it didn’t need water.” – Mikhail Bulgakov, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov A Life in Letters and Diaries
If Press freedom is like water for journalists, just as the air all of us breathe, it is not something that can be restricted. The right to free expression and opinion is a universal human right. I’ll end with the infamous non-quote by Voltaire:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This was actually said by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire, 1906. What he did say in a 1770 letter, was:
“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”
Many have given their own lives in order to report the news or their views, whether professional or “citizen journalists”, but Press freedom means supporting the freedom to express even the views we may detest or disapprove of. Press Freedom Day means reminding the powers that be that the “world will be watching” their treatment of journalists and freedom of speech.
This article was first published on Bubblews and subsequently a version was published on my Google blogger/blogspot account.