The Baby Wars
Sunday 14th October 2007
If you don’t have a child under ten, you’re unlikely to appreciate the significance of Gina Ford’s attack on Claire Verity last week. Verity is the 41-year-old “supernanny” who is currently appearing on a Channel 4 series called Bringing Up Baby in which she advocates a return to the Spartan child-rearing philosophy of Truby King. King was a Victorian health reformer who believed it is in a baby’s best interest to be kept on a strict routine when it comes to feeding, sleeping and bowel movements — an attitude that was passionately argued against by Dr Spock, the American pediatrician who advocated a much more flexible approach, including feeding-on-demand.

Ford’s attack came in the form of a letter to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in which she accused Verity of “child abuse” and the reason it was such a surprise is that most people think of Ford as being in the anti-Spock camp. Ford’s main claim to fame is The Contended Little Baby Book, a child-rearing manual based on her own experiences as a maternity nurse in which she argues for a return to routine. The crucial distinction between her and Verity — the reason Ford has “gone nuclear” in the Baby Wars, so to speak — is that Verity believes parents should feed small babies every four hours, whereas Ford believes they should be fed every two or three hours, depending on their size and weight. In addition, while both are passionately opposed to feeding-on-demand, Verity recommends ignoring babies who cry in between feeds, whereas Ford believes in trying to “settle” them.

To those of us with small children, it is not surprising that such infinitesimally small differences should provoke such a ferocious dispute. Among my peers, no topic is more likely to polarize dinner-party conversation than child-rearing techniques. The War in Iraq pales into insignificance by comparison. I imagine that it is now one of those subjects that ambassadors are trained not to bring up at state dinners, alongside religion and politics.

Why should this be so? My theory is that childrearing has become the new battleground in which the ideological disputes that divide Generation X are being fought out. The main fault line is between those who were brought up in liberal households and have reacted by becoming more conservative and those who were brought up in more conventional circumstances and now embrace a hedonistic libertarianism. The former subscribe to the childrearing philosophy of Gina Ford, while the latter adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, often presented as a more “natural” approach. The irony, of course, is that the Fordists are the products of Dr Spock’s teachings — Spock was very popular with liberal parents — while the parents of the Back-to-Nature brigade are more likely to have been influenced by Truby King.

The conclusion would appear to be that no member of my generation wants their children to turn out like them. (For a different take, see this piece by Frank Furedi, the author of Paranoid Parenting.)


The Muhammad Ali of British Politics
Wednesday 10th October 2007

Has David Cameron rope-a-doped Gordon Brown? “Rope-a-dope” was the phrase coined by Muhammad Ali to describe the strategy he used to achieve his famous victory over George Foreman in the 1974 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. In essence, it involved lying back against the ropes during the first six rounds of the fight and allowing Foreman to punch himself out before launching a ruthless counter-attack in the eighth round that culminated in a knock-out punch.

There’s certainly a striking similarity between the Rumble in the Jungle and the battle between Brown and Cameron. Foreman was an old-fashioned heavyweight, relying on his punching power and methodical cunning to win his fights, while Ali was much more agile and light on his feet. During the bout, Foreman looked much stronger than Ali in the first five rounds, just as Brown completely dominated Cameron during the first three months of his premiership. By the sixth round, however, Foreman was clearly exhausted and his punches became increasingly wild, just as Brown’s have done in the past 48 hours.

In this context, Cameron’s performance in the House of Commons today was the verbal equivalent of the devastating combination of punches that Ali used to finish off Foreman in the last 20 seconds of the eighth round. Ali preceded his onslaught by taunting Foreman — “Fight hard. I thought you had some punches?” — just as Cameron has urged Brown to call a General Election. Then, Ali unleashed his barrage. Here is Norman Mailer’s description of it in *The Fight*:

Now Ali struck him a combination of punches fast as the punches of the first round, but harder and more consecutive, three capital rights in a row struck Foreman, then a left, and for an instant on Foreman’s face appeared the knowledge that he was in danger and must start to look to his last protection. His opponent was attacking, and there were no ropes behind the opponent. What a dislocation: the axes of his existence were reversed! He was the man on the ropes! Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best punch of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in his doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the center of the ring.

Of course, the analogy’s hardly perfect. There was no moment of fatal hesitation on Foreman’s part just before Ali turned the tables on him — on the contrary, he was going after him, hell for leather, from the very beginning — and Brown clearly isn’t about to fall to the canvas. Nevertheless, there are enough similarities for Cameron to have earned the right to be called the Muhammad Ali of British politics, particularly after today’s performance at the dispatch box.


Moonlight & Magnolias
Monday 8th October 2007
“The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century,” wrote Ben Hecht, the veteran Hollywood screenwriter. He claimed that of the sixty movies he wrote, more than half were completed in two weeks or less — and he bragged about using the two Oscars he’d won as doorstops.

Fifty years ago, when Hecht wrote those words, such sentiments were fashionable among the literary intelligentsia — and even today most intellectuals still look down their noses at Hollywood. Small, independent films are one thing, but how can a movie created for the sole purpose of making money be considered art? By its very nature, a big-budget studio picture will have to appeal to a huge number of people if it’s going to recoup its costs — and the only way to do that is to pander to the lowest common denominator.

Against this can be arrayed the dozens of Hollywood films that were made for purely commercial reasons, but are now acclaimed as masterpieces — films like ‘Gone With the Wind’, generally considered the first ever blockbuster. Ironically, Ben Hecht was one of the many uncredited writers on ‘Gone With the Wind’, having been locked in a room by the film’s producer, David Selznick, and told to come up with a screenplay within seven days. Hecht didn’t have time to read Margaret Mitchell’s book, so Selznick and the film’s director, Victor Fleming, acted it out for him, scene by scene — an episode now regarded as a quintessential example of the seat-of-the-pants style in which films were made during Hollywood’s golden age.

The week that Hecht, Selznick and Fleming spent locked up together has been turned into a terrific new play at the Tricycle Theatre by Ron Hutchinson, himself a veteran screenwriter. Called ‘Moonlight & Magnolias’, it manages to combine a good deal of low comedy — Selznick insisted on restricting Hecht’s diet to peanuts and bananas, which he regarded as “brain food” — with a high-minded exploration of the art v commerce theme. What makes it particularly interesting is that Hutchinson is at least as sympathetic to the film’s producer as he is to the writer, portraying Selznick as a visionary prepared to risk everything in pursuit of a dream and Hecht as a talented, but self-loathing hack.

Of course, it is hardly news that great art is often created for low-minded reasons. Samuel Johnson famously said that anyone who doesn’t write for money is a fool and there are countless examples of classic novels being written by authors to pay off their debts, beginning with Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’. Nevertheless, ‘Moonlight & Magnolia’ is a salutary reminder that the films regarded as great works of art in their day — such as Antonioni’s ‘L’avventura’ — are nearly always forgotten, while the studio pictures dismissed as schlock often go on to achieve immortality.

‘Moonlight & Magnolias’ is running at the Tricycle until November 3. For tickets call 020-7328-1000 or click here.


The New Sloane Ranger Handbook
Monday 1st October 2007
In 1956, Nancy Mitford wrote a famous article in ‘Encounter’ in which she outlined the various linguistic rules whereby the Upper Classes differentiate themselves from everybody else. Thus, “napkin” is U, while “serviette” is Non-U. It was the first example of what would become a journalistic staple: a posh writer unravels the mysteries of the Upper Classes for the benefit of the General Reader.

This tradition reached its zenith with the publication of ‘The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook’ in 1982. Co-authored by Ann Barr and Peter York, it did for the British aristocracy what John James Audubon did for the birds of America and was a massive bestseller — thanks, in part, to the recent emergence of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Now, 25 years later, the book has been updated, though with Olivia Stewart-Liberty standing in for Ann Barr. This time round, the authors distinguish between eight different types of Sloane and claim that, contrary to appearances, they are more plentiful than ever. The message of ‘Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The Return of the Sloane Ranger’ couldn’t be clearer: the efforts of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair to usher in a more meritocratic society have failed. The British aristocracy is still going strong.

Less clear is whether the book’s authors approve or disapprove of this state of affairs. ‘The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook’ anatomized its subjects with a good deal of affection — partly because Barr herself is a Sloane. The attitude of York and his new collaborator is more ambiguous, something that’s reflected in the names they’ve come up with for their different sub-species: Chav Sloane, Thumping Sloane, Turbo Sloane, Euro Sloane, Sleek Sloane, Eco Sloane, Party Sloane and Bongo Sloane.

