Monday, 23 April 2012

Rape Culture - Ched Evans

*Potential trigger warning*

Several years ago, a friend was called up for jury service for a rape trial. He said that despite the fact he and almost all of his fellow jury members believed the man accused of rape was guilty, they were obliged to pass a 'not guilty' verdict as there wasn't enough evidence to convict him. My friend said he went home in tears after the case was closed, feeling that a guilty man had walked free and knowing that a rape survivor had not seen the justice she deserved, and was therefore forced to feel more pain and anger at her treatment.

It is a well known fact that the number of reported rapes is significantly lower than the number of actual rapes. It is also a well known fact that the number of reported rapes that see the alleged rapist convicted is barely above 50%. So it is quite something that last week a jury found footballer Ched Evans guilty after a woman accused him of rape in May 2011. It's not something to celebrate (there's nothing to celebrate about rape), but it is something to acknowledge.

However, some of Evans' fans started the hateful #JusticeForChed hashtag on Twitter, which not only saw his rape survivor named (a criminal offence, as her identity was protected by law), but thousands upon thousands of vile misogynistic messages aimed at the survivor and those supporting her.

Sabotage Times invited me to write an article for them about this, and you can read it by clicking the link here. (NB: That wasn't my headline!)

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Generosity Publishing

Have you heard about Concord Free Press? It’s a Massachusetts-based experiment in generosity publishing and it’s really got my attention. So much so that I signed up to be sent a (free) copy of their most recent book, which is a collection of short stories called Round Mountain by Castle Freeman Jr. In return, I was asked to donate some money to charity and record it on the website. Which I was happy to do. The idea is you then pass the book on to someone else (for free), and they also read and donate, before passing it on again, and so on and so on. 

It’s a simple idea with a huge heart, and it’s impossible to fault their ethos. Writers donate their prose, Concord covers the costs of print publishing (currently with Kodak), readers donate to charity, and the world is just a fraction brighter as a result. And as Concord says on its website: “We’re not proposing free books as a cure for what ails modern publishing. That would be stupid.” But a glance at its website shows that people really are donating as a result of reading their free books, which is surely good news.

How does Concord do it? Well, there’s also the Concord ebooks arm, and the profits from sales of these help fund the free books and postage (I was taken aback to see my free book, posted to me in the UK from the US, cost more than $10 just to post – yikes). But even the sold ebooks originate from a good place – with profits being split 50/50 between the author and publisher. Which is a significantly better deal than authors usually receive. Trust me, I’m a soon-to-be-published author!

And what of the books themselves? If they’re free, are they even any good? Well, I’ve only read Round Mountain so far, but it was fantastic.

Here’s the blurb: “In the backwoods towns of Round Mountain, time circles like a winding road. Friends disappear and show up again, older if not wiser. Small incidents – a night of drinking, a robbery, a strange visitor from Canada – loom larger as the decades pass. And over time, the true colours of every man, woman and child become known to all.”
Click here to find out more about the Concord Free Press.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Six Wives Of Henry VIII

Stu was kept busy working his way through the cast list.

Here’s the deal: Howard Coggins looks like Henry VIII. There's no escaping it. Stu Mcloughlin doesn't really look like any of the wives, but he's going to give it a go.
And from that simple premise, The Six Wives of Henry VIII was born.

Let’s be clear, this fun play doesn’t lay any claim to being historically accurate. Not a jot! But that’s OK. This is like Horrible Histories meets Blackadder, performed by two much-loved Bristolian actors.

Why do I say ‘much-loved’? Well, we’re talking about two of the chaps who’ve starred in all of the most fantastic plays in our city in recent years. Howard was in Treasure Island, while Stu is seemingly never off our stages – in the past 12 months alone, I’ve seen him in Swallows and Amazons as well as The Wild Bride.

And Stu’s experiences with Kneehigh (who produced The Wild Bride) are clear in The Six Wives of Henry VIII – most notably in the regular break-outs into country-blues songs, which are hummed by the delighted audience into the interval.

