Monday, 30 January 2012

Suffragette postcards

It’s hardly a secret, but the cultural evolution of the suffragettes is a topic that I’m constantly reading around, researching and evolving. There are never fewer than three suffrage novels and non-fiction books by my desk, and my review library of books is growing really quite huge now. But that’s not to say that I don’t want to know of more suggestions (please let me know in the comments section) – I far from have them all!

But I’m taking a detour into suffrage postcards at the moment. The imagery of the suffragettes was famously the most successful ever deployment of colour for a political cause. The purple, white and green colour scheme of the suffragettes was iconic and legendary. And this translated into the many postcards issued both by the WSPU and the anti-suffrage movement. Today, I’ve ordered a copy of Ian McDonald’s 1989 book Vindication: A Postcard History of the Women’s Movement, and can promise that a review will be posted soon.

Another important factor was the ubiquity of postcards in the early 1900s. With same-day postal deliveries, writing a short message on the back of a picture postcard made these highly collectible cards the emails of their day. Many suffragettes also used postcards to share coded information about meetings and protests with each other in ingenious ways.

This is still something I’m only in the early stages of researching, but I wanted to share three particularly interesting images that I found today.

A postcard from 1916

 The first postcard is a cartoon of a girl from 1916, and shows the fun side of the suffrage movement, and the way it looks to the future, reminding people that they are fighting for the vote not only for themselves, but also for future generations.

A postcard from 1908

 The second is a really striking and emotive card from 1908, showing two women with a beautiful banner outside the Houses of Parliament and the message:

“This is THE HOUSE that man built,
And this is the Flag of the Women’s Franchise,
Which is making our Ministers open their eyes:
Fighting with grit, to the front bit by bit:
Determined in Parliament one day to sit,
The bold Suffragette who is sure to get yet
Into THE HOUSE that man built.”

US Suffrage programme cover from 1913

Finally, I’ve included an image (not strictly a postcard) of the front cover of the programme for the Women’s Suffrage Procession in Washington DC on March 3, 1913. Interesting not only because most of my research has been centered on the UK, but also because the artwork is so beautiful, and full of hope, promise and a grand future.

Genuine suffrage postcards now command a small fortune second hand (anywhere between £9.99 and £100), so I fear that unless I get lucky at a second hand stall, I’m unlikely to get my hands on the real deal. Thankfully, many images have been uploaded to various websites, and here are a few links (if you have other suggestions, please let me know in the comments section).

By far the best site I have found (so far) is Alice Hawkins Suffragette – A Sister of Freedom, which includes a page with photographic postcards. The beautifully put together site is a tribute to Alice by her surviving family members, and I strongly advise you to check it out if you are at all interested in the suffrage movement. The home page is here.

There are also two (of several) articles on the excellent blog site for Ms Magazine. I particularly recommend this one and this one.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The man who fell to earth

Photo: Paul Blakemore

Tristan Sturrock has become synonymous with character acting in Bristol. He’s been a stalwart of the unparalleled Kneehigh Theatre Company for more than 20 years, and in 2011 he wowed Bristolian audiences as Long John Silver in Treasure Island, and as the Coram Man in Coram Boy. He’s an actor who draws exultant reviews, so much so that one or two cynics have suggested it’s now ubiquitous for Sturrock to be cast in a big Bristolian draw and his presence is predictable. To those nay sayers, I thumb my nose.

Yes, Bristol has no shortage of talented actors, thanks in no small part to the Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre School. But local audiences should consider themselves lucky that an actor of Sturrock’s caliber wants to keep coming back and gracing our stages, when he’s already got London and Broadway tucked under his belt.

Mayday Mayday is Sturrock’s first one-man show, which he’s been developing through Bristol Old Vic’s Ferment, and an earlier version of the show – Frankenspine – was performed here last year. Due to popular demand, Sturrock has reworked his cathartic production and it returns to the theatre’s Studio under a fresh name.

Mayday Mayday is fuelled by Sturrock’s experience of falling off a wall in Cornwall back in 2004… and breaking his neck. Facing paralysis, he made the brave decision to undergo a risky operation on his spinal chord to try and restore his movement. However, Sturrock insists Mayday Mayday is not a self-indulgent production: “The show is for anyone who’s ever had any kind of trauma or accident in their life or ever been afraid of it – and I think that’s most of us.”

Single-handedly manning the stage, sound and lights, Sturrock uses the simplest of props to welcome the audience into his home, his Padstow pub, to recreate his fall, subsequent ambulance journey, and long road to recovery in hospital. He also transforms himself into a few other characters along the way – most notably a jocular paramedic, and a theatrical surgeon – in a carefully choreographed, operatic hand-dancing sequence (yes, that’s a thing!).

At no point self-pitying, Sturrock is obviously humbled by the kindness of the nurses, doctors and surgeons who helped piece him back together, and of his family and friends for supporting him every step of the way. At several points in the production, Sturrock uses a repetitive device to remind audiences of the mundane repetition that his life in hospital was reduced to, when boiled down to two-hour components by the requirements of medical treatments. While mildly jarring to listen to the same repeated phrases over and over, it is a stark reminder that our discomfort at hearing multiple repetition is nothing compared to his extended hospital stay and the tediously endless rituals he endured.

However, the most exciting element of Mayday Mayday for audiences who’ve been thrilled by Sturrock’s villainous characters in other shows, is that we now get a glimpse of what the actor himself is like. And fortunately, he’s charming, witty, self-deprecating and thoughtful. In short, we care what happens to him. And we’re delighted that he’s made a full recovery.