“These are not the decent Sloanes I wrote about,” says Barr. “They are basically selfish jet-setters.”

Could it be that the authors of this new work are closet socialists? Is this book a thinly-veiled attack on David Cameron? York himself is certainly no Tory. Educated at a progressive school in North London, he now runs a successful market research company called SRU — and his own fortunes have been closely intertwined with those of New Labour. Indeed, he once employed Peter Mandelson. It may be that ‘Cooler, Faster, More Expensive’ is a gift to the new Prime Minister, a silver bullet that Gordon Brown can use to assassinate his Eton-and-Oxford educated Conservative rival.

Interestingly, Evelyn Waugh came to a similar conclusion in his assessment of Nancy Mitford’s article. He summarized its message as follows: “Hear me, comrades. I come from the heart of the enemy’s camp. You think they have lost heart for the fight. I have sat with them round their camp fires and heard them laughing. They are laughing at you.They are not beaten yet, comrades. Up and at them again.”


Boris Johnson’s Mayoral Campaign: A Disgraceful Attack
Friday 28th September 2007


Can Food Criticism Ever be Objective?
Monday 12th November 2007
In an interview on Classic FM recently, Gordon Ramsay kindly offered to do the canapés at the funerals of food critics free of charge. The question that prompted this outburst was about Frank Bruni, the chief food critic of the New York Times, who had the temerity to give Ramsay’s Manhattan restaurant a bad review Ramsay isn’t the only restaurateur to express doubts about the infallibility of food critics — and a recent scientific experiment in France would appear to bear out such skepticism. Frédéric Brochet, a Ph.D. student in oenology at the University of Bordeaux, conducted a study in which he invited 57 wine experts to taste an inexpensive Bordeaux that he poured from a bottle with a label saying it was vin ordinaire. The following week, he served the same wine to the same people, but this time from a bottle indicating that the wine was grand cru.

The tasters described the wine from the first bottle as “simple”, “unbalanced” and “weak”, whereas the wine from the second was acclaimed as “complex”, “balanced” and “full”. The conclusion, obviously, is that a wine connoisseur’s judgment about the quality of a particular wine isn’t simply a matter of how it tastes; it is inextricably linked to the cognitive parts of the brain. (My source for this story is a recent piece in the New Yorker that you can read here.)

It seems a fairly small leap to extend the same conclusion to the opinions of food critics. As someone who worked as a food critic for five years, I know from experience that my particular view of a restaurant’s cuisine was inseparable from such factors as how long I’d been made to wait, where I was seated, who my dining companions were, who else was seated nearby … and so on. The best restaurant critics — such as Adrian Gill — are almost wantonly capricious, capable of wild over-reactions to seemingly meaningless details. Indeed, it is this volatility that makes them so entertaining to read.

Interestingly, the one restaurateur who takes this subjectivity on board is Heston Blumenthal. Indeed, the tasting menu at the Fat Duck is based on this idea, with the Professor Brainstorm of the kitchen constantly demonstrating to his customers that their perception of whatever it is they are eating is intimately bound up with a range of completely arbitrary psychological factors. He is, in effect, proving that the way something tastes changes from individual to individual and that any definitive pronouncements on the subject, purporting to be objective, are nothing more than hot air.

And how have the critics reacted to this lesson in humility? They have repeatedly acclaimed Blumenthal as a genius and declared the Fat Duck to be the best restaurant in the world.


No More Films About the War, Please
Monday 5th November 2007
In Hollywood, it is generally believed that the reason so many great films were made in the 1970s was due to the national crisis of confidence prompted by Watergate and Vietnam. In trying to articulate this disquiet, filmmakers like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola redefined mainstream cinema and — for a time, at least — placed it at the heart of America’s ongoing conversation with itself.

This may help explain why there is suddenly a glut of studio pictures dealing with America’s military presence in Iraq and the War on Terror, including A Mighty Heart, The Kingdom, Rendition, Redacted, In The Valley of Elah and Charlie Wilson’s War. The writers and directors responsible for these movies — as well as the executives who have released the money to finance them — may well be under the impression that getting to grips with these big, political issues is a sign of great filmmaking. Certainly, the reason they are all being released this autumn is because the studios regard them as their best bets when it comes to the Oscars.

This Friday sees the release of what may be the highest-profile film in this category, Lions For Lambs. Directed by Robert Redford and starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, it is an unapologetically didactic attack on the foreign policy of the Bush administration and its allies in Congress. Indeed, Redford himself plays a college professor and about a third of the film consists of him delivering a stern lecture to a smart, but apathetic student who is repeatedly told, in effect, that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The problem with Lions For Lambs, as with the majority of these films, isn’t simply that its treatment of its subject matter is entirely one-sided; it is that no attempt has been made to dramatise the issues. If you compare the approach of the current generation of anti-War filmmakers to their 1970s counterparts, they emerge as disappointingly unimaginative. Their idea of how to persuade people that the War on Terror is wrong is to recreate some appalling event that actually happened — such as the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi schoolgirl by US soldiers that forms the subject of Redacted — and depict the American political and military high-ups who either condoned it or covered it up as Very Bad Men.

In the 1970s, by contrast, writers and directors understood that a less direct approach could be much more powerful. Thus, when Coppola wanted to explore the issues surrounding Watergate, he chose to make The Conversation. Similarly, when Sam Peckinpah decided to take on America’s military-industrial complex he opted for Cross of Iron. Even MASH, the most famous anti-war film of the period, is set in Korea rather than Vietnam.

What this earlier generation grasped — and the reason they made so many great films — is that a well-chosen metaphor can be a much more effective way of making your point than tackling an issue head-on.


Death at a Funeral
Sunday 28th October 2007

The traditional British farce hasn’t been doing very well lately. The Whitehall Theatre has been re-invented as Trafalgar Studios, Alan Ayckbourn hasn’t had a new play in the West End since 2001 and Ray Cooney doesn’t even get a mention in State of the Nation, Michael Billington’s recent history of British theatre. Is the bedroom door about to slam for the last time on this well-loved comic form?

I’m happy to report that the answer is no — at least, not yet. Next week sees the release of Death at a Funeral, a dazzling example of the genre directed by Frank Oz and written by Dean Craig. Set in a country house, the film unfolds over the course of a single day in which an extended family gather to attend the funeral of the clan’s patriarch. The tone is set in the opening scene when the undertakers turn up with the wrong corpse and it isn’t long before a combination of hallucinogenic drugs, a wheelchair-bound uncle and a homosexual dwarf are threatening to derail the proceedings.

The reason it works so well is that Craig, a 33-year-old British screenwriter, has managed to retain the essential components of the form while jettisoning some of its more out-dated aspects. For instance, at no point are any of the male characters discovered with their trousers round their ankles and there are no cases of mistaken identity. The problem with most farces, in my experience, is that they require too great a suspension of disbelief. Events unfold — and people behave — in a way that stretches an audience’s credulity to breaking point. That doesn’t matter if you’re a member of that generation who grew up with the genre — you’ll be willing to accept its bizarre conventions — but modern audiences tend to baulk at just how implausible the farcical universe is.

Fortunately, Dean Craig has injected a much-needed dose of realism into the genre. There’s nothing too theatrical or over-the-top in Death at a Funeral; the big comic set-pieces seem to emerge, organically, from the situation. Far from being comic stereotypes, the characters are people we are familiar with from our own lives and they behave in recognisable ways. In this regard, Craig and his director are helped considerably by an extremely talented British cast, particularly Matthew Macfadyen as the put-upon male lead, Andy Nyman as his hypochondriac cousin and Daisy Donavan as the closest thing Death at a Funeral has to a sexpot.

It is particularly heart-warming to see a British farce work so well on the big screen. In recent years, the most successful celluloid farces have all been the work of a Frenchman named Francis Verber, the writer and director of La Doublure, Le Placard and Le Diner de cons. In Dean Craig — who has already directed two shorts and is about to direct his first feature — we could have found the British equivalent.


