Contemporary opera

I am not an opera buff. The last and I think only time I saw any opera was some 20 years ago when I was a student. It was something in Italian (I think) and one of our party fell asleep.

But this week I have twice seen the most amazing new piece of opera, composed by Jonathan Dove who I’d never even heard of until this week but whose work transfixed me.

The performance was 50 minutes long and took place in Salisbury Cathedral as part of the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival. It’s called The Walk from the Garden and is based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost but specifically the very end of that epic poem, the last 18.5 lines or as librettist Alasdair Middleton wrote in the programme “a hundred and thirty-five of the best words ever written”.

You have to put aside – as I did – any reservations about the story of Adam and Eve. Forget truth, forget feminism for an hour. It’s a very old story and a very well-known one.

The Walk from the Garden is so moving as a piece of music and a performance by two superb voices, backed by a choir, that you simply have to go and see it if you can.

It’s very loud to start with: the choir of angels sing out Adam and Eve’s condemnation. Then poor Adam (Nicholas Sharratt) and Eve (Anna Dennis) burst through steel grey double doors wearing just white underwear and socks. The doors are marked ‘Exit’ which reads back to front. The audience, although in a cathedral, is already sitting in perpetual banishment on the other side of Eden. There is no going back.

The pair assess their new situation and surroundings: “Ash… Trash.” They recall with terrible anguish the “shattered harmony” they knew; they remember with leaping joy hearing “the voice of God walking in the garden”.

But anguish, desperation and loss dominate the piece. The voices are exquisite. At times Dennis’ voice as Eve seemed to literally grow out of the few stringed instruments playing the piece.

Gradually the pair get dressed in modern-day walking gear, put on their waterproof capes and hoist rucksacks on their backs. Slowly, they walk down the central aisle, past the incredible rimless font that sits in Salisbury Cathedral, and out of the west doors. For a few seconds their forms are framed by the medieval doors and they catch dying rays of summer light as the pair walk into a rush of greenery in such contrast to the penumbrous cathedral interior. Some of the angelic choir emerge through the steel grey doors to sing Adam and Eve on their solitary way.

I found it incredibly moving. I think you can see Adam and Eve’s walk from the garden as both a liberation and a condemnation.

As Milton wrote, “The world was all before them.”


Henry V directed by Dominic Dromgoole

Shakespeare's Globe presents Henry V

Henry V directed by Dominic Dromgoole

The Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival is on this week and next and, as well as helping out as a volunteer steward, I have been getting a rush of culture from it.

Last night I watched a production of Henry V at the Salisbury Playhouse, directed by the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole.

I approach these things as I approach most “gritty” TV drama: I kind of think I ought to see it. It was only as I went into the auditorium I saw the notice that said, “First half 1 hour 30 mins. Interval 15 mins. Second half 1 hour 23 mins.” “Three hours,” said another theatregoer behind me, echoing my own thoughts. My partner would definitely not want to have been there.

In Act One Scene Two I was remembering that I find Shakespeare’s history plays a bit tedious, certainly compared to the tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear) which I know far better and find more compelling. That scene of courtly advice; the lengthy contemplations of the relationship between France and England. I felt, not for the first time, that Shakespeare could have done with a better editor when it came to staging. It’s one thing to read the poetry of this verbal jousting; another thing to watch the same point being made several times in different ways by people on a stage.

But the staging was impressive. With one set – basically a rendition of what we imagine the original Globe stage to have looked like – and very few props, the cast and particularly Brid Brennan as the Chorus brought the action to life. The start of the battle of Agincourt was brilliantly wrought by four archers; the battle scene became a piece of music and movement featuring King Harry, Exeter, Westmoreland and someone else. I particularly loved the final bit of stage business, a cross between and a dance and a curtain call representing the marriage of Henry and Catherine.

Jamie Parker (The History Boys, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2) was good in the lead role. He has the brow for a king and a young king at that. Catherine was impossibly beautiful with lovely French. Best of the supporting cast was Brendan O’Hea as a very amusing Captain Fluellen. The musicians were also fabulous and, to me, very “period” playing a couple of wind of brass instruments I’ve never seen before.

