Media

Post image for Russell Brand, Revolution, and Promoting The Messiah Complex Tour


Russell Brand
has recently been splattered all over the media, advocating radical ideas by the bucket-load. He was asked by “a beautiful woman” to guest-edit the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, and gave them the subject of Revolution. Not to appear a lightweight, he waded in with a 4,500 word article of his own. He also elicited a pile of quirky contributions from friends and others he admires.

Leaving aside Noel Gallagher‘s stereotypical rant against stuff he doesn’t like or understand, there’s a mass of interesting and often surprising material. Not least is film director David Lynch‘s article on transcendental meditation and inner revolution. Brand’s own piece is intelligently argued and full of good sense. He may be a guy addicted to seven-star hotels, but he still sees himself as a man of the people. The paragraphs are longer than are normal in the Internet Age, but that’s often no bad thing. Occasionally, he sounds like a 1970s-style History Man:

The model of pre-Christian man has fulfilled its simian objectives. We have survived, we have created agriculture and cities. Now this version of man must be sacrificed that we can evolve beyond the reaches of the ape. These stories contain great clues to our survival when we release ourselves from literalism and superstition. What are ideologies other than a guide for life? Throughout paganism one finds stories that integrate our species with our environment to the benefit of both. The function and benefits of these belief matrixes have been lost, with good reason. They were socialist, egalitarian and integrated. If like the Celtic people we revered the rivers we would prioritise this sacred knowledge and curtail the attempts of any that sought to pollute the rivers. If like the Nordic people we believed the souls of our ancestors lived in the trees, this connection would make mass deforestation anathema. If like the native people of America we believed God was in the soil what would our intuitive response be to the implementation of fracking?

Russell has much to say on the subject of revolution, including:

We British seem to be a bit embarrassed about revolution, like the passion is uncouth or that some tea might get spilled on our cuffs in the uprising. That revolution is a bit French or worse still American. Well, the alternative is extinction so now might be a good time to re-evaluate. The apathy is in fact a transmission problem, when we are given the correct information in an engaging fashion, we will stir.

Brand’s politics are generally left-wing, although he dismisses the Labour Party as irrelevant. He lumps the Milibands in with Cameron, Clegg and Boris. In an interview with BBC Newsnight‘s Jeremy Paxman, he explains his ideas to people unlikely to buy the New Statesman.

The interview is a staged set-piece with both actors playing their parts to perfection. Jezza spluttering with outrage like a Victorian Bill Grundy whenever Russ says anything vaguely outrageous. Russell snorts, waves his hands and leans towards Paxman like a young stag taking on the tired old codger. For a piece of entertainment, it’s hard to beat. You can watch it here:

Russell Brand’s over-riding message to the young is “don’t vote”. This is a fine piece of anarchy that’s surely destined to be heard, approved of, and acted on by many young people. What a fantastic jape, Russell. Let’s bring down the government by not voting for it!

This might possibly be the long-term result, but in the short- and medium-term it’s yet another boost to David Cameron’s chances of returning his disastrously right-wing Tory government to power at the next General Election, without the debatable constraints of the Lib-Dems. Although a growing number of wet teenagers are “Young Conservative and proud of it”, most young people see the injustices in the world and strive to improve on them.

The best chance for this to happen is to have a sincere Labour Government in power. Not New Labour, scared to upset the Daily Mail and willing to privatise and chop and turn a blind eye to corporate piracy and tax evasion, but a genuine Labour government dedicated to advance the interests of the people of the United Kingdom over and above the interests of the bankers and Big Business.

Taking young radicals out of the equation by telling them not to vote isn’t going to help achieve that end result. The worst part is that the people most likely to heed the message are the ones most likely to vote the Tories and their turncoat Lib-Dem allies out of power.

I’d be less angry about Russell venting his views if it wasn’t for the fact that he is only in Britain to sell tickets for his forthcoming Messiah Complex Tour. His guest editorship of the New Statesman, his appearance on Newsnight and all the other radio and television interviews are simply promotion for this tour.