Abigail’s 30th Birthday Party
Saturday 20th October 2007

Next week sees the 30th anniversary of a significant cultural event in Britain’s post-war history: the television broadcast of Abigail’s Party. At the time, the BBC had little idea of just how iconic this one-off comedy would turn out to be. It was running as a stage play at the Hampstead Theatre and, rather than commission Mike Leigh to adapt it for television, Margaret Matheson, the producer of Play For Today, decided to transplant the stage production into a television studio and shoot it over four days. The production values were low — Leigh says he can’t watch it without wincing with pain — but Matheson succeeded in capturing lightening in a bottle. In the list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, Abigail’s Party was ranked number 11.

Why should this 90-minute play have become such a classic? Well, for one thing, the comedy is played out against the backdrop of the English class system and that is a feature of British life that hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years ago. The central character, Beverly, is still a recognizable national stereotype: the petit bourgeois social climber whose constant stream of snobbish remarks inadvertently reveals his or her lack of sophistication. There are echoes of Beverly in David Brent, the character played by Ricky Gervais in The Office, and, indeed, Mike Leigh more or less invented the comic genre that The Office falls into: the comedy of embarrassment. (For my 2003 tribute to The Office, click here.)

Then there’s the fact that Abigail’s Party is so controversial. A few days after it was broadcast, Dennis Potter condemned it as “a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes” and, to this day, people are bitterly divided as to whether Abigail’s Party is an instance of the snobbery it purports to condemn. Are we being invited to sympathise with Beverly as someone whose life has been blighted by class consciousness — or merely laugh at her because she gets everything so hopelessly wrong? Leigh is adamant that it is the former, claiming that Abigail’s Party “is not a play about them, it’s about us.” Whichever side you come down on, the fact that the reaction to the play is so polarized — and can provide the fuel for endless dinner party discussions — is a guarantor of its longevity.

Finally, there’s something monstrous about Beverly that strikes a chord with people the world over, not merely in Britain. (There’s currently a production of Abigail’s Party running in San Paulo.) She’s the Lady Macbeth of the suburbs, a castrating bitch-goddess of the type that has transfixed audiences since the beginning of theatre itself. In Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh and his collaborators succeeded in creating a Medea for our times.

*BBC4 is devoting an entire night to Abigail’s Party on October 28.*


The New York Times Reports on the Making of How to Lose Friends
Sunday 14th October 2007
There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about the film version of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.


American vs British Women
Tuesday 11th December 2007
There’s an amusing article in today’s Times by Tad Safran about the poor personal grooming habits of British women. I wrote a piece for the Standard in 2002 about the shortcomings of American women that works as a sort of riposte.


Teaser for How to Lose Friends on YouTube
Monday 10th December 2007


Why Do British Comedies Get Bad Reviews?
Saturday 1st December 2007

I recently had lunch with the writer of a British comedy that had just opened in cinemas. He had spent the past 24 hours pouring over the reviews — and the expression on his face was one of wounded bewilderment.

“Why did they hate it so much?” he asked. “I simply don’t understand.”

This was no isolated incident. British film critics are more hostile to home grown comedies than they are to any other genre. To take a few recent examples, Sixty Six, Driving Lessons, Confetti, Starter For Ten, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Mr Bean’s Holiday, Magicians , I Want Candy, Run Fat Boy Run, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution and Death at a Funeral have all been poorly reviewed. Some of these films, such as Mr Bean’s Holiday, have had large enough P & A budgets to survive this onslaught, but the majority have not. In effect, the critics have succeeded in killing them stone dead.

The obvious explanation is that the films in question aren’t any good — but that simply isn’t true. Some have deserved the mauling they received — perhaps even most — but certainly not all. Death at a Funeral, for instance, is a well-crafted, Ayckbournesque farce that has won two international awards, yet it was universally panned on its home turf. One reviewer even described it as “the most ineptly-written film of the year”. The critics have a bias against British comedies that not even this little gem could overcome.

Why should this be? One theory is that the critics watch most of the films they review in small, half-empty screening theatres at 10.30AM — hardly the sort of circumstances likely to provoke gales of hysterical laughter. Yet this doesn’t account for why they are particularly hostile to British comedies. Why not all comedies? In my experience — and I’ve been reviewing films on and off for 21 years — American comedies are much more likely to be judged on their merits.

A more convincing explanation, I think, is that many of the critics are themselves frustrated comedy writers. In their heart of hearts, they would much prefer to be writing comic films than reviewing them — as is evident from their attempt to shoehorn gags into their copy at every opportunity. The reason they hold homegrown comedies to such a high standard is to justify their choice of career. If comedy writing was any easier, they would have no excuse for not pursuing their dreams, but because it is so hard — as they prove week after week by mercilessly laying into the local talent — they convince themselves that they are just being prudent. “Where fools rush in,” they tell themselves, as the bile pours from their pens.

In some cases, the vitriol is well-deserved, but in others it is not — and the pity is that many British comedies that deserve to find an audience end up sinking without a trace.


A Defense of Reality Television
Sunday 25th November 2007

The popularity of reality shows is often cited as evidence that British television is “dumbing down”. Typically, a highbrow critic will contrast Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation with I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here to illustrate just how far we have fallen. Lord Reith, we are told, would be spinning in his grave.

Two things can be said against this.

First, the “golden age” of broadcasting, which the BBC is believed to have embodied once upon a time, never existed. In the 1930s, when the Beeb consisted of a single radio station, it was routinely lambasted for broadcasting more light music, comedy and vaudeville than any other radio station in Europe. Indeed, Reith himself was often singled out by these critics who believed that his commitment to creating an inclusive, accessible, national broadcasting system would inevitably lead to the debasement of British culture.

Secondly, most reality shows aren’t nearly as “dumb” as they look. On the contrary, they embody the principles of classical drama as set out by Aristotle in The Poetics. In the case of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, a group of people are jolted out of their complacent existence, they are then forced to undergo a series of “trials” in which they’re pitted against the forces of nature and, while most succumb to the fates, some manage to wrest control of their destiny. The winner of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here is nearly always the person who combines strength, stamina and fortitude with a willingness to sacrifice their own interests to those of the group. In other words, a typical Greek hero.

To my mind, the question isn’t why popular entertainment has “dumbed down”, but why the public has lost faith in more conventional forms of storytelling. Why do we now look to the factual entertainment departments of national broadcasters to deliver the deep satisfaction that a well-constructed narrative can provide, rather than the drama departments? Audiences of reality shows are often criticised for being too credulous — don’t they realise it is no more “real” than a soap opera? — but the interesting question is why those same audiences are no longer willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to scripted drama?

No doubt contemporary novelists and playwrights would claim that the declining interest in their work is, in itself, a form of “dumbing down”. But they only have themselves to blame. The practitioners of high culture in this country took a disastrous wrong-turning when they embraced modernism at the beginning of the last century. This involved abandoning the universal principles on which all great narratives are based in favour of turgid little exercises in formal experimentation. The result has been a vacuum at the heart of our culture that the producers of reality shows are more than happy to fill.


Hollywood’s Two Cultures
Sunday 18th November 2007

In 1959, C. P. Snow delivered a lecture called ‘The Two Cultures’ in which he lamented the fact that educated people in modern society were divided into two camps: those with a background in the sciences and those with a background in the humanities. Reading between the lines, it was clear that he thought the former were more intelligent than the latter.

This same division exists in Hollywood where, if anything, the intellectual gulf between the “two cultures” is even more pronounced. In the past 50 years, the science and technology of filmmaking has advanced in leaps and bounds and has now reached a point where literally anything dreamt up by a person’s imagination can be reproduced on screen. The more “artistic” aspects of the profession, by contrast, have hardly changed — and when it comes to the most important “creative” component of all, namely, the script, we’re actually worse off now than we were in the 1930s.

A case in point is Beowulf, the new film by Robert Zemeckis. From a purely technical point of view, *Beowulf* is breathtaking. It utilises the “motion capture” technique that Zemeckis and his team of computer nerds pioneered in his previous film, The Polar Express, and combines it with the very latest 3-D technology to create an entirely new cinematic experience. It is hard to know how to categorize it, since, to look at, it sits somewhere between digital animation and live action, but you’re left in no doubt that this is where the future lies. Indeed, some of the special effects are so dazzling you get an inkling of what it must have been like for an audience that grew up in the silent era to watch a “talkie” for the very first time.