Mayday Mayday is running in Bristol Old Vic’s Studio until 4 February, and is suitable for those aged 14 and above. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

To read an interview with Tristan Sturrock about the development of this show and about his recovery from the fall, please visit the Bristol Old Vic’s blog by clicking here.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Henry Rollins: “My interest is to get women off the sidelines”

Henry Rollins, ladies and gentlemen – the mighty Henry Rollins is here! And my word, did we Bristolians welcome him with open arms – apart from the pro-lifer who threw a pint of beer over him, but, y’know, there’s nowt so queer as folk.

In anticipation of his sold-out spoken word gig at Bristol’s St George’s last night, Henry was kind enough to spare me some time for an interview.

“I wouldn’t dare waste the audience’s time”

I first saw Henry live last August in Belfast, on an earlier date in his seemingly never-ending The Long March tour, which is taking him all around the world and back again. Much of the material was essentially the same, but it certainly didn’t feel like I’d heard it before as Henry had moved everything on and adapted stories to suit his current frame of mind.

Henry confirms: “The material is constantly evolving and new things are working their way into the set all the time. I have to keep the material moving with the world. There are certainly stories I will tell that don’t change as they are what they are, but aspects of the stories will make themselves more known as the nights go on. New material is always good. I never want to ‘dial it in’ so I always want new things to talk about. I go out onstage with a total idea as to what I am going to talk about. I don’t like leaving things up to chance. I wouldn’t dare waste the audience’s time searching for some idea onstage.”

And it is this respect for his audiences that really shines through when you watch Henry’s performance. This is a man who is so sure of his place in life that he has an opinion on virtually everything, and it pretty much always makes sense.

That said, Henry is also a man who in his book Get In The Van (published in 1994, and consisting of his Black Flag tour diaries from 1981-1986) seems to have little patience for the grim existence of life in England in the early 1980s. So I ask him if his opinion of the UK has changed in more recent years.

“The first few times coming here were hard for me,” he says. “I can’t explain to you how much British music means to me. When Black Flag came here and caught so much grief from bands whose records I had bought with my minimum wage earnings, it was such a bummer. Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad. The Damned and the UK Subs, two of the best bands ever, were very cool to us and are friends to this day. When I started coming here with my band in 1987, things got a lot better and many years and literally hundreds of shows in England later, it’s one of my favorite places to be.”

One of the most noticeable things about Black Flag, and many of the bands they toured with, were that they were effectively politically correct before political correctness became ‘a thing’ that people tried too hard to be. I wondered where that consciousness came from?

“I would not say that Black Flag was politically correct,” states Henry. “We were political. Authority didn’t like us and we didn’t like it. Punk rock in those days was pretty PC as there were a lot of females in those local scenes. It depended where you went. Where I come from, Washington DC, that was a very PC scene. PC to the point of being almost sexless, which to me, just isn’t real. That’s an act or some kind of sadistic restraint. All those young people? Come on! It had a great effect on me. California was a whole different thing altogether. I got out there and immediately started getting hit on by women, it was very rock and roll as you might say. I felt very alone in that scene.”

“It is the misogynist, racist, homophobic minority that should be called out, marginalised, voted out, shouted down, whatever way you have to get them out of the way so the rest of us can get down the road”

Having mentioned that there were a lot of women around the punk scene that Henry was involved with, I ask if he’d define himself as a feminist… “I would not,” he says. “I think at this point to call myself one would only impede progress for male-female equality. I am not trying to be coarse. My interest is to get women off the sidelines. For a man to call himself a feminist at this point, while no doubt well-intentioned, is keeping equality somewhat tied down.”

He goes on to clarify: “I am a human, male. I acknowledge female humans and other males as my equal and deserving of civil and human rights. Period. This is where it should be. Homo or hetero, I do not care. It is the misogynist, racist, homophobic minority that should be called out, marginalised, voted out, shouted down, whatever way you have to get them out of the way so the rest of us can get down the road. I threw out the notion of being a feminist a few years ago. I would rather be considered a humanist.”

And what of the women whose lives you’ve seen in other communities? You’re extremely well traveled, as you talk about a lot in you live shows… what have you noticed about the lives of women in more remote countries? “In many African countries I have been to, the women fetch the water, do incredible amounts of work and in many cultures, are revered and respected,” he says. “It is strange to go from that to a place like Saudi Arabia, where women seem to be hidden away and treated as something other than a human being. For a western type, it’s a strange thing to see and at times, difficult to tolerate.”

“As an older guy, I am mad at famine, inequality, deregulation, banker graft,
war, globalisation, cruelty and things like that”

On that note of tolerance, or the lack of it, I ask Henry if he finds himself getting   more or less angry as he gets older, and whether the things that make him angry have changed with time? “I have gotten more angry, I’m afraid,” Henry simply says, before adding: “The sources of the anger have changed. When I was younger, I was mad at the guy who gave me the bad review, or the bass player who was doing whatever, or the girl who rejected me – basically, lightweight stuff. I was also mad at how I was raised and some real things like that. As an older guy, I am mad at famine, inequality, deregulation, banker graft, war, globalisation, cruelty and things like that. The girl doesn’t like me thing means nothing to me at this point, that’s too lightweight for me.”

Wrapping up, and (at this point) in anticipation of seeing Henry live in Bristol’s wonderful St George’s, I ask if he ever gets any time to himself and, if so, what he does with it? Somehow, I can’t imagine Henry Rollins sitting back with a takeaway pizza, watching Deal or No Deal… “I don’t have a television, believe it or not,” he tells me. “I get a fair share of down time. I go to the gym a lot. Post show, I get time to let the parts settle. I go online and look at things, listen to music, read, write. Most of the time though. I am active and working on something. That’s how I have always been, a kind of nervous, energetic type. I am trying to make the most of my time and what luck I have had come my way.”