Throughout the first act, The Six Wives of Henry VIII goes from strength to strength. Our two actors are a delight, especially in the intimate space of the Old Vic’s Basement. They play off each other, they play off the audience and they’re having a hoot. The audience is in stitches and I’m laughing out loud at many points, sniggering at most others.

Howard makes an extremely convincing Henry VIII, and Stu makes a lovely harem of brides… so much so I find myself feeling sorry for poor Anne Boleyn when (spoiler alert) she gets beheaded.  

But while act one is a rollocking ride through Tudor history, aided by Britain’s Got Clerical Talent and a range of ill-fitting frocks, the second act is more of a struggle. It begins in a similar vein, and the laughs keep on coming… until about half way through, when a mock fight between Howard and Stu kicks off, which has no comedic value and lasts so long that I wondered if there was real deep rooted resentment between the actors.

But for that, The Six Wives of Henry VIII is hilarious. A genuinely feel-good, hot-water bottle of a play – and one that is worth watching simply for the scene where Henry and Anne of Cleeves perform a Kraftwerk-esque dance routine.

Howard and Stu are a cracking duo, and the combination of their commararderie and Kneehigh singing make this a fantastic few hours. I’d just like to see the ending tweaked for a more seamless flow.

The Six Wives Of Henry VIII is performed in Bristol Old Vic’s Basement until 12 May. Bristol Old Vic is running a special offer at the moment, where your ticket is only £5 if you also book to see A Kind of Alaska/Krapp's Last Tape. Please click here for more details and to book tickets.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Music & Liberation project

Online archive

There’s an exciting online resource called the Women’s Liberation Movement Music Archive, which documents the bands, musicians and musical projects that were part of the burgeoning of creativity generated by the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1970s and 1980s.

During that era, women’s music, film and theatre groups, visual art, literature, performance art, street theatre and other activities proliferated, fusing artistic activities with politics to develop and express feminist ideas.

Feminist bands and musicians were not solely about providing entertainment, but also embodied a commitment to putting politics into practice and advancing women’s rights. Challenging sexism and stereotyped gender roles, their lyrics and style reflected the values of the WLM. They were a vital and integral part of the movement, yet are often omitted from, or marginalised by, the media and historical accounts.

Concerned that this part of women’s history was at risk of being lost, Dr Deborah Withers and Frankie Green believe the achievements of these music-makers should be mapped and celebrated. This work-in-progress collection comprises testimonies and interviews, discographies, gigographies and memorabilia – plus links to ongoing women’s music-making and feminist activism.

Touring exhibition

Music & Liberation, An Exhibition about Women’s Liberation Music Making in the UK (1970-1989) will show how feminists used music as an activist tool to entertain and empower women during the 1970s and 1980s. It brings together a diverse collection of women’s cultural heritage to inspire and inform contemporary audiences about the politics of music making.

The grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund was announced in January, and will be spent on a touring exhibition visiting the following venues:
Butetown History & Arts Centre, Cardiff  4 – 24 September
Bureau Gallery, Manchester, 27 September – 25 October
Glasgow Women’s Library, Glasgow, 29 October – 26 November
Space Station Sixty-Five, London 30 Nov – 15 Jan 2013

The HLF grant will pay for the high-quality digitisation of audio and visual material, including live performances, studio recordings, practices and TV appearances. A CD of music from Music & Liberation will be produced, and 10 new oral histories collected. The music, films and oral histories will be available to watch and listen to at the exhibition. Ephemera and artefacts such as posters, songbooks, t-shirts, instruments and flyers will also be displayed.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Birds of a Feather

They flock together, do birds of a feather – and seemingly these Chigwell sisters just can’t be separated either from each other or their sex-mad neighbour Dorien. Following a nine-year run of the BBC sitcom, Birds of a Feather has been brought to the stage and features the three original leading cast members: Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph.

One of the things that made Birds of a Feather so popular and unique was that it stands as that rare beast – a sitcom focused on female characters. And now the stars have reunited to regenerate sisters Sharon and Tracey and brassy Dorien.