As a piece of writing, however, Beowulf is woeful. “Just don’t take any class where you have to read Beowulf,” Woody Allen said to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall — and the same applies to students on screenwriting courses. A joint effort by Neil Gaman and Roger Avary, Beowulf reduces the epic poem about a Norse legend to a finger-wagging parable about the risks of infidelity. They even make the elementary mistake of not providing the hero with a fatal weakness — he’s Superman without the Kryptonite. The fact that he’s completely invulnerable means that there’s no suspense when he takes on a succession of demons and monsters. Gaman and Avary achieve something I would not have thought possible: they make a fight between a lone warrior and a fire-breathing dragon seem boring.

The Hollywood writers’ union is currently out on strike, aggrieved that they aren’t receiving their due when it comes to dividing up the spoils generated by New Media. But if Beowulf is anything to go by, it is the techies who work behind-the-scenes that should be paid more, not the screenwriters.


Movie Poster
Wednesday 2nd January 2008

Here’s the first poster for the forthcoming film. Strangely, my name doesn’t appear to be on it. Click here for the official website.


Why is A Christmas Carol still so popular?
Sunday 23rd December 2007

George Orwell said that the best test of literary merit is survival and, by that standard, A Christmas Carol must rank as one of the greatest works of literature ever produced. Scarcely a December has gone by since it first appeared in 1843 in which a stage adaptation hasn’t been performed somewhere in London — there’s currently a production at The Young Vic by a South African company — and it has been made into countless films, the latest being Robert Zemeckis’s which is due for release in 2009. If Dickens had written just this one story and no other, his immortality would still be guaranteed.

Yet set against his body of work, A Christmas Carol seems like pretty thin gruel. For one thing, it runs to only 74 pages in the Oxford University Press edition. Contrast this with the same publisher’s edition of Bleak House which runs to 914 pages.

Nor was it written in circumstances likely to produce great art. Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens’s latest novel, were beginning to fall off in the autumn of 1843 and his wife, Catherine, had just become pregnant with a fifth child. A Christmas Carol was conceived as a quick money maker. He wrote it in just over six weeks, making sure it was ready in time for the Christmas market, and published it himself, calculating that his share of the profits would be greater than any fees he might get from a publisher. Admittedly, as Dr Johnson pointed out, only a fool doesn’t write for money, but few authors can have been as mercenary as Dickens when he sat down to compose A Christmas Carol.

Of course, these facts alone don’t mean it isn’t any good, but even his most generous critics wouldn’t rank it in the first tier of Dickens’s work. It embodies the same sledgehammer sentimentality that Oscar Wilde complained of in The Old Curiosity Shop. Tiny Tim, who bore “a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame”, is a character unworthy of the novelist who created Mr Micawber and Mrs Havisham. As Margaret Oliphant put it, A Christmas Carol is the “apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding”.

How to account for its longevity, then? The answer is simple: it has become inextricably bound up with Christmas in the public imagination. It has survived for the same reason that ‘Rudolph The Red-Nose Reindeer’ and ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ have survived — not because they’re any good, but because they’re guaranteed to get an airing every December. I’m not saying that there’s something about Christmas in particular that robs people of their judgment, only that if a piece of work can attach itself to an annual festival, it’s place in the canon is guaranteed.

Orwell was wrong. Survival, by itself, isn’t proof of literary merit. Provided a piece of work can become a seasonal staple, it can stand the test of time and still be second rate.


Movie News
Friday 21st December 2007

Channel 4 Film has just posted a piece about the forthcoming adaptation of How To Lose Friends & Alienate People and you can read an interview with the director, Bob Weide, here. Scheduled release date in the UK is October 3, 2008.


Is it curtains for Alan Ayckbourn?
Sunday 16th December 2007

Is Alan Ayckbourn still capable of putting bums on seats? Last Tuesday saw the West End opening of Absurd Person Singular, his 1972 comedy about three couples whose marriages are in varying states of disarray. It has an excellent cast (Jane Horrocks, John Gordon Sinclair, Jenny Seagrove, David Bamber, Lia Williams and David Horovitch), but will that be enough to guarantee commercial success? Or is Ayckbourn’s 40-year-run as Britain’s most performed living playwright finally coming to an end?

There’s no doubt that Absurd Person Singular is extremely dated. In one scene, the character played by John Gordon Sinclair tells his wife that he’s leaving her for another woman, but expresses the hope that they can still have sex from time to time. She doesn’t say anything in response and he becomes so infuriated by this that he threatens to “take a swing” at her. In a contemporary play, such behaviour would put this character completely beyond the pale — it would be a way for the dramatist to convey that he’s an out-and-out monster — but Ayckbourn stops short of this. The husband is not supposed to be sympathetic, exactly, but Ayckbourn expects us to be pleased for his wife when, in the following scene, they’re reconciled. So much for discouraging women from remaining in abusive relationships.

To get around problems like this, the director has decided to set the play in the decade in which it was written, but that is only a partial solution. There’s a more fundamental issue, which is that Ayckbourn’s style of comedy seems out of date, too. Absurd Person Singular is no door-slamming farce, but a large percentage of the gags are of the slapstick variety, with the characters suffering a wide variety of accidents. The problem isn’t that physical comedy has ceased to be funny — just look at the opening scene of There’s Something About Mary — but that it no longer works on stage. It is simply too unrealistic.

For instance, there’s a scene in which the character played by David Horovitch gets electrocuted while trying to fix a broken light fitting. He does his best to fizz and pop authentically, but no amount of artistry on his part can make it look convincing. Back in the 70s, when Absurd Person Singular ran on Broadway for 591 performances, audiences were willing to suspend disbelief. They were accustomed to things not looking real on stage and they were willing to accept it. Today, audiences have higher standards. The widespread use of special effects in film and television has raised their expectations. Unless an illusion is completely seamless, they’ll be too busy noticing its shortcomings for the scene to achieve its dramatic effect.

I enjoyed Absurd Person Singular and I hope it’s a hit. But I suspect that Ayckbourn’s time has passed.


How to Lose Friends: The Radio Play
Saturday 15th December 2007
Last year, Al Murray appeared as me in the radio adaptation of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. You can download this by clicking here.



Curb Your Enthusiasm
Monday 21st January 2008

Season six of Curb Your Enthusiasm debuts on More4 this evening at 10.35pm. Click here for a good piece about Curb in Saturday’s Guardian or here for my fawning Larry David tribute that appeared in the Independent on Sunday in 2006.


Should Theatre be Subsidised?
Monday 21st January 2008

Britain’s luvvies are currently up in arms about the Arts Council’s proposed funding cuts to various regional theatres. They are concerned that many of the venues that depend on Arts Council subsidies — such as the Bristol Old Vic, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond — will be forced to close if their annual grants are cut. (For a summary of the proposal and its likely impact on six performing arts centres, see this piece by Laura Barnett in last week’s Guardian.)

I’m skeptical about this. Surely, the theatres in question will only go out of business if they continue to put on plays that fail to capture the public’s imagination. It is only because they don’t sell enough tickets that they’re forced to depend on state handouts. If the artistic directors responsible for programming these venues were a little more in touch with the taste of ordinary theatregoers, their survival wouldn’t be in jeopardy.

The standard reply to this argument is that adopting such a safe, commercial approach would inevitably lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality. In this light, subsidized theatres are the laboratories in which young writers and innovative directors are free to experiment. The vast majority of these productions will fail to put bums on seats, but some will be such artistic successes that they will go on to play to packed houses in the West End. A case in point is Jerry Springer: The Opera, which began life at the heavily-subsidized Battersea Arts Centre. (For a version of this argument, see this piece by Richard Morrison in Saturday’s Times.)

I’m not convinced. Take the Menier Chocolate Factory. This 200-seat venue, which opened in 2004, is among the two or three most successful fringe theatres in the UK and yet it has never received a penny of public funding. The production of Dealer’s Choice that is currently playing at Trafalgar Studios began life at the Menier, as did the production of Sunday in the Park With George that is about to open on Broadway. It’s latest production — a revival of La Cage aux Folles — has received glowing reviews and will almost certainly transfer to the West End later this year.

While the Menier’s success can partly be chalked up to the entrepreneurial zeal of its two founders, David Babani and Danielle Tarento (who run a 60-seat restaurant alongside the theatre), it also finds space for new work in its repertoire. In 2005, for instance, a play by Ryan Craig called What We Did to Weinstein was short-listed for the Evening Standard’s “Most Promising Playwright” award. It is doubtful that the Menier would have been so artistically successful if its directors had the safety net of an Arts Council grant.