Russell Brand may be sincere about his views, and I have no reason to doubt him, but surely this exercise in salesmanship has to fall into the same cynical category as those he is condemning.

Comedy is subjective. So is writing. I’ve just come across a 45-minute video I felt I had to share. It skirts around both subjects and comes up with some savoury little insights. The video will not please everybody – the comments below it are testament to that – but anyone who shares my vague interest in the psychology of comedy will find it fascinating.

Like him or love him, Stewart Lee is a man who knows his allium from his Elba.

The talk begins slowly and in a slightly rambling, self-conscious manner. Stick with it and your patience will be rewarded. Writer, comedian and (dare I say it?) intellectual Stewart Lee gives a very interesting talk to Oxford University students about his comedy and the writing of it. It’s a reprise of a talk he gave on a writers’ day in February at the University that wasn’t recorded first time around. The recording is straightforward and low-tech, with some gooey fades.

Lee is entirely open and reveals much about his stand-up technique. There’s a fantastic sequence in which he opens up the box and explains how he puts together a stand up show: character, mood and how the “flip” comes about at the end. I’ll never be a comedian, I’ll never be much of a writer, but I can admire the technique.

bbc_news_glasto_02This morning I awoke and switched on the Radio 4 Today programme, as I do most days. I was surprised to hear that 69-year old mainstream journalist John Humphrys was at the Glastonbury music festival. I don’t why I should be surprised because every year the BBC turns itself into a massive PR machine for what is, when all’s said and done, a commercial enterprise. At around 8:45am, immediately after John had interviewed Sir Mick Jagger, Justin Webb read out an email from writer Ian Martin (Thick of It, Veep) that asked: “Is the BBC going to manage one, just one, remotely critical comment on Glastonbury?” John said that there’d been no water in his cabin that morning.

bbc_news_glasto_01Now I love the BBC and I am a keen supporter of music festivals – even “Big Mama” Glastonbury – but I have to admit that I find the relentlessly positive publicity Glastonbury receives a little nauseating. It’s getting to the stage where it’s starting to look satirical.

This morning, one of the main headlines on the BBC News website was “Arctic Monkeys headline Glastonbury”… er, news? I think we knew quite a long time ago that Arctic Monkeys would be there on Friday. Several links to other Glastonbury stories follow, then, further down the page, we see that Glastonbury has its own section on the BBC Entertainment website.

I suppose I could be accused of sour grapes. I ran a music festival for six years that finally collapsed in 2012. Since 2008 we couldn’t get so much as a mention on the local BBC Three Counties website – “for Beds, Herts & Bucks” (Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire). The staff there, when they answered my requests at all, told me the first year that the BBC had cut the website’s resources and that there was no one to write anything; the next year someone else said that it wasn’t BBC policy to promote private events (ha!); and by the time the next year came around, it was too late, we’d gone bust. Although it was no Glastonbury Festival, Rhythm had been the biggest annual entertainment event in Bedfordshire.

Even though it is obviously privately organised and financed, Glastonbury doesn’t seem to be treated the same as everyone else. Aside from national coverage and the really exceptional television exposure (which I love), the local BBC Somerset website is practically on Glasto Alert all year round.

Elsewhere on the BBC, phrases like “the biggest music news story of the week is that the Rolling Stones are headlining Glastonbury” abound. Is this “news” regarded as “big news” because of the Rolling Stones or because it’s about Glastonbury? Didn’t the Stones play the Isle of Wight Festival in 2007 with a lot less publicity? And aren’t they also appearing over two nights in Hyde Park, London, next month? Surely that should be given more prominence because it comes 44 years after their iconic free concert that followed Brian Jones’ death in 1969? Apparently not.

stones-set-listWhat I’ve not heard a word about – certainly not on the BBC – is the genuine news that the Stones didn’t want their set broadcast at all on the otherwise wall-to-wall blanket television coverage. Eventually they agreed to four songs, then a maximum of 15 minutes and, after a lot of lobbying from both the Corporation and the festival-organising farmer/ daughter Eavis team, the rumour is that the Regal Rock Royalty have graciously consented to a full hour of their set being live-streamed. We’ll see… [In the end the BBC joined the Rolling Stones set an hour in, starting with Miss You.]