Sharon and Tracey are living a new life in Chigwell with Tracey’s younger son Travis, and battling on through their various problems of unemployment, low wages, agoraphobia and a big family secret – all dealt with in the brash, off-hand and blunt comedy manner you’d expect from these two. But their daily routine is shaken up when a blast from the past suddenly writes to them… and their lives are turned upside down when Dorien reappears, bringing with her as much excitement and drama as befits a woman of her reputation.

It’s a small cast of six, that’s supported by Robert Maskell as Roger Zimmerman, and Caroline Burns Cooke as DS Teddern, and it’s a welcome interruption to the intensity of the three leads to have the supporting actors appear on the stage and soften the impact of the somewhat relentless cheeky jokes and hen-do humour. It was a shame the supporting cast didn’t get more time on stage, especially Cooke as the no-nonsense detective, but Quirke, Robson and Joseph kept the packed audience in stitches throughout. And as the crowds filed out afterwards, I heard nothing but praise for the two-hour show.

I caught the production when it was at the end of its one-week run at Bath Theatre Royal, but Birds of a Feather is currently touring the UK until mid-July. Click here to see future dates and locations. To see what else is on at the Theatre Royal Bath, please click here.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

What The Frock! flyer

Pinter/Beckett double bill: Bristol Old Vic

Richard Bremmer as Krapp - photo by Mark Douet

Ooh, this is a biggie – the Harold Pinter/Samuel Beckett double header is the jewel in the crown of the Bristol Old Vic’s spring schedule, and having been to a performance last night, I strongly suggest you get yourself down to the theatre on King Street and make sure you find out just why everybody is talking about it.

Directed by Simon Godwin, this double bill by two of our most distinguished playwrights has certainly attracted attention, and all for the right reasons. Performed in Bristol Old Vic’s Studio (while the finishing touches are put to the extensive renovations of the historic main theatre), the malleable space easily adapts to fit both productions, thanks to set design by Mike Britton.

The first play is Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, which was written in 1982, and apparently inspired by Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, which was about the real life case of Rose R who suffered from Encephalitis Lethargica: a condition that, according to the BBC, “swept the world in the 1920s”, attacking the brain and “leaving victims like living statues, speechless and motionless”.

This is the same condition our protagonist Deborah (Marion Bailey) has just woken up from after 29 years neither asleep nor awake. What ensues is 45-year-old Deborah’s struggle to understand her new reality, her new body and her new situation, and to reconcile that with the 16-year-old her she still thinks she is. Deborah is supported by her doctor (Richard Bremmer) and sister (Carolyn Blackhouse). What shows through Pinter’s script is Deborah’s inability to accept that her younger sister’s experiences of life are so different to her own, that her younger sister is now the ‘adult’, and the confusing tricks that memory plays on you. The audience is left questioning our own sense of reality, and even whether the play we just think we saw is the same play as experienced by the person sitting next to each other – after all, one person’s memory of an event is not necessarily the same as someone else’s.

Beckett’s 1958 play Krapp's Last Tape is a single hander with Richard Bremmer returning in the title role. On his birthday, 69-year-old Krapp listens to a recording of his younger self. But after a life of failure, withdrawal and physical decline, the youthful idealism that confronts him makes the passing of time even more acute.

With wonderful timing, and a precise minimalism of speech, Bremmer brings the stillest of plays to life. It is surely 10 minutes before he even speaks, with the opening being a slow and considered replication of the nonsense things people do when alone to pass the time – in this case, indulging in a ritual of finding a banana in a locked drawer and attempting to throw the skin into a wastepaper basket with your back turned. It sounds silly, but Bremmer’s performance really makes this work, and it could easily be a sketch written by one of the cleverest comedians.

The message in Krapp’s Last Tape seems far stronger than in A Kind of Alaska, with the sense of time, vocabulary and authorship coming through much more clearly in Beckett’s script. But then what else would you expect from the foremost Modernist playwright? Putting the two plays side by side, Krapp comes out as a far superior production – thanks to Bremmer’s studied performance of Beckett’s intelligent writing.


The Pinter/Beckett plays are performed daily at Bristol Old Vic until 12 May. Click here to visit the Bristol Old Vic’s website for more information. 