The real dispute here isn’t between commercially-minded philistines and high-minded theatre-lovers. Rather, the issue turns on who you consider the best judges of artistic merit: the theatre-going public or a bunch of Government-appointed apparatchiks. The success of the Menier chocolate Factory implies it is the former.


The Culture Show
Thursday 17th January 2008

This Saturday’s episode of The Culture Show, the BBC arts programme, contained a 10-minute film about the making of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. For those who are interested in seeing it, click here and fast forward to the 22 minutes, 20 seconds mark.


The Cold War Revisited
Saturday 12th January 2008
With five Golden Globe nominations and seven nominations on the Bafta long list, Charlie Wilson’s War looks set to be one of the big winners of the awards season. This is partly thanks to the star turns delivered by Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also because it harkens back to a period in America’s post-war history when its foreign policy commanded much more support. It is the first example of what may become a new cultural trend: Cold War nostalgia.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a lighthearted romp — based on a true story — about the part played by a renegade Congressman in kicking the Russians out of Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson was a hard-partying member of the House of Representatives who, in addition to being implicated in a number of scandals, was instrumental in increasing the budget for the CIA’s covert funding of the Afghan Mujahideen. If any single individual can be credited with bringing down the Soviet Union, Charlie Wilson is that man.

What is fascinating about the film is its completely revisionist attitude towards the Cold War. The conventional view of this conflict, as propagated by novelists like John Le Carre, is that it was characterized by deep psychological unease and moral uncertainty in which both the Soviet Union and its Western opponents were fatally compromised. Not so, according to Charlie Wilson’s War, which depicts the 1980s as a period of almost carefree innocence. Back then, we knew who are enemies were, we knew where they were and, most importantly, we knew how to defeat them. Contrast this with the geopolitical quagmire we find ourselves in today.

Of course, one of the main reasons we can now look back on the Cold War era as the Good Old Days is because the West came out on top. Waging a covert military operation — and winning it — seems infinitely preferable to waging an actual war and losing it. Nowhere is this more apparent than if you contrast the record of the West’s intelligence services in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the record of their armed services in the same region twenty years later. How could a few well-placed operatives mastermind a successful war against the Soviet Union, while the combined might of our armed forces be humbled by a handful of Islamists? No wonder we feel nostalgic about the recent past.

The other appealing thing about Charlie Wilson’s War is that it conjures up a period when the public did not require its leaders to be quite so virtuous. Wilson’s scandalous personal life didn’t stop the voters of Texas’s 2nd Congressional District re-electing him (and nor should it have done). Perhaps the lesson is that if we want to win the War Against Terror we’ll have to replace men like George W Bush and Tony Blair with men more like Charlie Wilson.


Things to Look Forward to in 2008
Monday 7th January 2008
Only a fool would recommend something he hasn’t seen or heard yet, but hope springs eternal. So here are the things I’m most looking forward to in 2008:

1. Charlie Wilson’s War. A political comedy in which a corrupt congressman finds redemption by helping the Mujahideen kick the Russians out of Afghanistan. With Tom Hanks as the hard-partying Congressman, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a renegade CIA officer and Julia Roberts as a rich widow. Opens Jan 11.

2. The Vertical Hour. I prefer David Hare when he’s got his reporter’s notebook in hand than when he’s inventing things out of whole cloth and The Vertical Hour falls into the latter camp. To make matters worse, a production has already been staged on Broadway where it opened to lukewarm reviews two years ago. Nevertheless, it will still be worth a look. Opens Jan 17.

3. Uncle Vanya. Peter Hall directs a new translation of Chekhov’s masterpiece at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. With Nicholas Le Prevost in the central role, this promises to be the theatrical event of the year. Opens Jan 25.

4. Juno. After the success of Knocked Up, you’d have to be a very confident director indeed to attempt another romantic comedy revolving around an unwanted pregnancy. Luckily, Jason Reitman is that man. Released February 8.

5. Major Barbara. Nicholas Hytner directs Simon Russell Beale, Clare Higgins and Hayley Atwell in a revival of Shaw’s provocative attack on high-minded do-goodery. Opens March 4.

6. Something to Tell You. More middle-aged angst from Hanif Kureishi, this time in the form of a novel set in Shepherd’s Bush about a successful psychoanalyst struggling to come to terms with the sins of his youth. Published March 6.

7. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Anthony Minghella directs this one-off BBC adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s novel from a script by Richard Curtis. March.

8. The Second Plane. Martin Amis’s fiction may not be what it once was, but, as a critic and polemicist, he is as strong as ever. The centerpiece of this collection is ‘Terror and Boredom’, a long essay on the West’s inability to respond to the challenge posed by Islamic fundamentalism. April.

9. The Dark Knight. British director Christopher Nolan just gets better and better and this follow-up to Batman Returns looks set to be the biggest blockbuster of the summer. Opens July 25.

10. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. It’s shameless, I know, but the thing I’m most looking forward to in 2008 is the big-screen adaptation of my own best-selling memoir about working for Vanity Fair in New York. Starring Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst and Jeff Bridges. Opens October 3.


“Toby’s like a piece of gum that got stuck to the bottom of my shoe.” – Graydon Carter

The Sound of No Hands Clapping
Saturday 19th August 2006
The Daily Telegraph published part one of its serialisation of my new book today. To read it, click here.


Review in The Hollywood Reporter
Friday 11th August 2006
The Hollywood Reporter published a nice review of The Sound of No Hands Clapping this morning. To read it, click here.


Clip from A Right Royal Farce
Friday 11th August 2006
Here’s a series of clips from a Right Royal Farce, mine and Lloyd’s new play at the King’s Head. If you want to view them in chronological order, start at the bottom and then work your way back up. To put them in context, it might help to read the press release, too (see button to the left).


Clip from A Right Royal Farce
Friday 11th August 2006


New York Times Review
Wednesday 19th July 2006
The New York Times carried a good review of The Sound of No Hands Clapping today. Here it is in full:


Learning to Succeed as a Loser, on Two Continents


When last spotted, at the end of his memoir “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” Toby Young was slinking out of Manhattan, a ruined man. Fired as an editor at Vanity Fair and banished from the Eden of American celebrity culture, he threw in the towel and returned to London.

Mr. Young, I am happy to report, learned virtually nothing from his American misadventures. “The Sound of No Hands Clapping” finds him once again madly pursuing fame and riches, worshiping the same false celebrity gods, and in general making an absolute fool of himself. For readers, this is very good news. Mr. Young’s pain is their gain.

This time around Mr. Young fails on two continents. He flails away in London, where he just might be Fleet Street’s most-fired journalist, and then, seduced by Hollywood dreams, takes a wild stab at starting a screenwriting career in Los Angeles.

Humiliation beckons at every turn. He writes a biweekly magazine column for The Spectator called “No Life.” The editor kills it. On assignment for a women’s magazine, he pays a hugely embarrassing visit to a penis-enlargement specialist. In a sweaty bid for media exposure, he agrees to be interviewed on the BBC about his collection of X-rated videos. It does not go well. “You’ve turned into Paris Hilton,” his wife tells him. “Is there nothing you won’t stoop to?”

The answer is no. Mr. Young craves attention, and he will do anything to get it. He adores celebrities and wants to be near them. When he moves from Greenwich Village, the sense of loss tears him apart. His apartment is across the street from Gwyneth Paltrow’s.

He is entirely unashamed about this. “Why wouldn’t a person want to be famous?” he asks. “Celebrities are at the top of our society’s food chain. They live in the grandest houses, dictate the latest fashions, and enjoy unlimited sexual opportunities.” So there it is, the Young worldview, a source of wonderment even to Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, who could never quite believe that Mr. Young was actually English.

Failure is Mr. Young’s calling card. It works for him. “How to Lose Friends” attracts the attention of a big-shot Hollywood producer who decides that Mr. Young is just the man to write a screenplay about a famous but repellent record producer of the 1970’s. “Mr. Hollywood” remains anonymous — Mr. Young fears reprisals — and the film is never made, but in a single magic moment Mr. Young plunges right back into his element, and the usual round of missteps and miscalculations.