As the final applause died away, a lady to my left who hadn’t held back on her opinion of the production at interval time turned to her husband and said, “He did the main speech very well.” I struggle to think which the main speech is in Henry V as there are so many. In Dromgoole’s production last night there was, I think, only one or two moments when Harry was completely alone on the stage giving a soliloquy. It was the eve of the big battle and it was well done, although I found another moment awkward when Henry’s emotion continued on stage as the Chorus began her link.

I gather Salisbury is the last stop in a tour of this production that has taken in Liverpool, Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Bath so far. Dromgoole’s Henry V moves to The Globe theatre in London on 7 June. I’m sure it will be highly rated.


Rebekah Brooks

Photograph: Carl Court/AFP c/o

Rebekah Brooks and husband Charlie

I am fascinated by Rebekah Brooks who was editor of the News of the World in 2000 and of The Sun in 2003 and who in 2009 became chief executive of News International which publishes The Sun and The Times. In those years I was having babies and bringing up young children in a country town. Brooks is, I think, three years older than me.

Brooks has had to give evidence to MPs about phone hacking and to the Leveson inquiry about her time at News International, her relationships with politicians of the day and meetings and social occasions she attended. Yesterday she, along with her husband and four others, was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice, accused of removing documents from News International and concealing material from the Metropolitan Police who are investigating phone hacking claims.

Look at today’s newspaper headlines, neatly rounded up by Roy Greenslade and The Guardian.

It will now be for a jury to decide if Brooks is guilty of trying to cover anything up at her newspapers or if she is the victim, as she and her husband insist, of a witch hunt.

It is hard to see how an editor, even a former editor gone into management, would not know how certain stories in their own newspapers were stood up or proved to be true. But she and other senior folk from News Corp insist there is no evidence to suggest they knew about any malpractice.

Brooks is a striking figure who was very successful at a relatively young age within a controversial organisation, News International – part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. That has attracted as much jealousy and spite as admiration and this may now be manifesting itself as glee and determination from some quarters as people observe Brooks’ current predicament.

I understand from experience how important it is for a newspaper editor to have good relationships with the power brokers of the day. I also know what it is like to be courted by people in an industry, some in positions of power, others seeking power, when you edit an influential publication. And I know what it’s like when a journalist does something either deliberately or by mistake that someone else doesn’t like.

Libel law exists to try to police the difference between something that is untrue and will damage others by being published and something that is true and published in the public interest. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry may change all that. Let us pass over thoughts about where the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to charge Mr and Mrs Brooks leaves David Cameron, supposedly a close friend of Charlie Brooks.

Largely I feel that in many cases, let’s say all but those involving murdered people, the journalist, editor or newspaper is just the messenger of a story and you know what they say about shooting messengers. Don’t do it.


Like Minds in 2011

Like Minds 2011

“All companies are becoming media companies.” Discuss.

That was the theme of a short debate yesterday at Like Minds 2011, a conference of media and tech types held in Exeter for the third year running.

The debate’s starting point – which one audience member attributed to internet guru and author of Here Comes Everybody Clay Shirky – was that all companies are now creating and supplying content in a bid for greater engagement with consumers. The audience member said Shirky’s point was that in the modern media age all companies have to manage information.

Glenn Le Santo, a journalist on the panel debating the idea, insisted it was rubbish to think all companies are becoming media companies. He said that by definition a media company makes its money out of creating or distributing information or entertainment. Other companies make their money out of selling other goods and services, although of course they use the media to sell.

Stephen Bateman, formerly of Pearson and Hachette and now a publishing adviser, pointed out that some brands have created content for years as well as sold their core products. He cited the Michelin travel and hotel guides and the Guinness World Records as examples.

The word disintermediation was used. As I understand it this means the breaking down of barriers between companies selling things and consumers buying things. Instead of needing the press or television or radio to talk to consumers, companies can now talk to them direct on Facebook, on Twitter and in a host of other ways I haven’t thought of.

I’m inclined to agree with Le Santo. All companies are not becoming media companies. They are merely using the media in new, sometimes more direct ways to talk to customers. All companies need people who think about and use the media, whether that’s in-house or via an agency. Nothing new there.