Glastonbury Festival Finances

Of course, Glastonbury is a fantastic festival and very likely the finest event of its kind in the world but it’s not perfect. So why don’t we ever hear anything but the good stuff? Is it because the BBC’s deal depends on a positive spin, and the same goes for their other “media partners” like The Guardian? Elsewhere in the media, I’m told that any broadcaster or journalist who does not toe the official “happy” line is denied free access forever afterwards. And what newspaper, magazine or radio station would want that?

So, who, apart from BBC staff, get to go to Glastonbury? There are the multitudes who pay £216 (including compulsory booking fee and postage) for their weekend ticket – generally known in the business as the “mug punters”. In return for their money and jumping through hoops to get special identity cards, they get to live for a week knee-deep in cow-slurry and mud. Another, less trumpeted group of festival goers, are the VIPS. Many of these higher beings are connected to the media and the higher echelons of the music industry, but not all.

VIPs are looked after very well and get to use facilities generally untainted by mud, body odours and human/ animal waste. Some even receive access to luxury camping (referred to as “glamping”) in powered and plumbed yurts, Winnebagos and caravans. Some of these top dogs don’t even have to pay for their gourmet food or drink. It’s not widely trumpeted but, provided you have a few spare grand, it’s possible to buy VIP access. For £5,000-£11,000 a ticket, you too can experience the luxurious side of Glasto and mix with the performers, media and many other hip celebs. In the past your fellow VIP revellers would have included – aside from the staff of various banks and multinational corporations – rock ‘n’ roll icons such as Tony Blair, David Cameron and members of the Royal Family.

Don’t believe it? Here’s a post that appeared on the eFestivals festival forum on April 30th, 2013:

VIP Package Includes:

  • Festival ticket with camping in the hospitality campsite (better toilet/washing facilities and in close proximity to the pyramid stage). Guests must provide their own tent.
  • Access to the “inner circle” the VIP backstage areas of Glastonbury
  • Access to backstage VIP toilet /shower facilities
  • Access to backstage hospitality areas/ undercover seating /bars and food stands
  • The opportunity to mingle with the media, press, celeb’s and Artists

I paid £2,500 for them and am looking for the same – LET ME KNOW SOON!!!

You obviously don’t get much for £2,500 a head. According to the Metro website, Wayne Rooney spent £2,000 on a Tesco “home” delivery to the festival VIP area (the price of crisps, cheese-strings and Pot Noodle these days!) and:

Coleen and her footballer hubby have spared no expense this time around. They arrived by helicopter and, along with their pals, are bedding down in three huge Winnebagos costing £15,000 for the weekend.

Living on the other side of the festival tracks are the mug punters and many of those providing entertainment or working at the festival. I know of a “name” band from the USA who played Glastonbury and ended up having to camp in a public campsite, next to over-flowing toilets, over a mile away from the stage on which they had to perform. Their van was only allowed to park two miles further on, in the opposite direction. They had to hump their instruments and gear in and out by hand, through the crowds, without any help or transport. They were less than impressed by West Country hospitality.

