“What do you mean you don’t like Celine!?!?!”

June 8, 2011

I was listening to a ‘discussion’ with the writer of Father Ted on Radio 4 yesterday that he describes here:

On Monday, I was invited to go on the Today programme to talk about my part in the upcoming production of The Ladykillers. I would be asked about the “problems in adapting a classic film for the stage”, I was told, and critic Michael Billington would be there to “provide a wider context”. As soon as Michael arrived in the green room, I realised that he had, in fact, prepared for something else entirely.

Michael, somewhat embarrassed, told me that he was actually providing the opposing side in an argument about the wisdom of adapting The Ladykillers at all. What I thought was going to be a discussion about the technical challenges afforded by turning a classic film into a worthwhile play, was actually going to be a typical Today programme bunfight.

Fine – if they were going to ambush me, I would ambush right back. I decided not to play. I tried to reveal as little about the play as I could, and made an early decision not to engage with any of Michael’s arguments. I’m not sure of the precise moment where I chose to do all this, but it may well have been when the John Humphrys stand-in asked me “Have you changed it much?”.

Have you changed it much. Basically, asking if I’d transcribed the thing.

Since we were changing briefs, I thought I’d introduce one of my own – and what a treat it was to be able to complain directly to not-John Humphrys about the squabbling that passes for debate on that programme. Of course, they shut it down as quickly as they could, so let me finish my point here. The style of debate practised by the Today programme poisons discourse in this country. It is an arena where there are no positions possible except for diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted and where politicians are forced into defensive positions of utter banality. None of it is any good for the national conversation.

Of course, I’m not saying that news interviews can’t be adversarial. Sometimes, you have to be nasty Columbo or we’d never get to the truth. But I’m talking about that very specific, very artificial, very Today programme format of a presenter acting as referee between two people who have been chosen to represent the opposing sides of a manufactured argument. It is a binary view of politics, of life and, as a result, it is also a dishonest one. Replace it with anything – anything – because anything would be better.

It was Michael in the red corner, me in the blue! Ding! Defend yourself! Justify yourself! What the host didn’t realise is that because I’m not a politician, like the fellow I saw in the green room preparing his lines with an aide, I didn’t have to be held hostage to their artificial, reductive, harmful format. So I shrugged and, as politely as I could, told them where to go.

Good on him. I was listening to an interview between, i think, John Humphrey’s and Sharon Shoesmith  following the review of her dismissal from Haringey over the Baby P case. All he seemed interested in was getting her to admit she was wrong for basically everything that happened and i can’t remember any substantial discussion of the reasons for things going wrong and what to do about them. It was entirely pointless – like entering an arts based discussion with Bolo at 4am during a heavy night out.

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