More revolutionary for me was Molly Flett of word of mouth marketing agency 1000Heads asking if we’re prepared to kill our babies. She’d listened to David Attenborough’s 2011 RSA President’s lecture about the problem of global over-population. Attenborough said all the problems facing our planet would be easier to solve if there were fewer people on it and yet the subject of over-population is almost totally taboo. Flett likened over-population to the growth of social and online media. The web may be almost infinite but the human attention span is not, she argued. What are we prepared to sacrifice to gain more peace and time to reflect, she asked?

It was a perfectly valid question. Until Like Minds organiser Scott Gould appeared on stage with his cute new baby daughter. Kill our babies? Flett ended up carrying the baby off into the wings while Gould continued chairing events.


How To Be A Woman

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

I’ve just finished reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman which is much better than my book, not least because she has actually written a book and not merely cobbled one together from her Twitterstream and various blog posts.

Moran’s book is also full of the sort of wisdom I was saving for my next book, the one where I tackle the day-to-day preoccupations of the average female and attempt to debunk a few myths in the process such as whether women always make nurturing, caring mothers. But Moran is a whole lot more frank about wanking than I would ever be so perhaps my work is done before it’s begun.

She also wrote things in How To Be A Woman that I’ve been thinking for years: men and women are human first and gendered objects second. We should see body image issues a whole load of bullshit. Don’t buy magazines if they make you feel inferior. Ditto, don’t watch “lifestyle” TV if it makes you feel crap.

I like Moran’s tests for sexism: “Are the men doing it?” whether it’s worrying about employing a cleaner or worrying about your waistline; and “Is it polite?” where it is treatment of a woman by anyone else.

So I recommend Moran’s book to women and men alike. But only if you buy my e-book first.


News for news junkies

James and Rupert Murdoch appear before MPs

What an incredible day yesterday was. Yes, a famine was being declared in parts of Somalia but here in the UK news junkies are perhaps not ashamed to admit being obsessed with live coverage of Rupert and James Murdoch appearing before the Commons culture, media and sport select committee. Murdoch senior is chairman and ceo of News Corp and his son is his deputy and they are arguably the biggest media moguls on the planet. We have never heard them speak, side by side, for so long in public. It was truly fascinating.

Which meant the telly or some form of live streaming was on somewhere in the house from 2.30pm until after 7pm when Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and The Sun and former chief executive of News Corp’s UK newspaper division News International, finished giving evidence to the same select committee.

There were the headlines: James Murdoch admitting News Corp had paid legal fees for the investigator Glen Mulcaire who hacked into phones for The News of the World; Murdoch grandstanding with a line about this being “the most humble day” of his life, before being rudely hit in the face with a plate of shaving foam from a protestor. There were also countless, repeated denials from Rupert, James and, later, Rebekah that they knew anything about the illegal interception of mobile voicemail messages including those of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. They all found out about Dowler’s phone interception two weeks ago, they said, when The Guardian broke the story.

Brooks said yes, she was on holiday at one point when Milly Dowler’s disappearance was in the news but that was “irrelevant” as she was editor of The News of the World at the time. Perhaps that is why MPs didn’t pursue a question suggested by Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who has done so much to cover the phone hacking story. Davies suggested MPs say this: “When you were editor of the NoW, you published a story which referred to a message left by a recruitment agency on the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old schoolgirl, who was then missing without explanation. Did you read that story? Did it occur to you to question how your reporter could have known about this message?”

Many of the questions the MPs did put were batted away as being more appropriate to the ongoing police investigation into wrongdoing at the NoW; or the Murdochs, James in particular, said things had been done on the basis of legal advice News Corp was being given at the time; or James said he wasn’t at the company in 2007 when NoW reporter Clive Goodman was sentenced to four months for intercepting voice messages.