Bristol Old Vic has kindly donated a pair of tickets to A Kind Of Alaska/ Krapp's Last Tape as prizes for the What The Frock! fundraising raffle, which is next Tuesday (17 April), 7.30pm, upstairs at The Big Chill, Bristol. Please click here to find out more about What The Frock! and the quiz night and raffle. Absolutely everyone is invited, so start putting your teams together, and I look forward to seeing you on April 17.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

We are Women, We are Funny

Funny Women promotes female comedy talent – from finding and developing new acts through the Funny Women Awards, to working with established performers.

Founded in 2002 by Lynne Parker, Funny Women has become a leading comedy brand, promoting new female talent through live events, workshops and training programmes.

At the heart of Funny Women is the Funny Women Awards, which have introduced many women performers onto the comedy scene. Last year saw more than 350 entrants and a tour of showcases that took Funny Women to some of the UK's best arts venues and festivals.

Over the last ten years, Funny Women has recognised that women can achieve a lot by finding their comic voice, so runs public workshops around the UK for women who want to learn about performing stand up comedy in a safe, non threatening environment.

Part of Funny Women's ethos is to raise awareness and funds for causes relating to women – from charities that conduct research into female specific cancers to organisations that work towards combating violence against women.

The Funny Women Awards are celebrating their tenth anniversary this year, and over that period they have been the first to see many wonderful female comedians who are now major names on the comedy circuit.  Funny Women have played a part in bringing more female voices onto the comedy scene, and What The Frock! is looking forward to working with them for Ladyfest Bristol in July 2012.  

Visit the Funny Women website by clicking here.

Visit the What The Frock! website by clicking here.

Visit the Ladyfest Bristol 2012 website by clicking here.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Merle Hoffman – ‘Intimate Wars’

Yesterday, I tweeted a fact I read in Merle Hoffman’s memoir about her experiences at the frontline of abortion services in the United States. “Around 200 abortion clinics in America have been bombed since 1977. And 178 staff have received death threats.” It was retweeted more than 20 times in the first few minutes after I posted it, including by columnists at UK national broadsheets. And people tweeted me back to tell me how horrified they were by this, or to tell me about their own experiences.

Well, if those statistics appalled them, they should read Merle’s excellent and frank book for even more horrific facts about the abuse and threats levied at those who work in abortion clinics in the States. But Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom is far from a look-at-me, haven’t-I-had-it-tough tale. Merle’s memoir is an inspirational, positive and life-affirming testament to what can be achieved by women who work with like-minded people to change the world for the better for hundreds of thousands of women.

A trailblazer in the reproductive rights and women’s health movements, Merle is perhaps less well known here in the UK. Yet she has achieved so much – and became known as the first person to raise the iconic coat-hanger at pro-choice rallies. As a young woman, Merle worked in a women’s health centre in New York, and soon abandoned her intended career as a musician in order to devote her life to fighting for women’s right to choose. More than 40 years ago, she pioneered one of the first abortion clinics and went on to become an international spokeswoman for feminism and women’s rights.

As well as providing a fascinating insight into the history of abortion in the States, as well as Russia – where Merle also set up clinics, Intimate Wars is a frank account of Merle’s own relationships: notably with a much older man, who she later married, and her decision to become a mother when she was in her 50s, and her experiences of adopting.

But despite the positive outcome in Merle’s own story, we must not forget that despite 40 years of hard work from Merle and her colleagues, abortion rights are still under attack all around the world, and abortion patients are still subject to horrific guilt trips and attacks as they attempt to enter or leave clinics for treatment. Abortion clinics spend more money on security than any other type of medical facility – both for the clinics themselves and for the owners and doctors.

Intimate Wars is out in paperback, published in 2012 by the Feminist Press, New York. It is available from Amazon UK by clicking here. There is a website for Intimate Wars, that could be found here. Merle’s website can be accessed by clicking here.

Monday, 2 April 2012

What Makes Women Laugh?