So, on that note… it’s on with the show:

Henry Rollins at St George’s, Bristol – Tuesday, January 17

Let’s lay our cards on the table when it comes to this US punk icon: I own all of his albums, virtually all of his books and all but one his spoken word albums. Last night was the fourth time I’ve seen him perform spoken word live. I’m a fan.

Henry’s enthusiasm for life, culture and politics is infectious. He has turned me – and numerous others – on to great music and books. We might have got there eventually, but the urgency with which Rollins speaks got us there faster.

If you know Rollins’ work, then this review isn’t for you. You know what to expect. At exactly 8pm, a muscled mesomorph with tightly-cropped grey hair pounds on to the stage, takes the microphone in his left hand, wraps the cord around the same hand three times, plants his feet, and hits it, hits it hard. It’s a ‘relaxed’ version of the stance with which he attacked audiences of the Rollins Band for years when his nightly mission was to destroy the crowd with the power of his music. This is spoken word, and while it lacks the raw wattage and physical bruising of a Rollins Band or Black Flag performance, the intent and intensity are the same.

For two hours and 36 minutes, Rollins powers through anecdotes, jokes, opinions and minor epic prose-poems on his daily life. He also includes his recent travels (Vietnam, North Korea, Haiti, Tibet…), celebrities he has encountered (and on occasion terrified), and more. No umms, no ahhs, no sips of water. It’s seriously impressive.

At the height of the Rollins Band fame, the UK music press portrayed him as a tortured Nietzschean figure. The aggression, the songs of pain, and the superficial resemblance to a Brit-lensed stereotype of an American marine made him seem like the anti-Morrissey. Rollins’ goading of Brit indie bands for their weakness and lack of work ethic added to the press’ image. Indeed, his earlier spoken word, for example on the album Big Ugly Mouth, is a thanatotic rage. There are gags, but even those feel pained.

The difference between then and now is that while the anger has not diminished, this is a fully accomplished performer. Rollins hits the same subject matter as he has for decades – his anger at prejudice, injustice and at times the downright stupidity of human beings. But in 2012, Rollins can take an audience wherever he wants.

From mentally enervating tales of human suffering, to hilarious throwaway lines about shopping, he holds the audience’s attention whatever tone he cares to take. This is not to say that Rollins panders, but rather that he has skill and persuasive power to give people what they want even when they didn’t know they wanted it. It’s impossible that everyone at St George’s last night agrees with Rollins on all subjects, but we all wanted to hear him tell us about it, whatever it is.

The exception that proves this came nearly two hours into the show. Rollins was explaining that while he is not religious, he has no problems with religion per se, the exception being when so-called pro-life Christian groups try to dictate what a woman can do with her body. His statement was punctuated by a plastic pint glass, which blindsided him and hit the stage just to his left. The woman who threw it from the balcony had already vacated her seat and, presumably, the building by the time Rollins drew up. His reply began: “By the way, you’re a coward…” and ended with an offer to meet him outside where they could discuss the subject, or she could simply do her worst if she wanted. Do not doubt that at 10.37pm Rollins was waiting outside St George’s, eager to make good on his offer.

The incident added to the performance. His response reminded anyone who may have forgotten just who Henry Rollins is and where he came from. This is a man who in Black Flag shows was spat on, kicked, punched and cigarette-burned by ‘fans’. There is YouTube footage of a fan who made the mistake of trying to grab the singer’s microphone, and being told not to by the end of the singer’s fist. This is a man who at a Rollins Band performance took to the stage with such ferocious intensity that when he planted his foot in front of him and brought his head down to deliver the first line of the first song, they connected with such force that he knocked himself out for a few seconds, before stumbling to his feet and careening through the rest of the set with concussion while spraying blood all over the band from the head wound. This is a man who, in 1991, looked down the barrel of a gun and witnessed the death of his best friend when the two of them were robbed in front of their LA house.

So the question is: Why bother throwing a plastic pint glass at the man? What was the point? And if you are that highly-strung that 20 seconds of monologue in criticism of ‘pro-life’ authoritarianism sends you into a foot-stamping hissy-fit, then why the hell go to see any spoken word performance that isn’t delivered from a pulpit?

If you haven’t seen Rollins perform spoken word before, or heard his music or read his books, but you are interested in fast-talking, high protein culture, then check him out. Either you’ll be desperate to see him again straightaway (like 99.98% of last night’s audience), or you’ll throw something at him and walk out (0.02%). Either way, it’s called art.

I said at the beginning that if you were familiar with Rollins then this review wasn’t for you. There is one thing I would urge though: he tours constantly. The Long March Tour runs all this year and into 2013. Therefore, it’s relatively easy to see him. However, don’t wait for the next one. Do it now. If there was one message from Rollins’ performance last night, it was that we only live one life. Don’t miss out.

Interview by @MadamJMo
Gig review by @Redlife77

For details of other dates on Henry’s tour, please visit the tour page of his website by clicking here.

For more information of upcoming gigs at St Georges in Bristol, please visit their website by clicking here.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Why is Sarah Millican a minority? Comedians and promoters talk about the lack of women on the comedy circuit.

The other day, a flyer fell out of a local listings magazine advertising a comedy club. Of the 24 events being profiled on this flyer, only one featured a woman.