Most people who work at Glastonbury don’t get paid much, if at all. This includes more performers than you’d think. And those who do get paid, receive a fraction of what they’d normally charge: even the big names. Before he pulled out, East London rapper Wiley tweeted: “I’m going to tell all the promoters how much Glastonbury get away with paying people and the other festivals will think wtf…”

wiley_tweet

In an article in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick goes as far as to say:

Glastonbury Festival is not known for its financial largesse. With hundreds of bands performing, and a large portion of profits going to charities, Glastonbury has never been in a position to pay out the million pound fees offered by other more commercial festivals. “We get headliners for a tenth of their normal price,” Eavis has claimed. “They’re not being paid very much.” Paul McCartney appeared at Glastonbury in 2004 for £200,000, although his normal festival fee is rumoured to be £4 million. Coldplay received the same fee in 2011 – with the implication that the Stones are likely to receive the same.

I doubt if McCartney would normally get £4 million per gig, but let’s not split hairs. It’s a widely held belief that, as Neil says, the festival donates “a large portion of profits” to charities. The only figures I can find are that (according to Wikipedia) in 2005, Glastonbury gave £200,000 to Oxfam who, in return, provided 2,000 stewards. A cynic might say that this works out at £100 a steward, which for very nearly a week’s work (Tuesday-Monday) is much less than the minimum wage. Nice for Oxfam, nice too for the festival finances. Luckily, I’m not a cynic.

Another cynic – not me either – might also do a simple calculation of 135,000 (the stated number of tickets sold) x £170.83 (£205 less VAT) = £23,062,499. Then there are the added bonuses of having 150,000 captives on your festival site for 3-7 days. The bar at a small music club on a single evening, say 8pm-11pm would expect to take £8-£10 a head on bar takings: make that 24 hours, add in food on top and you’re talking big money, some (most?) of which will certainly filter down to the festival organisers. Then there are other income streams, such as sponsorship, selling space for trade stands, facility fees for TV, radio, and so on…

If a festival always sells out, if your biggest paid act is only receiving £200,000 and most of your staff are working for nothing, it seems inevitable that you’ll make money. How much of it they donate to charity is the business of the Eavis family and I’m sure they’re sincere about what they’re doing. Obviously other charities than Oxfam do benefit from Glastonbury: Greenpeace and Water Aid are two major recipients. Plus, the internet is packed with stories about schools, village halls and other worthy causes in Somerset receiving money for various projects.

I suspect that the Eavis family and Worthy Farm get to keep some of the profits – and rightly so – but that’s never mentioned in any media coverage I’ve ever seen. Like the curate’s egg, Glastonbury isn’t all good. I feel it would be much more healthy if the BBC and others admitted that Pilton isn’t the site of the Second Coming and that there’s more to festivals than simply the Gospel according to St Michael.

Having got rid of the cynics, let’s get back to enjoying the UK’s “most loved music festival” (it’s official – I just heard it said on Radio 2). There’s really nothing quite like Glastonbury anywhere else in the world and we should be proud as Punch about it being a British institution, like the BBC. I’ll finish with a video in which Julien Temple talks about the very first Glastonbury Festival (and plugs his documentary movie about it):

I was browsing the BBC News website this morning when I came across a piece about avoidable early deaths. In the UK a premature death is now regarded as one under the age of 75, which is nice to know – unless you happen to be 74, I suppose. Apparently, a child born in England today has a 1-in-3 chance of dying prematurely. Location has been determined as one of the most important aspects determining our fate.

In a bizarre piece of spin, the sub-heading tells us:

The local variation in early death rates revealed in a new league table for England is “shocking” and must drive action to improve health, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

Nice of Mr Hunt to show concern. (This is the same Jeremy Hunt, of course, who wants to penalise high-performing Lewisham Hospital for the financial irregularities of a neighbouring health care trust. He’s also leading a program of Accident & Emergency Unit closures at a time when their ability to cope is at its lowest ebb for a generation.) But I digress…

The BBC piece was reporting a story over on Public Health England’s website that proved even more revealing. Their headline screamed: “In 2011, one in three deaths in England was under the age of 75.” If they’d been more “my cup is half full”, they’d have pushed the good news that 66.67% of people live longer than the magic age. Apparently the biggest early killers are cancer, stroke, and diseases of the heart, liver and lungs.