Then there were the finer points of the drama. James Murdoch saying at the outset that he would like to submit a written statement to the committee “if it pleases you” as he worked out the protocol of the occasion. Rupert Murdoch saying his son had just asked him to stop gesticulating as he temporarily stopped patting the desk as he spoke. He may be old but Murdoch Sr seems used to thumping a desk as he speaks. All TV viewers were impressed by Wendi Deng’s dual role as wife and bodyguard, landing an open slap on the perpetrator of the foam pie. She had carefully ushered Rupert into the chair directly in front of her at the beginning of the session. It’s amazing to see Murdoch family dynamics on show like this.

I’m left with a sense of how far the Murdoch myth has got away from the reality. Rupert Murdoch is a very successful media businessman. He genuinely loves newspapers. He rings the editor of the Sunday Times almost every Saturday night, he said. He rang the editor of the NoW less often, about once a month. He doesn’t have a grasp of the day to day detail of how his newspapers get put together and nor should he. He is a chairman and ceo; he employs 52,000 people around the world. James Murdoch is a smooth-talking, slightly wall-eyed individual who is good corporately.

But it is precisely because we have heard so little from the Murdochs directly over the years, save for carefully crafted speeches, that politicians and the public have imagined what they like about the Murdochs. That they are ogres. That they have no morals. On the basis of yesterday’s appearance I would say they are simply very, very successful businessmen. They and Rebekah Brooks must be incredibly certain that there is no evidence linking any of them to illegally intercepted voicemails and, without evidence, there need be no admission of guilt.


Not the News of the World

News of the WorldI am stunned that News International, the newspaper group owned by Rupert Murdoch, has decided to close its Sunday title and the biggest selling British paper the News of the World. I am not alone. Even when The Guardian revealed on Monday that News of the World journalists had hacked into the mobile phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, no one was predicting the imminent closure of the paper.

Acres of words have already been written about the phone hacking scandal and I’m not in a position to add much to them. But I am deeply sceptical about the idea that neither Andy Coulson nor Rebekah Brooks, both former editors of the News of the World, knew their reporters were illegally hacking into people’s mobile phones.

By comparison to the NOTW I used to edit a lowly business publication. But the industry we published for took the paper seriously and so did we, the editorial staff. At Broadcast magazine I would never have run a major story without knowing exactly who or what the source of the story was. We might have dissembled to some readers about sources to protect them but we knew where each and every story had come from and we were confident that, if we were ever forced to stand by a story under oath, we could do so.

It is therefore “inconceivable” to me that Rebekah Brooks and/or her deputy and successor Andy Coulson didn’t know where stories came from on their paper. Coulson told a Parliamentary select committee he had no “recollection of any incidences where phone hacking took place”. Yesterday News International chairman and Rupert’s son James Murdoch said the NOTW had “made statements to Parliament without being in the possession of the full facts. This was wrong.” Coulson has today been arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.

Prime Minister David Cameron has today announced two inquiries, one into the culture, ethics and practices of the British press and the other into the specific phone hacking charges to establish “what exactly was going on at the News of the World” and other papers. Like the rest of the country, I cannot wait to read the results. Perhaps they’ll be covered by a new Sunday paper, The Sun on Sunday?


Celebrity vacuum

The Duchess of Cambridge on her wedding day

You can project whatever you like into a vacuum. I think this every time I see a shy and retiring celebrity in the press or on TV.

You may think there’s no such thing as a shy retiring celebrity but for me there are a few; people like Kate Moss and Kate Middleton or the Duchess of Cambridge as she became last Friday. They are celebrities who are famous for what they do (working as a model or marrying the future king) and they are endlessly photographed but they rarely, if ever, speak publicly or give interviews.

They therefore live in something of a vaccum. All that we, the public, know about them is what they look like and whatever scant facts their indiscreet friends and relations offer up to journalists.

So long as the duchess retains her silence and relative distance from the public then we can project whatever we like onto her. We can think of her as clever, sweet, self-contained and beautiful all of which she appears to be. And that would be far better for her and for us than to become the beautiful, not clever, wronged woman we got to know in Diana, the late princess of Wales. Long may Kate’s silence last.


Kazuo Ishiguro on Never Let Me Go

Author Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is known as ‘Ish’ to his friends, as we learned from author Jonathan Coe at a film festival in Bridport, Dorset last night. Coe interviewed Ish, author of Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go among others, on the opening night of the From Page to Screen festival before a screening of last year’s Never Let Me Go adaptation.