This in itself isn’t news. The absence of funny women on TV screens and on the comedy circuit is well documented, with a recent resurgence of articles about this (including my own). Yet still there are no conclusive answers as to why female comics are continually being overlooked.

The trite answer could be, well, women just aren’t very funny. But that’s not true. If it was, Victoria Wood, Sarah Millican, Miranda Hart, Jo Brand, Catherine Tate, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Shappi Khorsandi, Ruby Wax, Rhona Cameron etc would have been forced to sign on a long time ago. As comedienne Kate Smurthwaite confirms: “There is a long, long history of awesome funny women: Lucille Ball, Hattie Jacques, Joan Rivers… But the truth is sexism in comedy is getting worse, the door doesn't seem to be truly open to a new Victoria Wood, Jo Brand or French and Saunders.”

And they’re only a few of the women who have made it as comediennes.

While comedy is of course subjective, I think we can agree that of the endless male comedians doing the rounds, many of them simply aren’t very funny. So are they there just because it’s safer to have an unfunny man than a funny woman? Are comedy bookers and TV producers threatened by intelligent and witty women, so much so that it’s easier to book Russell Howard again and hope for the best?

“It’s such a shock”

Comedienne Josie Long, who says if she talks about sexism she’s accused of “moaning”, opens up about the problem in this YouTube clip. Josie says: “[We’re] brought up to believe you’re on a level playing field, and as an adult you’re suddenly brought up to date with how much you’re going to be affected by sexism, and it’s such a shock… About once a day, someone says to me ‘There aren’t any funny women’, or ‘Women aren’t as funny as men’, or even, ‘I like you but I don’t normally find women funny’. Something to say they’re judging men against women in the arena of comedy, which is ridiculous.”

Chris Coltrane is a stand-up comedian whose biography lists these three things among his loves: comedy, socialist politics and feminism. So Chris seemed like someone to ask what he thought was behind the lack of women on the comedy circuit – and his answer backs up what Josie says: “The interesting thing is the amount of self-denial people have. I always hear female comics tell stories of audience coming up to them after a gig to say, ‘I don't like female comedians, but I like you’, as if that female comedian were somehow an exception, a blip that science can't explain. Rather than just judge each individual person on their merits, they've decided they don't like all women comedians, and then are surprised and astonished when they're proven wrong. But even when they are proven wrong, they won't adjust their beliefs. They're like True Believers in that respect, and that makes it incredibly hard to reason with them to prove them wrong, because for the True Believer, no amount of evidence can change their mind.”

However, Steve Lount, who runs The Comedy Box club in Bristol, disagrees that there are many funny women to choose from and says that if more existed, he’d gladly book them: “There are so few female acts out there, and fewer still who are any good in my opinion. Promoters and club owners want to see good acts on their bills and they also want to offer variety, so it isn't in club owners’ interests to deliberately avoid booking female acts - although anecdotally I have heard that some audiences don't respond well when a female act is announced onto the stage. But that has never been the case at any of my shows. We have never set out to create some kind of anti-female mentality in our venues.

“Stand-up comedy is a meritocracy. Yes, some personal taste does come into who you book and there are plenty of male comics who I also avoid booking. But my aim has always been to book the most interesting and best acts my budget will allow, disregarding their gender, disability, race or creed.”

‘It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy’

One of the two stock answers from anyone trying to defend the dearth of female comics is that women aren’t very funny. And Chris thinks this attitude extends to many in the audience, too: “As you say, the number of people who genuinely think women aren't funny is shockingly high, and you can imagine that illiberal club owners will run their booking policy accordingly. Of course, this means it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. So that then raises a new question, of whether clubs should always cater to the perceived desires of their customers, or whether they have a responsibility to try to liberate their minds and make them less sexist. I'm sure you can guess what I think!”

Josie stresses: “There’s not fewer women than men. If you go to open spot clubs, it’s at least 50/50. It is, it really is. If you go to workshops it’s half and half. Then what happens is I think people genuinely get ground down, and in my own experience I’ve had jobs that I didn’t get but then a model or a presenter does get. If you look at a panel show, it’ll be male comedian, male comedian, female presenter… If you look at Mock The Week, the people who got really famous off that were all men. And all the people doing arenas now are men. The only person who’s touching that is Sarah Millican, or possibly Shappi Khorsandi. There’s not that many women who’ve been allowed to break through in the last few years.”

Kate, however, thinks that the culture of high street misogyny has a lot to answer for: “It might sound strange but I think the so-called lads’ mags have to take some of the blame. They’re just soft porn, but in order to get themselves off the top shelf they had to present themselves as ‘men's lifestyle’. But what the hell is that? There are already tons of sports mags, gardening mags etc so they're about ‘funny stuff’. So this perpetuates the myth that funny is a male preserve, and of course the two get mixed together, so now funny equals sexism in a lot of cases.”

The recent C4 Mash Up of 8 Out Of 10 Cats with Countdown (broadcast on January 2) showed that the all-male comedians from 8 Out Of 10 Cats desperately struggled with the idea of the two intelligent Countdown women, so instead the men quickly resorted to sexually objectifying the women to belittle their obvious intelligence and put them in their place – as totty. It was embarrassing to watch, for the men who were shown to be nothing more that misogynistic cowards. But it did add some weight to my thoughts that men are frantically clinging to their funny bones as some kind of power struggle – as if by allowing women a platform to make others laugh, then women will make even more headway towards one day achieving gender equality. It’s pathetic.