Maps showing areas with the most risk reminded me of another map I’d seen recently. I dug that out and put the two side by side:

health-voting-maps-11-06-2013

The conclusions that can be drawn from studying these maps are:

  • Voting Labour is bad for your health.
  • Poor people tend to vote Labour more than rich people (“Champagne Socialists” excluded, of course).
  • Living in cities and urban areas makes you more likely to die early than if you live in the countryside.
  • People in cities are more likely to vote Labour than those in rural areas.
  • There are more branches of McDonald’s in cities than there are in the country (but they’re working on that).
  • Poverty is bad for your health.
  • Poor people should stop being poor as soon as possible.

This morning, the BBC Today programme highlighted a North-South Divide aspect to the story, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The map clearly shows that most of Yorkshire is green on the “health” map and blue (Tory) on the “Parliamentary” map. The same goes for Cheshire and the majority of what we’d call northern England, excluding the built-up areas of Lancashire, Merseyside, Cumbria and the North-East. London is predominantly red on both maps.

Maybe a diet of e-numbers, factory-farmed chicken and horse-burgers makes you more likely to vote left-of-centre, which seems unlikely. As a healthy-living pescetarian, I can be smug in the knowledge that I’m voting Labour out of conscience rather than from any chemical impulse.

When you dig deeper, you see that the worst place for liver disease is Blackpool, and the best is Wiltshire. Blackpool also scores scores highest when it comes to lung disease (so much for bracing sea air!), and Bromley on the south-eastern edge of London has England’s lowest rate. For heart disease and stroke, the inhabitants of Manchester come out worst and they should definitely consider a move to Wokingham in Berkshire, which has around a third of the Manc’s early death rate. Manchester also fares worst for cancer; this time Harrow comes out on top (well, bottom, if you see what I mean).

Overall the best places to live were Wokingham, Richmond upon Thames, Dorset, Surrey, South Gloucestershire, Rutland, Harrow, Bromley Kensington & Chelsea and Hampshire. All of them had rates of between 200-214 of premature deaths per 100,000 of their population. The bottom ten (with their premature death rates) are:

  1. Manchester | 455
  2. Blackpool | 432.4
  3. Liverpool | 389
  4. Salford | 382
  5. Kingston upon Hull, City of | 375.3
  6. Middlesbrough | 370.9
  7. Knowsley | 359.6
  8. Blackburn with Darwen | 354.4
  9. Tameside | 351.7
  10. Nottingham | 351.4

Here’s the official video from Public Health England. Funny he doesn’t mention anything about not voting Labour or visiting Blackpool for your health:

UKIP, or the United Kingdom Independence Party as they’re known to their friends and carers, is currently the hottest political topic in the United Kingdom. Well, probably just in England, but let’s not split hairs.

UKIP’s leader is a likeable, middle-aged, middle-class gent called Nigel Farage, often pictured with a beer, occasionally sporting a cigarillo. He’s not a professional politician like the others, more an ordinary chap like you and me. He began as an ardent Conservative in his youth and a big fan of Margaret Thatcher. When the wretches in the Tory party booted her out in 1990, it angered him. He was clearly still hurting in 2010 when he told the Daily Telegraph :

The way those gutless, spineless people got rid of the woman they owed everything to made me so angry. I was a monster fan of Mrs Thatcher. Monster. Hers was the age of aspiration, it wasn’t about class.

Significantly, Farage’s last straw with the Tories came when Prime Minister John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. A year later Nigel founded UKIP and became its leader.

Looking something like a thoroughly-decent chap on the sidelines of a PG Wodehouse novel, Nigel Farage has become hugely popular with almost everyone not called Cameron or Clegg. He received the ultimate right-wing bloke’s accolade earlier this year when Boris Johnson described him as “a rather engaging geezer”.