Mr. Young savors his humiliations like fine dinners. There’s the time he forgets his passport and tries to board an airplane using a Blockbuster Video card, and the stag weekend before his wedding that his best friends do not bother to attend. Most writers try to forget bad reviews; Mr. Young clips out the really painful bits for rereading. “Toby Young is a balding, bug-eyed opportunist with the looks of a punctured beach ball, the charisma of a glove-puppet, and an ego the size of a Hercules supply plane,” he quotes one British critic as writing. “And I speak as a friend.”

Most of the wounds are self-inflicted. Half drunk, he tries to corner the film producer Harvey Weinstein at a party to deliver a pitch. A beefy security guard deposits him on the sidewalk outside. Experiencing a brief midlife crisis, he embarks on a solo camping trip in the Welsh mountains in the middle of a snowstorm. During the night he steps away from his campsite to urinate and gets lost. Only the ringing of his cellphone back in the tent saves him. It’s his wife, calling to see how he’s getting along.

“I couldn’t really understand why you kept doing such dumb stuff,” Mr. Hollywood’s assistant tells him after reading his first book. “I mean, you just kept on doing it, over and over and over. What’s with that? It’s like you had Tourette’s or something.” Yes. It is very much like that.

There are, however, disturbing signs of growth. Mr. Young still wants to be famous, but he has decided that he would like to be famous for doing something artistically worthwhile. In London, scene of so many reverses, a one-man play based on “How to Lose Friends” makes a small splash and transfers to the West End, where Mr. Young replaces the original actor and plays himself. He’s no Olivier, but he holds his own, and so does the play.

Mr. Young tries mightily to disguise his achievements, but fortune insists on smiling. He collaborates on another play, which does well. He marries and fathers two children. The domestic chapters, interwoven with the Hollywood material, present a softer, almost endearing version of the author, who searches for but does not find flip comic material in his children. Instead he discovers new sources of love, commitment and satisfaction. This is wonderful for Mr. Young, but death to the comic persona he has created.

True, he agrees to pose naked to promote his book. But by the end of “The Sound of No Hands Clapping,” twin specters loom: success and happiness, with no celebrities attached. Mr. Young loses interest in Mr. Hollywood, and in Hollywood. He likes staying at home with his kids. The franchise is finished.


How to Lose Friends: the Radio Play
Tuesday 31st October 2006
Radio 4 will be broadcasting the radio dramatisation of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, starring Al Murray as me, at 2.15pm this Friday.

Murray gives an absolutely inspired performance, but don’t take my word for it. The Guardian Guide, which made it ‘Pick of the Day’, has this to say about it: “Toby Young appears to have had a very successful career announcing his own failure, which makes you wonder how long he can keep up being both a success and a failure, but his story of disaster in the big city is none the less very funny indeed. Afternoon Play–How To Lose Friends And Alienate People (2.15pm, R4) stars Al Murray as Young, who leaves London for New York to become a contributing editor at Vanity Fair only to hit one disastrous setback after another, mostly of his own making. Meanwhile the pomposity of the media elite is pricked with great wit and accuracy.”


Interview in the Scotsman
Saturday 23rd September 2006
An interview with me appears in today’s Scotsman. It begins:

PERCEPTION IS A FUNNY THING. IN HIS two autobiographical romps, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and his latest, The Sound of No Hands Clapping, Toby Young strikes me as an arrogant pillock careening from misadventure to misadventure due, in a large part, to his inability to listen, take advice, or tame his ego. For instance, he wins a coveted internship on the Times, and decides it would be utterly hilarious to hack into the editor’s personal e-mail and disseminate salary information and insulting missives. On another occasion a friend (ie: someone he likes) asks Young to be his best man. The groom cautions him to be sensitive about the bride’s German roots, so Young decides nothing would be funnier than “mentioning the war”. Repeatedly.

But when we meet at his home in Shepherd’s Bush, I discover several surprising things. First, Young, and indeed, his wife, perceive the Toby of these books radically differently: as self-deprecating to a fault. Second and perhaps more damning: he is a lovely, intelligent man with a well-reasoned, interesting world view. He will hate me for saying this. (“You’re going to ruin my career,” he complains, when I have the temerity to suggest he’s actually quite successful.)

To read more, click here.


The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Thursday 31st August 2006
On Sunday, the Observer will publish an interview that Lynn Barber conducted with me a couple of weeks ago. To read my account of this experience in the current issue of the Spectator, click here.


The Sound of No Hands Clapping
Monday 21st August 2006
The Daily Telegraph published several extracts from my new memoir over the past 48 hours. To read the first set, click here. To read the seond, click here.

It’s not due to go on sale for another couple of weeks, but you can order it on Amazon.co.uk by clicking here.


How to Lose Friends: The Movie
Sunday 20th August 2006
Bob Weide, the award-winning director attached to How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, has added a page to his website about how he came to be involved with the project. To read it, click here.


Sunday 21st January 2007
Spy: The Funny Years–a book celebrating the legendary Spy magazine–hasn’t been published in this country, but for any devotees of magazine culture it’s a must-read. With its irreverent, muck-raking attitude and dazzling array of charts, boxes and diagrams, Spy was the most influential magazine of the last quarter century–and this in spite of the fact that it only lasted 12 years. Indeed, it was my obsession with Spy, which I discovered as a graduate student at Harvard in 1987, that led me to idolise Graydon Carter, its co-founder along with Kurt Andersen. Graydon may be a self-important jackass today, but back then he was a kind of Luke Skywalker figure, leading a rag tag alliance of outsiders and mavericks in a gleeful crusade against the vanity of the rich and famous.

To read my piece about Spy in today’s Sunday Telegraph, click here.


Emily Blunt
Tuesday 16th January 2007
Congratulations to Emily Blunt for winning a Golden Globe last night (Best Supporting Actress in a mini-series or TV film for Gideon’s Daughter). She’s already been nominated for a Bafta (Best Supporting Actress for The Devil Wears Prada), but I hope it boosts her chances of an Oscar nomination, too.

I pride myself on having talent-spotted her in 2002 when she appeared in Vincent in Brixton at the National. Here’s an extract from my review in the Spectator:

As I was leaving the theatre, I overheard a man say: “We’ve just witnessed the birth of a star.” He was right, but the star in question isn’t Jochum Ten Haaf. It’s Emily Blunt, the 19-year-old English actress who plays Eugenie Loyer, the landlady’s daughter. Something about her reminded me of Emma Thompson. Not only is she a gifted actress, she has that blue-stocking sex appeal that’s guaranteed to turn the knees of a certain type of Englishman to jelly. This is the second play I’ve seen her in–she played the youngest daughter in The Royal Family–and I’m already completely besotted. Mark my words, she’s the next Kate Winslett.


Sean Langan
Thursday 11th January 2007
My best friend, the documentary-maker Sean Langan, has once again been showered with praise for making a documentary in one of the world’s most dangerous regions. To read an article in the current issue of the Spectator on my efforts to cope with this phenomenon, click here.


Exit, Stage Right
Wednesday 13th December 2006
After five years as the Spectator’s drama critic I’m retiring. To read my tearful farewell, click here.


The Snip
Monday 13th November 2006
I appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Off The Page’ recently to talk about The Snip along with Rory Clements and Anna Raeburn. Unfortunately, the BBC has now taken down its link to the programme (shock!), but you can read an article I wrote on the same subject for the Spectator by clicking here.


Murder in Shepherd’s Bush
Friday 16th March 2007
I’ve been hauled over the coals for a piece I wrote in today’s Standard by a journalist called Paul MacInnes on Comment Is Free, one of the Guardian’s blogs. The piece that appeared in the Standard — about the murder of a 16-year-old boy in Shepherd’s Bush on Wednesday afternoon — was a cut-down version of an op ed piece that I filed on Thursday evening. You can read the original piece by clicking here.

If you agree with him, you can send me an abusive email by clicking on the button to the right. But if you don’t, please go to Comment Is Free and tell him you disagree.


David Frost
Thursday 8th March 2007
Sitting in one of the green rooms at Yorkshire Television on a Saturday afternoon in Leeds, it’s difficult to reconcile the man I’m watching on the monitor with the David Frost of legend. He’s recording four back-to-back episodes of ‘Through The Keyhole’ to be broadcast on BBC2 later this year and he’s finding it difficult to muster much interest in his current guest, a former soap star called Lee Otway.

“So, Lee, is ‘Celebrity Love Island’ the biggest thing you’ve ever done?”

Click here to read the rest of my profile of David Frost in this week’s Spectator.