‘There is absolutely no shortage of funny women’

The other stock answer in defence of why there are so few successful comediennes is that, apparently, there just aren’t as many women as men trying to make it as comedians. Something Kate, who teaches on a stand-up comedy course, disproves: “There is absolutely no shortage of funny women. At workshop and open mic level there are honestly more women in comedy than men. When I teach, I often have classes with only one or two guys in.”

But what about the promoters and TV producers who mostly book male comedy acts? “There are definitely promoters out there who will only book one woman per night,” says Chris. “I've heard people say that the reason some clubs deliberately book less female comedians is because they don't think the audience will react well to more than one female comedian, as if the audience will patronisingly let one woman give it a go, but no more than that. I can actually imagine that this is true, sadly.”

Comedy promoter Steve is less convinced that female comedians face as many barriers as have been suggested, and he believes it’s more down to many women being less suited to the lifestyle of a professional comic. He explains: “There is no bar to female stand-ups at club level. Female acts decide themselves if and when they want to perform, in exactly the same way a male act will. But, as with live music, I don't believe live stand-up is that appealing a lifestyle to female performers, which can be quite a lonely and depressing existence – lone writing, travelling and hotels.

“Whereas there is a surplus of female talent in acting, dance and comedy improvisation, I also believe there might be a more equal representation in sketch comedy. But what do these other performance arts have in common over stand-up? Human and group interaction, which females are generally better at than their male counterparts. This might explain why you see more females at comedy classes and open mic nights. These events are a lot more sociable than actual professional nights. But this is just a theory and probably not worthy of academic scrutiny.”

Kate can identify a deeper sociological problem behind the gaping void of women performers: “We've always bewailed the dull, repetitive stand-up pointing out the difference between men and women. But even ‘cutting edge’ acts like Chris Rock do it. And there are a huge number of comedy shows that are marketed on it: Men Behaving Badly, Two and Half Men, Rules of Engagement, Friends, Coupling, How I Met Your Mother… all of those shows are more or less EXCLUSIVELY about jokes about men and women and their cliched differences. The men are always horny, the women easily shocked. Speaking as an unshockable horny woman, I don't get it!”

She continues: “But also it perpetuates itself. If the clubs book lots of male acts doing sexist material, then they'll attract audiences who appreciate that.  Comedy does become something that is generally perceived as by and for men.  It's tough to challenge that: clubs will lose audiences in the short term if they buck the trend, but in the long term they'll benefit because more women will want to come and there'll be more variety among the acts and more great talent to choose from.  I think to be honest, some of the guys currently doing well are very, very afraid of clubs booking more women because they're not sure they'll be able to compete.”

Promoter Steve adds: “There aren't that many female stand-ups who I think are worth booking but I'm always on the look out for new talent. No good promoter/producer worth their salt would stop looking for new people.”

“The fact is we do book female acts”

The Comedy Box in Bristol is the comedy club I’m referring to in the opening paragraph: the club with only one female comedian on the 24 in its programme (and only one woman headlining a show until May, according to its website). The club is run by Steve Lount, who tells me: “The fact is we do book female acts. Last week, we had Sally-Anne Hayward, next weekend we have Mary Bourke, the weekend after we have Katherine Ryan, a couple of weeks after that we have Nat Luurtsema. Our print always features the headline acts or touring shows plus support or guests, which we don't name. As it happens, this season we only have one female headlining act, which is Isy Suttie.”

Steve adds: “There are only a few female acts that I think are worth headlining. Headliners at The Comedy Box have to be experienced at doing 45 minutes plus and yet we do book female acts who are capable of doing these ‘extended sets’. These acts we have booked in the last 12-18 months include Josie Long, Jo Caulfield, Sarah Millican, Zoe Lyons, Shappi Khorsandi, Lucy Porter and Andi Osho. Recently, we tried very hard to book Roisin Conaty who we think is an act who is definitely one to watch but she wouldn't take the booking.”

I contacted Off The Kerb Productions, too – which also runs the aptly named Laughing Boy Comedy Clubs. Off The Kerb is one of the biggest comedy promoters in the UK, and after more than 30 years in the business it boasts acts as huge as Jonathan Ross, Michael McIntyre, Dara O’Briain and Alan Carr on its books. But despite having just under 40 artists listed on its website, Off The Kerb promotes just three (THREE!) women: Jo Brand, Shappi Khorsandi and Suzi Ruffell. I asked Off The Kerb for a comment, and they replied to say someone would get back to me… but nearly a fortnight later I’m still waiting.


It’s impossible to reach a conclusion to this big issue in one blog post, but the volume of interest and range of theories expressed about the dearth of women on the professional comedy circuit does prove this is an issue that inspires a lot of emotion and demands more attention. As Kate Smurthwaite says in her closing comment below, if you see a good female comedian doing a show – email your local comedy club and ask them to book her… create the demand!

Kate concludes: "The good news is clubs are all about their audiences. If you see a great female act, please, please contact your local comedy club and request them by name. Just a 10-word email might make the difference between getting that spot when that TV producer happens to be in the third row that changes the face of comedy forever… ideally to mine!"

For more information:

Funny Women is THE place to go to fill all your comedy needs. They're celebrating 10 hilarious years, and you can visit their website by clicking here.

Kate Smurthwaite wrote an article on this last August, and you can read it by clicking here.