Tonight, I attended a panel discussion at the Bath Comedy Festival about what amuses women. And before I go any further, I need to stress the irony of the inclusion of this event on the bill of a 10-day comedy festival that includes pretty much no female comedians (and not one headlining woman). A scan through the colourful 32-page brochure shows that while men are extremely well represented with coloured photos and portraits, women are ONLY included in group shots, including one instance of two bikini-clad women being draped over an older man.

The two lone events that are about women in comedy are not illustrated by photos of these women, but by a black and white cartoon of a dated WI-type dear in a frilly dress and hat (reproduced twice on facing pages, such is the difficulty of finding two different pictures of women). Poor show, Bath Comedy Festival, poor show. As Lynne Parker of Funny Women said: “We’re here at a comedy festival and there are simply not enough women on this bill.”

Both events were organised by Women On The Make – the first being a performance workshop, and the second a panel discussion. The panel was chaired by BBC producer and presenter Jenni Mills, and included Funny Women director Lynne Parker, Clare in the Community creator Harry Venning, and playwright Hattie Naylor. I scribbled notes throughout, so here’s a few highlights…

Jenni: Who’s your favourite funny woman right now?
Lynne: Because I work with new comedians, my favourites are among the new crop on the block. I love Andi Osho because she’s herself, she’s beautiful, she’s sassy and she’s funny, but she doesn’t play to stereotypes. I also love Susie Bennett, who’s been on the circuit for six years or so. She’s an interesting woman who talks about everyday stuff… and she’s just been signed by Peter Kay’s agent.

Hattie: I’m a great fan of Mrs Merton (Caroline Aherne), but also of Joyce Grenfell.

Harry: Victoria Wood, of course, but also Linda Smith, who’s underrated, and her scripts are a delight to read.

Audience contributions: Miranda Hart, because she belies her physical presence. Beryl Reid, who was hilarious and personified working-class witty and sharp women. Peggy Mount, and I wish there was a modern version of this big and brassy woman.

Jenni: Is there a gender divide in humour?
Hattie: If humour is good enough, men and women should laugh together. I’m very aware of who we expect to be funny, and how people’s appearances affect how we are amused by what they say.

Lynne: Miranda Hart has the physicality of a performer. When she’s on stage, she has a wonderful presence, and she comes on and you look at her and you expect her to be funny. Male or female, physicality has a lot to do with it. Susie Bennett is a big girl, and when she comes on stage you do smile. But it’s harder for women as there are less women stand-ups, so unless they come on with a degree of confidence, they’re not going to be seen as funny. An ugly man doesn’t have the same problem.

Hattie: A lot of the top women in comedy in the US are slimmer and more conventionally attractive. While the funnier women in the UK are odder to look at. [American] Tina Fey is terribly beautiful, very thin and extremely funny. But there’s something terribly odd about everybody laughing at a fat woman, which seems rather old-fashioned.

Lynne: I don’t think it matters if you’re fat or thin. Funny Women works with a lot of different types of women. You can’t generalise what a funny woman looks like.

Jenni: Is there a difference between what men and women laugh at?
Lynne: There is a difference in the way men construct humour to how women do. Women have tremendous bonding experiences when laughing together, such as on a girls’ night out. Women bond among their internal group with smutty stories, while men in checked shirts love to share knob jokes in late night comedy clubs.

Harry: They’re terrible those comedians…

Lynne: …Yes, they are. But they get gigs. Don’t get me on that soapbox!

Man in audience: Does anything other than sex make women laugh?

Lynne: Gay men make women laugh [here’s an article Lynne wrote]. Men like Graham Norton and Alan Carr are popular with women because they can relate to them. But Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre are also very popular with women, and both talk about domestic issues and about the women in their lives, which we can relate to. Peter Kay, in particular, talks about his mother a lot.

Jenni: Do you think there are enough women in comedy?
Harry: No. Clare in the Community was planned to be a TV series [it’s currently a successful radio series], but has been repeatedly rejected, despite commissioners saying there are no women-led comedy shows on TV, or shows about women’s professions. I have one but they’re not interested.