The Academy Awards
Monday 26th February 2007
Last night’s Oscar telecast was poor, even by the low standards set by previous telecasts — and I don’t just say that because the picture I thought was the best of 2006 — Apocalypto — won nothing. There were so many shortcomings, I don’t know where to begin. So here, in no particular order, are my complaints:

– Ellen DeGeneres was a feeble host. She was nervous, so her timing was off; she eschewed any topical jokes, which was bizarre given that Britney Spears has just shaved her head and Anna Nicole Smith has just kicked her clogs; venturing into the audience and chatting to various luminaries was a mistake since it denuded the event of any glamour and made the people she accosted seem like members of a chat show audience; she changed her outfit too many times; and she didn’t explicity refer to her own lesbianism, which made her seem cowardly. Please, let Jerry Seinfeld do it next year.

– All the presenters, with the possible exception of Seinfeld, were extaordinarily wooden. (Even the normally reliable Clint Eastwood fluffed his lines.) Why do they insist on reading from an autocue? They’re actors, for Chrissakes. Can’t they learn their lines? And who writes this garbage? Last night’s show was packed with bits of business — such as the three amigos routine carried out by Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas — that came off as laboured and under-rehearsed. Unless the presenters are bona fide comedians who are used to performing live in front of a large audience they shouldn’t be given any “comedy” to do.

– Didn’t anyone notice that Michael Mann’s tribute to America used several of the same clips that Woody Allen used in his 2002 tribute to New York? If I have to watch another clip reel I’m going to shoot myself.

– Far too many of the winners read from pieces of paper they carried in their breast pockets. Not only did this make for very boring speeches, it also made for very long speeches which meant that about 50% of the winners were “played off” by Bill Conti. After about an hour, so many people had been unceremoniously booted off stage that every time someone gave a speech I was terrified that they were going to go over their alloted time. (And any joint winner who agreed to speak second didn’t get a look in.) This didn’t make for a pleasant viewing experience. Why can’t the producer of the show give the director some discretion over who’s “played off”? Okay, give the non-English speaking tecnhicians the hook if they over-run, but someone like Jennifer Hudson should be given a little lattitude.

– Where the fuck was Sacha Baron Cohen? One of the only reasons I stayed up until 5.30am — and a big thanks to the producer for deciding to kick things off half-an-hour later than usual this year — was to see Borat raise the roof. Why did the numbskull producer — Laura Ziskin, by the way — insist that he had to appear as himself or not at all? She cheated the worldwide audience of what would have undoubtedly been the best moment of the night.

– What was with the extended political broadcast for the Al Gore Party? His bit with Leo DiCaprio was an embarrassment, so there really was no need for Davis Guggenheim to bring him back on stage when he picked up his Best Documentary Oscar. And boy did he look fat! George Clooney’s “gag” about Gore not running was redundant. We know he’s not running because if he was going to run he’d be at least three stone lighter.

– And, finally — I really can’t hold this down — why did Apocalypto win nothing? Okay, it was unlikely that Mel would win Best Director, given his recent difficulties (though for my money he did a much better job than Scorsese), but did the Academy electorate really have to punish Kevin O’Connel, his sound mixer, who has now been nominated 19 times without winning? (Kate Winslet, you have nothing on this guy.) According to Variety’s live blogger backstage, the guys who won in that category — the mixers on Dreamgirls — started laying into O’Connel in the press room, saying it was time he took up another line of work. Since when did it become persmissable for the winners in a particular category to crow at the expense of the losers? I don’t have any sympathy with Gibson’s views — my father-in-law is Jewish and as a result my children would be taken from me and killed if I was a resident of Nazi Germany — but his politics have absolutely no relevance when it comes to assessing the artistic merit of his work. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there’s no such thing as right and wrong when it comes to art, just good and bad — and Apocalypto is good, whichever way you look at it.

– For what it’s worth, here’s my list of winners:

Best Picture: Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey, Apocalypto

Best Director: Mel Gibson, Apocalypto

Best Actor: Peter O’Toole, Venus

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen

Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine, Children of Men

Best Supporting Actress: Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada

Best Original Screenplay: Peter Morgan, Longford

Best Adapted Screenplay: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, The Prestige


Life on Mars
Wednesday 14th February 2007
I thought last night’s opener of the second season of Life on Mars was pretty poor. One of the things that irritated me about last season was that Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt’s relationship only ever developed in the course of each episode, never over the course of the season. Every episode would begin with them at loggerheads–and always over the same issue, namely, how scrupulously to follow official police procedure–and end with each of them having learnt to be a little more flexible. These lessons would always be forgotten by the beginning of the next episode and Sam and Gene would then have to re-learn them all over again. Now, it seems, their relationship isn’t going to develop over the course of two seasons, either. And it doesn’t merely apply to the relationship between Sam and Gene. Gene and his male cronies have to be convinced over and over again that Annie Cartwright isn’t just a pretty face, that forensic investigative techniques may have a role to play in solving crimes, that petty corruption leads to more serious forms of corruption, etc, etc. Not only that, but in every episode Sam blurts something out that “reveals” he’s from 30 years in the future, momentarily forgetting that none of the people in the station (apart from Annie) are supposed to be aware of this. (He then bites his tongue and furrows his brow, realising his mistake.)

It’s as though the writers, having come up with a winning formula for a single episode, have decided to stick to it religiously, ignoring the rather obvious fact that it renders the series as a whole completely implausible (unless all the characters are supposed to be suffering from some weird form of partial amnesia.)

Another example of the writers’ laziness is their cavalier treatment of the supposedly brilliant high concept that everyone seems to love about the series. In last night’s episode, for instance, Sam had to “put away” a villain in 1973 because said villain was torturing him in his hospital bed in 2007. Yet if Sam really can effect things in the present by doing something in the past, then it follows that he really has travelled back in time and isn’t just imagining that he has. In other words, last night’s episode definitively answered the question posed by Sam at the beginning of each episode, namely, has he really gone back in time or is his mind playing tricks on him? It seems odd, to put it midly, that the central riddle of the series should be solved in the first episode of the second season instead of the last. Not even the writers of Lost would make that kind of elementary error.

The reason we now expect character arcs to extend over entire seasons, and not begin and end with each episode, is because a lot of us don’t watch episodes according to the weekly television schedules. If we Sky Plus a series, the chances are we’ll watch two or more episodes back to back – and if we buy a season on DVD we’ll probably watch all the episodes over the course of a few days. This means that writers can’t get away with the degree of repetition that they once could. In other words, the bar has been raised by the changing habits of viewers.

I don’t hate Life on Mars. I think the central premise is an intriguing one and, apart from the writers, most of the people involved in the programme acquit themselves very well, particularly the cast, the costume designer, the set designer and even, in some cases, the directors. But if last night’s episode was a taste of things to come, I’m not going to bother with the rest of the season.


The 2007 Sundance Film Festival
Wednesday 31st January 2007
I’d been in Park City less than 24 hours when I spotted the man himself. I was standing on Main Street talking to one of the American television’s most distinguished comedy directors when Mr Sundance happened to walk past.

“Would you like to meet him?” asked the director.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Follow me.”

To read the rest of Toby’s piece in this week’s Spectator about visiting the Sundance Film Festival, click here.


Frank Johnson RIP
Friday 11th May 2007
I attended a memorial service this morning for Frank Johnson, the first editor of The Spectator to employ me. It was, as Matthew D’Ancona writes here, a glittering occasion, worthy of the great man.

I first encountered Frank as the Parliamentary sketch writer at The Times when I was a news trainee there in 1986. I never got up the nerve to talk to him — he was just a legendary presence that I occasionally caught a glimpse of.

I finally did speak to him in 1998 when I began writing for The Spectator. One of the first pieces I did for him was about Harold Evans’s unexpected departure from Random House — a piece which immediately prompted a furious letter from a firm of solicitors demanding a retraction, an apology, a large sum of money and, bizarrely, a written undertaking from me that I’d never write about Harry or his wife, Tina Brown, ever again in any publication anywhere in the world. If each and all of these demands weren’t met by a particular deadline, both The Spectator and I personally would be sued for libel.

Naturally, I was terrified. I was an occasional freelance contributor to the magazine with no connections to either Frank or the publisher — or, indeed, the proprietor. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for The Spectator to negotiate a settlement with Harry and leave me twisting in the wind — which is very much what Harry expected to happen, I think. I had been warned by everyone in New York not to cross Tina and Harry and it now looked as though I was going to pay the price.