The F Word interviewed comedienne Ava Vidall in October about sexism in comedy, and that piece can be read here.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Feminism Inc

For her extensive study of how young women perceive the media in the current age, Emilie Zaslow has gone straight to the root of the matter and interviewed 70 teenage girls from various locations to gauge their opinions.
Zaslow, who is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Pace University, backs up these 70 interviews with a range of cultural critics to produce a highly accessible account of exactly how the media is influencing the next generation of young women. The result is Feminism Inc: Coming of Age in Girl Power Media Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 – reprinted 2011).
The book uses the launch of the Spice Girls and their understanding of ‘girl power’ in 1997 as its springboard, and then takes us through more recent examples such as pop singers Beyonce and Rhianna, and so-say ‘chick-friendly viewing’ including Legally Blonde and Gossip Girl… to name but a few.
What’s most surprising is that some of the answers are not what you would expect them to be. When asked to say which of the female Friends cast, for instance, they most considered strong and independent, the teenage panel repeatedly opted for ditzy Phoebe – rather than, say, Monica, who is married and head chef at a New York restaurant. Less surprisingly, the respondents saw it as inevitable that if they wanted to succeed, then they would need to mimic women such as Shakira or Christina Aguilera, and shake off any innocent seeming image and adopt a conventionally sexy persona.
Zaslow admits that she had not anticipated including a chapter about motherhood in Feminism Inc, yet she does because parenting was a topic that kept coming up in her interviews. She points out that for her panel of interviewees, they were growing up in the media age of the ‘new mom’ figure, who is often single, goes out to work, and juggles her own love life and her often troublesome children. Hugely popular shows such as Friends, Sex & The City, Frasier etc all show successful, working single mums managing to have it all without much struggle…
The consequence of seeing this type of fictional mother on TV meant that Zaslow was repeatedly told by the panel that this was what they were aiming for… but it hadn’t necessarily been well thought through. One teenager, Aiyisha, told her, for instance, that she wanted to be married, have a child and then adopt three more, while also working as a gynaecologist like Cliff in The Cosby Show, and as a fashion designer. However, on reflection, Aiyisha decided she wouldn’t have time for either her husband or children, as she would need to work such long hours, and before she knew it, in her fantasy future, she was living alone.
Less surprising was the response from Zaslow’s panel to the idea of them being feminists, despite their previously expressed beliefs that strong women such as Beyonce were their heroines. The very word ‘feminist’ has been tainted for them by a negative media association, and it turns out that many of Zaslow’s respondents didn’t recognise their independent and positive thoughts or beliefs as being feminist ones – because they understood feminists to be “lesbians who did not shave their armpits”! At the same time, the girls identified with physically strong characters such as Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and presumed she must be a feminist because she can defend herself. Which just proves what we already know – that the media and its often-incorrect portrayal of feminism is doing an incredible amount of damage.
What’s most refreshing about Zaslow’s book is its study of lived experiences by contemporary teenage girls: the next generation of young women. These are the opinions and thoughts of women who will shape the future of our society via all of their actions, and it’s fascinating to know how they collectively think rather than to simply read theories posturing on what academic adults may think. It would be most interesting if Zaslow returned to this group in 10 years time to see how they have got on, and if their views about women’s roles in life, and of feminism, have changed at all. That would be particularly interesting.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Margaret Thatcher stole my milk

A book I saw in an Oxfam recently - with a brilliant cover.

Margaret Thatcher’s face, 10ft high, sailed past me the other day while I was waiting to cross the road. I shuddered at the sight, so close to my own face. Thatcher was plastered across the side of a double-decker bus as promotion for the new film The Iron Lady, which was released on January 6 and sees Meryl Streep take on the former Prime Minister.
Yesterday, I braced myself and went to watch the film. By coincidence, yesterday also saw current Prime Minister David Cameron state that UK film industry should only invest in “commercially successful films” – rather than pledge support to art films and help expand the UK film industry: an industry already at risk after the UK Film Council was abolished by Cameron’s government last year. The way things are going, the UK will soon no longer have a discernable film industry, rather it will have a poor cousin of Hollywood, albeit from the wrong side of the family.
But back to The Iron Lady. It’s a film so heavily weighted with problems that it’s difficult to know where to start. So here’s a quick list:
- Meryl Streep. She’s a fabulous actress but she is wrong as Mrs Thatcher. You can plaster Meryl in as much ageing make-up and cement hairspray as you want, you can dress her in (expensive-looking) dowdy blue dresses and old-fashioned jewels… but Meryl will always look beautiful and glamorous. Neither of which are words anyone could realistically use to describe Maggie. Meryl’s accent is also patchy – at times perfect Thatcher, at other times Miranda Priestley.
- Phyllida Lloyd. This is the woman who previously directed Meryl in the box office musical smash Mamma Mia, based on the Abba musical. And now she’s directing Meryl in a political biopic. I was just waiting for Pierce Brosnan to appear, and start singing the Chicken Song from Spitting Image.
- The atmospherics of the film. From the opening scenes of a doddery old lady going to her corner shop to buy milk, to her return to her wealthy, staffed house, you know this is going to be one of those warm, cuddly British films. The subtle lighting, the crisp sound, the softness of the speech… they’re the same effects used by Working Title to repeatedly popular effect in their resurgence of contemporary heritage cinema. None of which reinforce what I know of the baroness.
And this is what I know of Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher (the subject of playground chants up and down the country):
I was born in 1978, the year before Margaret Thatcher came to power. I was 12 when she was ousted in 1990. I remember the name ‘Thatcher’ being discussed over the kitchen table, and being thrown out of the television and radio. I remember the gloomy talk at school about the Falklands, the upset for friends whose dads were fighting, and the celebrations when the war was finally won. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned what the letters ‘IRA’ stood for, but I always knew they were a terrifying bunch of people with bombs – bombs targeted mainly at Thatcher and London. I remember the woman being re-elected, and I remember her being ousted when John Major came in. I remember the Spitting Image puppet of Thatcher, and then of Major eating his peas in black and white. Before that, I remember waking up one morning to be told that the Berlin Wall had been pulled down the previous night. More than anything, I remember the Lloyds crash of 1989 – a disaster that still affects my family.
I also fondly remember the mini bottles of room temperature milk with blue plastic straws that we used to have every morning at school. One of us would be dispatched to the school canteen to come back with the crate full of rattling glass milk bottles to be distributed to the class. I remember how that warm milk tasted, sucked up through my straw. And then I remember it no longer being there anymore. Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.
Clearly, the memories of a 12-year-old are limited and are going to be affected by the influence of a closed world: parents and teachers. But Thatcher has continued to afflict the society she famously claimed didn’t exist. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned more about her and how to recognise her shadows and entrails creeping over our current economic and societal miseries.
When I was in my 20s I had a relationship with a man who was 15 years older than me, and who had always been politically active. This meant he was 16 when Thatcher came to power in 1979 and 27 when she resigned – and this meant his experiences of living under Thatcher were removed from my playground ones.  Looking through his 1980s photo albums, he told me about living in London squats, living on the dole, Rock Against Racism marches, Clash concerts on the other side of the Westway, working in the crèche at peace camps… He positively hated Thatcher. Retrospectively, to a naïve 20-something me with a lot to learn, it looked romantic, but it wasn’t.