Lynne: I haven’t seen Watson and Oliver [BBC2’s recent sketch show starring two women comedians], but everyone in my group says it’s pants. Miranda Hart was a long time in development with her show, and it took eight years to get on to television. What irritates me in that the BBC in particular thinks they’ll just promote one woman at a time (first Miranda, then Sarah Millican and now Watson and Oliver). The BBC never fully backs Funny Women as they have an all-inclusive policy, yet everything else is done on quotas so why not women in comedy?

Hattie: You have to have a huge team to believe in you to get anything made. And it’s much harder for women to be believed in en masse. It’s no coincidence that we have more women novelists and poets, as they’re solo activities.

Lynne: In comedy, most of the big TV commissioners are women. But I don’t think that helps other women – I think sometimes they’re attracted to the male product, going back to the simple sex issue. We want more women to watch TV, so we put men making fools of themselves on TV for the women to watch.

Hattie: The internet is bound to change comedy, thanks to YouTube. There’s some unbelievably funny stuff on there, which is hugely accessible.

Lynne: The new frontier for comedy is the internet, but I’m a great pioneer of live comedy, which you just can’t beat.

For more events at Bath Comedy Festival, please click here

Bristol Festival of Ideas 2012

Hurrah! The full line-up for the Bristol Festival of Ideas 2012 was unveiled this weekend, and here are a few of the things I am most excited about from the bill. However, there’s plenty of events I haven’t mentioned, so do please click here to check out the full listings – or pick up a brochure from zillions of Bristol arts venues.

Her memoir is the story of a life’s work to find happiness. It is the story of how the painful past that Jeanette thought she had written over and repainted returned to haunt her later life, and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her real mother.

A two-day conference exploring the contribution of writers to the West Country. Featuring sessions from Arthurian legend to the Romantic poets and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, and from dialect verse and folk song to the Bristol novels of Angela Carter, this conference celebrates and interrogates the region’s broad and diverse literary culture.

Bristol had some of the leading television and theatre writers working in the city and found that the BBC – especially in the series The Wednesday Play – was keen to explore social issues and attitudes, and bring them to the attention of a popular audience. These three films reflect this. Together they show a Bristol that in many cases no longer exists. Guests involved in the productions will introduce the films.

In The War of the Sexes, Paul Seabright argues that we must understand how the tension between conflict and cooperation developed in our remote evolutionary past, how it shaped the modern world, and how it still holds us back, both at home and at work. Drawing on biology, sociology, anthropology, and economics, Seabright shows that conflict between the sexes is, paradoxically, the product of cooperation. The evolutionary niche – the long dependent childhood – carved out by our ancestors requires the highest level of cooperative talent. But it also gives couples more to fight about.

What inspires people to become feminists? Bristol-based activist Sian Norris’ book The Lightbulb Moment seeks to answer this question. She asked women and men from up and down the UK to tell their stories of how they became feminists. The launch invites her and a range of contributors (including me!) to share their funny, moving and inspiring stories. The evening will conclude with a panel discussion on the Future of Feminism.

In 1872, a woman known only as ‘An Earnest Englishwoman’, published an open letter entitled ‘Are women animals?’. She protested that women were not treated as fully human, and that their status was worse than that of animals. Joanna Bourke, author of What it Means to be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present, talks about what it means to be ‘human’ rather than ‘animal’.

There’s an aching hole in the comedy circuit where women should be. All too often, panel shows like Have I Got New For You? or Mock The Week have (at best) one woman on a line-up of five or six, while live comedy nights very rarely feature women. What the Frock! changes this. Hosted by Kate Smurthwaite, entertainment for the night is provided by Tiffany Stevenson, Dana Alexander and Zahra Barri. While it’s an all-women line-up, absolutely everybody is welcome in the audience.

A festive and entertaining evening to celebrate the winners of our Foyles Best Book of Ideas 2012 and the Best Bristol Idea (in association with BBC Bristol and Bristol Evening Post). Join the writers, contestants and judges at a Bristolian supper including a unique ‘Festival’ Pie from Pieminister.

James Sallis is the author of the popular Lew Griffin books and the recent novel Cypress Grove, as well as countless short stories, poems, essays and works of literary criticism. His novel Drive was made into the 2011 film starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, in which Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a getaway driver. Sallis talks about the novel and the film before a screening of the film.