During the Q and A Ish was asked about the 1993 adaptation of Remains of the Day and he revealed that John Cleese was initially considered for the lead role as butler Mr Stevens which was eventually taken by Anthony Hopkins. Others in the frame were Jeremy Irons (understandable) and Bob Hoskins (“not quite right” in Ishiguro’s own words).

“I’ve always wondered what [the film] would have been like with John Cleese,” said Ish. “I was very excited by the idea.”

At the time Cleese was hot as far as Hollywood was concerned from the success of A Fish Called Wanda and, as Ish diplomatically explained, US studios such as Columbia Pictures (now Sony) which funded Remains of the Day can only ever think of about two or three British actors big enough to take the American stage.

Of watching both film adaptations of his own novels Ishiguro said: “I forgot very quickly that I already knew the story,” which seems to be about as big a compliment as he could pay to the screenwriters Ruth Prawer Jabhvala (Remains of the Day) and Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go). He said it would be “like taking your A’Levels again” and about as much fun for a novelist to adapt their own work for the screen.

This festival is all about film adaptations of the written word and Ishiguro had this to say: “As a culture we [the British] haven’t figured out how to watch adaptations from novels.” Coe wondered whether this is because we constantly compare the film to the novel and vice versa. Ish agreed and suggested that, like a songwriter with a tune, he enjoys seeing other people’s versions of his work but he doesn’t confuse it with his own work.

As for Never Let Me Go I am still confused by the message, if there is one, of both novel and film. In a final interior monologue the narrator Kathy wonders whether the young people raised to donate their organs to medical science live better or worse lives than those who are saved by their donations. Does this translate as, what is the point of living? It’s a question that lots of thinking people want answered and which a few answer in their own ways.


The future and the blindingly obvious

 Guardian logo

Media companies, but particularly newspapers, have had their knickers in a twist for some time now as they wonder how to make money out of “online”. That is, the provision of information via the internet which, before the advent of the internet, they were able to charge money for. It is almost axiomatic today that if it’s “online”, it’s free. Unless it’s porn.

The answer to me, coming from a background of business publishing, is so screamingly obvious that I wonder how so many highly-paid executives have avoided it for so long. Don’t give unique information away for free. Whatever the medium.

The trouble is that, online at least, every organisation is waiting for another to jump first. No company wants to be the first to start charging online readers while others continue to provide things for free because the first to do so fears losing their audience.

Predictably, it’s taken Rupert Murdoch to question this lame, lemming (as in suicidal) attitude to the internet. A few weeks ago he said his British newspapers (The Sun, News of the World, The Times and Sunday Times) would have to charge for content provided online. Now more and more people agree with him, not least Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian. The argument against charging is that advertising revenue will cover the cost of content that’s free to the end-user. But if that wasn’t true in the real world, why should it be true in the virtual world? And, as a business, why deny yourself a potential revenue stream? Altruism? After a recession? I don’t think so.

Having just renewed my mobile phone contract (for 18 months, thank you) and while questioning why I spend tens of pounds each month on a Sky TV package that I barely watch, another thing has occurred to me.

As a regular Guardian reader and user of its many free websites, I would gladly pay (what? £10 a month?) for unlimited access to its online news/comment/reviews sites plus – and this is the deal-breaker – a hard copy of the Saturday paper. To do full justice to Tim Dowling’s weekly column in the Weekend supplement you have to place the actual magazine on a table where it will be covered in a niagra of apple & elderflower squash and the discarded, slightly grey inner tubes of several half-eaten sausage rolls over lunch. (If only Waitrose sold empty pockets of cooked pastry, I’d save a fortune on deli goods.)

It then occurs to me that it’s only a matter of time before content from different brands such as The Guardian and Sky is bundled together in packages in the way that broadband, mobile and TV services are. OK, it’s more likely to be content from The Times bundled with Sky as they’re both ultimately owned by Murdoch. But I can dream, can’t I?

I have seen the future. And it’s sausage-shaped.

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