Stand down, Margaret
And that’s the problem with The Iron Lady. They’ve looked back on Thatcher’s life and cast a romantic glow on it. Maggie’s relationship with husband Dennis is the central driver of the film’s narrative – showing her as an ambitious young politician who falls in love with a kind businessman: a man who supports her drive to succeed, who dotes on their children (even if she doesn’t), and who loves his wife ‘MT’ (empty) unconditionally. Margaret’s grief for the long-dead Dennis is the device that holds the narrative threads together, attempting to show a vulnerable old lady with possible dementia who is lonely without her partner.
I’m now married to a man from Belfast who grew up used to his schoolbus being searched by police for bombs every day when it went past City Hall.  Having now learned about The Troubles (recent and local history was not on the curriculum at my schools), I know that Northern Ireland also experienced the awful weight of Thatcher, but in a different way to England. In England we experienced her negative interference, bad policies and blinkered views to detrimental effect. But it was worse in Northern Ireland. Thatcher refused to negotiate with terrorists, so the political prisoners in Northern Ireland, the men on hunger strike (as exemplified in Steve McQueen’s staggering 2008 film Hunger) were left with their demands and requests going unanswered, and prisoners starved to death because she refused to intervene. Thatcher did nothing. Not one thing. She rarely even visited Belfast. The IRA were notably most active during Thatcher’s reign of non-negotiation, but it was John Major who began the peace process with Sinn Fein. Major could do with a little more applaud for repairing some of the damage done by Thatcher.
The Iron Lady spends so much time focussing on the Maggie and Dennis love story that it leaves itself little time to dwell on the hideous policies this astonishingly ratchety woman was responsible for: eradicating socialism; supporting capitalism; cutting income tax for very high earners from 83% to 40%; privatising state industries and state housing; pushing for Victorian family values; national recession; endless inner-city riots; bringing down the mining industry. Oh, and pitching our men into a bloody and pointless war just so she could win a second term.
More than anything I am concerned that younger generations, who know little or nothing about Thatcher, will not only look at The Iron Lady and think this is an accurate portrayal of a toxic leader, but they will also think she looked as glamorous as Meryl. There are some who have said it is unkind to make this film while Thatcher is alive. However, I don’t understand why – this film does a better job of making Margaret Thatcher seem like a normal human being than even Max Clifford could.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The Suffragettes’ Wood

Adela Pankurst and Annie Kenney in the arboretum, 1910 - photo from
Inevitably, the combined ordeals of prison and forcible feeding would take its toll on Britain’s suffragettes, and when they were released from the jails they would need time to recover. And many of these women would go to Eagle House in Batheaston, Somerset, to recuperate as guests of the supportive Blathwayt family.
In addition to offering rest and respite, Linley and Emily Blathwayt created a three-acre arboretum on their land in tribute to their political guests – most notably Yorkshire-woman Annie Kenney (who eventually made her home just a few streets away from where I am currently typing this in Clifton, Bristol). This fascinating and unique project was developed between 1909 and 1912 and saw more than 60 women plant a tree in the specially cultivated plot. Those who had undergone hunger strike and forced feeding were invited to plant a conifer, and non-militant suffragettes planted holly bushes. And the planting of each was accompanied by a special ceremony in which the suffragette in question would dress in her finest clothes and her awarded suffrage jewellery.
Annie and Kitty Kenney, Florence Haig, Mary Blathwayt and Marion Wallace-Dunlop
- photo from
The ceremonies and the development of the arboretum were documented on camera by Colonel Blathwayt, who also ordered iron plaques for each plant to record the date of planting, type of species, and name of the woman being honoured. Long forgotten after the arboretum fell to ruin in the middle of the last century, these photographs and many of the plaques were recovered in the attic of Eagle House when it was being prepared for sale. In 2002, Bath historian Dan Brown archived the photos (there are around 250 available to view here), and in 2011 – with Canadian academic Cynthia Hammond – he curated an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the Suffragettes’ Wood (for International Women’s Week, held at Bath Central Library). The exhibition catalogue – Suffragettes in Bath: Activism in an Edwardian Arboretum – is still for sale through Brown’s website, and I strongly advise getting a copy.
Brown and Hammond’s catalogue is liberally illustrated with glossy, black and white photos, all meticulously referenced in the accompanying essays, and together the book builds a vivid picture of the creation (and destruction) of this extraordinary political project of the last century. That the arboretum was allowed to become overgrown and abandoned is sad enough, but it is particularly tragic that there was seemingly no objection to the arboretum being bulldozed by property developers in the 1960s.
The suffragettes fought a crucial fight for women and men the world over, and it is vital that we never forget what those strong women did on our behalf. The decision to commemorate these women with an arboretum was a grand and beautiful gesture by the Blathwayts, and should have been a lasting memorial for centuries to come. In the end, the arboretum survived only a few decades before the actions of these remarkable women was brushed aside and bulldozed. This is very sad.
Those interested in the history of women’s activism in the South West may also be interested to know that Hammond has a book published next month on this: Architects, Angels, Activists and the City of Bath, 1765-1965 (Ashgate).
Overview of 'Annie's Arboretum' in 1909 - photo from