But Harry hadn’t bargained on Frank. In my darkest hour — I’d just been fired by Vanity Fair and the Evening Standard, to compound my misery — Frank called to tell me he that he intended to stand by my story. He was going to fight Harry all the way to the High Court if necessary — he’d already lined up George Carmen to defend our side — and make sure that whatever legal costs I incurred in the course of the battle would be met by The Spectator.

After I’d gotten over my initial shock — no editor of mine before or since has been so supportive — we started to discuss tactics. Actually, that’s not strictly accurate. Frank outlined the battle plan — and I listened. For the next month or so, we waged an unremitting PR campaign against Tina and Harry on both sides of the Atlantic — Frank in London, me in New York. My efforts to make Harry look petty and vindictive were nothing compared to Frank’s. He had no hesitation in using his journalistic contacts to further our cause. It was a model of how to fight a media war. If Heather Mills had had Frank on her team, Paul McCartney would have settled months ago.

Within six weeks it was all over. The threatened libel suit never materialized and Harry agreed to drop all his claims against The Spectator in return for Frank’s agreement to publish a letter from him putting his side of the story. (Amusingly, the letter was twice as long as the original piece.) He never came after me personally.

I later found out that Frank had come under considerable internal pressure to give in to Harry’s demands — mainly from Kimberly Quinn, the magazine’s then publisher. However, Conrad Black was also anxious about it. He didn’t want to get involved in a lawsuit that might cost several hundred thousand pounds if The Spectator wasn’t going to win. In effect, Frank had to vouch for me — and see off considerable internal opposition.

Of course, none of this was prompted by any special feeling for me. Several factors were at play. I think he personally disliked Harry — with good reason, I’m sure. As a journalist-editor, he also thought he should stand by his writers. But, above all, he just relished a good fight. The notion of taking up the cudgels on behalf of a Nobody who was being threatened by a Big Cheese was irresistible. Had Harry made good on his threat and issued a libel writ, I’m sure that Frank would have been as good as his word and contested the case with all his energy. We would have won that, too — and Harry obviously realized this which is why he backed down.

Anyway, the whole experience was absolutely glorious from my point of view. When Frank called me in New York to tell me not to worry I felt as though a good angel had come to my rescue. He did everything a journalist hopes his editor will do in such circumstances — and then some. When I’d eventually conquered my initial fear, the ensuing campaign — with Frank and I kibitzing on the phone on an almost daily basis — was the most fun I’ve ever had in journalism.

My career was at such a low ebb at this point, that without his support I probably would have given up on the profession. But Frank completely restored my faith. His refusal to bow to any of the people pressurizing him to settle the case — and to side with the weaker of the two combatants, even though it was hardly in his own self-interest — demonstrated a courage and integrity that I have yet to encounter again on Fleet Street. As Peregrine Worsthorne said in his address this morning, he was the noblest Roman of them all.


Spectator Coffee House
Thursday 3rd May 2007
The Spectator has launched its version of Comment Is Free today called ‘Spectator Coffee House’ — and jolly good it looks too. You can link to it by clicking here.

The cover story of this week’s Spectator is by Anne McElvoy who takes both the main political parties to task for not doing more to promote meritocracy.

Without wishing to sound too partisan — I’m the son of Michael Young who coined the word ‘meritocracy’ and whom McElvoy takes to task in her piece — I was disappointed that McElvoy didn’t deal with the two main arguments against meritocracy.

The first is that the only way to guarantee that each person’s socio-economic status is entirely dictated by some combination of ability and effort — and nothing else — is to ensure that everyone starts out on a level playing field. Among other things, this would mean removing children from their parents at birth, imposing 100 per cent inheritance tax, sending all children to identical schools (at least initially) and regulating their early reading and viewing habits. In other words, a society could only be genuinely meritocratic if it was an out-and-out dictatorship — a far more draconian dictatorship than any we’ve witnessed so far.

This points to the second objection — the one Rawls makes in A Theory of Justice. Suppose McElvoy’s response to this is: So what? Meritocracy is so desirable, I’m willing to sacrifice liberty for the sake of it. Then the question becomes: Why is it so desirable? Why is a society in which each person’s status is entirely dictated by their talents any more just than a society in which their status is dictated by the hereditary principle? Assuming people’s talents are given to them at birth — and I include the propensity to work hard among these endowments — they no more deserve their abilities than members of the lucky sperm club deserve their fortunes. Like inhereted wealth, abilities are distributed in a way which is entirely arbitrary from a moral point of view. It follows that a society in which status is dictated by people’s abilities is no more just than one in which it’s dictated by inherited wealth.

Like Anne McElvoy, I was educated entirely in the state sector and then went up to Oxford — and, like her, I would probably do better in a completely meritocratic society than the one we currently live in. (Or perhaps not.) But that doesn’t mean it would be any fairer. Indeed, from a moral point of view, a meritocratic society would be no more just than one in which status was dictated by the throw of a dice.


Family and Kinship in East London
Wednesday 25th April 2007
‘Family and Kinship in East London’ — the book my father, Michael Young, co-authored with Peter Willmott — has just been reissued by Penguin to commemorate its 50th anniversary. You can link to a piece about the book — and its impact on a generation of social workers, sociologists and local government officials — in today’s Guardian here.

My father’s two best-known books — ‘Family and Kinship’ (1957) and ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ (1958) — are linked in a way that few people will be aware of: the main thesis of each book was contained in a paper he wrote for the Labour Party Research Department in 1951 called ‘For Richer, For Poorer’.

“How extraordinary this is, such good stuff,” wrote Edith Summerskill, the then Minister of National Insurance who was one of the few people who bothered to read it. “What on earth are you going to do with it? It’s not right, is it, for the Labour Party?”

According to my father’s biographer, Asa Briggs, “‘For Richer, For Poorer’ is the most interesting and revealing of all Michael’s writings, seminal for himself as much as for the historian.”

The ideas contained in this paper represent the most sustained burst of intellectual creativity in Michael’s career, a phenomenon he attributed to the benefits of Freudian psychoanalysis. He suffered from depression all his life, but the most acute episode occurred after his first child was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1940s. One of the symptoms of this particular bout was that the world appeared to him in black and white — literally, not metaphorically — and it was only when his depression began to lift that he was able to perceive colours again. It was during this period, in which the world suddenly took on a new vibrancy, that the ideas for the two books began to tumble out of him.

My father continued to suffer episodes of extreme melancholy, but, in a way, he was lucky that his most acute bout occurred before the discovery of anti-depressants. Had he treated his mental illness by taking a pill, as opposed to undergoing psychoanalysis, he never would have written his two most important books.


Cathy Seipp
Wednesday 28th March 2007
My friend Cathy Seipp died last week. She was a Los Angeles-based journalist who was incredibly kind to me, helping to organise parties in LA for the launch of both my books. She was also very nice to me when I lived in LA for a few months in 2004, introducing me to lots of her journalist friends. Indeed, my whole attitude to LA — which I’m extremely fond of — would be completely different if I hadn’t known Cathy. Not only did she open up the city for me, but she showed me, by her example, that the cliched view of LA, which is that it’s full of kooks and cut-throats, is wrong. There are also people there who are like Cathy — down to earth, honest, level-headed, unimpressed by power, and, above all, beholden to no one. Her only guide when it came to how to behave was her inner code.

All these qualities shone through in her journalism — though what made her so readable was that she could also be wonderfully irrascible and abrasive. She belonged to that class of writers you feel an instant bond with because they are irritated by exactly the same things you are. I often didn’t know anything about the subjects she was writing about, but I instinctively felt that the line she was taking was the right one. I trusted her judgment implicitly.

She was so generous to me — she befriended me after reading How to Lose Friends & Alienate People — that I’ve always felt bad about not doing enough to repay her — and, of course, I’ll be forever in her debt now. LA is going to be a much less friendly place without her.

To read Cathy’s obituary in the New York Times, click here.


Blast from the past …
Tuesday 27th March 2007
10 years ago I wrote a piece for Spy magazine arguing that canabis shouldn’t be legalised. It was essentially a humour piece, but, weirdly, I seem to have been on the right side of the argument. It was called ‘Ban the Bong’.

To read it, click here.