Registered sex offender Chris Langham to visit Bristol cinema

The Cube Microplex (an independent, community media centre in Bristol's Stokes Croft - an area known locally as The People's Republic of Stokes Croft due to its commitment to promoting community and artistic values) is a valued and treasured alternative media venue in Bristol. The Cube hosts all manner of exciting events, performers and puts on any number of interesting nights. As a Bristolian, I love The Cube. 

But I was really stunned to hear that later this month (January 30, 2012), they are welcoming registered sex offender Chris Langham to take part in a masterclass about filmmaking. I'm sure no one needs reminding that in 2007 he was convicted for downloading filmed child abuse pornography. I know there are a number of people in Bristol who are horrified about this event and have contacted The Cube direct to complain, myself among them - and I've pasted my email below in case anyone else wants to send it, or modify it and send their own version.  

The email address is


I see on your listings that you are screening Black Pond for three nights, a new film featuring Chris Langham. And that he is coming to attend an event at the Cube on Monday, January 30.

I was really shocked to see that you are not only screening a film starring a convicted paedophile, but also that you are inviting him to your cinema for patrons to ask questions about filmmaking. It was only in 2007 that Chris Langham was found guilty and convicted on 15 counts of paying to download images and films of filmed child abuse. He did not attempt to deny these charges, and has rightly served time in prison for them as well as being made to sign the register of sex offenders. However, the fact he has spent time in prison for these offences does not make up for the fact that he committed them in the first place.

That The Cube can now sweep this appalling behaviour under the carpet and now welcome Langham into its cinema as if nothing has happened upsets and offends me. I had understood The Cube to be a community-minded venue with a conscience, so your decision to include a man found guilty of accessing filmed child abuse (a known sex offender) really grates with me.

Please could you let me know your reasoning for including a man who was found guilty, and admitted his guilt, of this despicable and hateful crime in your listings, and worse, inviting him to your cinema to take part in a masterclass?

I ask you to please reconsider having him or his film on your schedule, and I will certainly be thinking again before attending any future events at the Cube (a unique community arts venue that I treasure and value in Bristol), as clearly you don’t have the principles I thought you had.

That Langham has been included on your listings at all disappoints me. And if The Cube doesn’t address the complaints about his inclusion (and ideally act to cancel his film’s screening, and certainly cancel his personal appearance), I for one will be taking my custom elsewhere.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Virginia Nicholson – Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949

Following a cast of brave women from 1939 to 1949, Virginia Nicholson’s comprehensive book thoroughly explores the complexities of the Second World War from the point of view of the millions of women who not only kept the home fires burning, but also cracked Hitler’s codes, nursed victims at Belsen, and learned to fly planes.
Millions Like Us (Penguin, £25) is at no times sentimental, but is consistently engaging with its narratives of real women and their lived experiences, driving the narrative through very real situations – from the shortage of sanitary towels, to backstreet abortions and grieving for lost loved ones. Nicholson’s book hammers home the point that women were more than just homemakers, they were also instrumental in joining up and fighting the fight.
What becomes most apparent, though, is the disregard with which these astonishing women were treated by men. Many of these women suffered sexism, rape and abuse at the hands of men who belittled (or felt belittled by) the amazing work these women were proving themselves capable of. Despite enlisting women into the forces, there was a written rule that denied women the right to kill – which, of course, men could do. And when peace was announced, it was assumed that these women – women who had proved themselves to be more than equal to their male kin – were expected to meekly slot back into the kitchens and forget the trades they had learned. Yet, of course, many did not want to.
Nicholson’s book charts in a sympathetic way, through the narrative of real women she has retrospectively interviewed, the decade around the Second World War. From the horror experienced by women when war broke, to the sterling way they coped with the hardships at home and the horrors on the battlefields, and then the shock and lacklustre response when peace was announced – perhaps most shocking of all, the announcement of peace was not the relief everyone assumed, because nothing could ever be the same again. Families faced homelessness and poverty, and rationing continued for years afterwards. Plus the skills women had learned (from code-breaking to farming the land) didn’t translate so well into the post-war jobs market.
Nicholson’s exhaustive book is compiled with great care, complete attention to detail and confirms what a talented and empathetic writer she is. Her book makes clear that among the many atrocities of the Second World War was the abhorrent abuse women endured at the hands of misogynist men, and the great strides women made in the absence of men in a retrograde world that was exclusively a male zone. 
The paperback edition of Millions Like Us (£9.99)
is published on March 15, 2012.