As leader of his party, Nigel has a huge approval rating. Something like Nick Clegg’s before the last general election. This rather suggests that to be popular, it helps if people don’t know what you stand for – or what you don’t stand for.

If you ask anyone in Britain what UKIP’s policies are, they’ll know. At least the headlines. “Get us out of Europe!” would be the cry, perhaps with the addendum, “and put a stop to all these foreign scroungers coming over here and *nicking our jobs/ *living on benefits” (delete as applicable).

All people seem to know about UKIP has to do with getting out of Europe and banning immigration. What else do they propose to do when they assume power, as they surely must now that media giant Des Lynam is backing them?

What We Want To Know About UKIP

Based on what’s being searched for on Google.co.uk (see screenshot above), these are the 10 burning questions the British public want answered about Britain’s most popular fringe party (well, England’s… but let’s not split hairs):

  • Is UKIP racist? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a racist is a person who believes that a particular race is superior to another”. Their website may state: “UKIP is a patriotic party that believes in putting Britain first” but as the British are not a race, it would clearly be libellous to accuse UKIP of racism. Their policies on immigration and Europe may attract some “clowns and nutters” with racist opinions, but that’s clearly not UKIP’s fault, just as you can’t blame armaments manufacturers if their products are used to bash people over the head.
  • Is UKIP Fascist? Again we must turn to the OED, which tells us:

    “Fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach”.

    Nothing like UKUP, right? Right.

  • Is UKIP Libertarian? OED to the rescue again. It tells us that libertarianism is defined as:

    An extreme laissez-faire political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens. The adherents of libertarianism believe that private morality is not the state’s affair and that therefore activities such as drug use and prostitution, which arguably harm no one but the participants, should not be illegal. Libertarianism shares elements with anarchism, although it is generally associated more with the political right, chiefly in the US.

    Nigel Farage, UKIP leaderIn the 2010 Daily Telegraph interview Farage further stated:

    I am also a libertarian. I think prostitution, for instance, should be decriminalised and regulated. I feel that about drugs, too. I don’t do them myself but I think the war on drugs does more harm than the drugs themselves. I am opposed to the hunting ban and the smoking ban, too. What have they got to do with government?

  • Is UKIP far right? Not as far right as some of its more ardent supporters would like it to be.
  • Is UKIP a party of bigots? Obviously not. That’s like saying the Conservative Party is full of toffs and Labour stuffed with wishy-washy liberals (with a small “L”).
  • Is UKIP right wing? See above.
  • Is UKIP BNP? Clearly not. BNP stands for the British National Party, which is an extremist right-wing party strongly opposed to immigration and membership of the European Union.
  • Is UKIP racist yahoo? Isn’t that just the same question as #1 with a yahoo on the end?
  • Is UKIP on the rise? Definitely. In the 2013 local government elections they polled 23% of the popular vote (plus 96% of the unpopular vote).
  • Is UKIP Liberal? Not very.

The Other UKIP Policies…

I checked out the official UKIP website to see what policies they hold on less important topics, such as the economy, defence and health. Here are the “Lucky 7” best UKIP policies I found:

  • “Double prison places to enforce zero tolerance on crime”. Lots of jobs going for G4S prison guards at minimum wage. A good way to kickstart the economy once we lose our trade links with Europe.
  • “End the ban on smoking in allocated rooms in public houses, clubs and hotels”. That should get the vote of every smoker in the nation. It’s a pity UKIP’s immigration policies will exclude East Europeans, many of whom have been known to enjoy a crafty smoke with their vodkas and tonic. If only stalwart British actor Alfie Bass were alive to front the campaign…
  • “We must leave the electorate with more of their own money.  Government is only a facilitator for growth.  Low tax, few regulations and small government are the recipe for a successful economy. ” A personal allowance of £13,000, a flat rate of tax at 25%, abolishing VAT and National Insurance and (presumably) cutting services drastically to pay for it all. Sound very fair – especially for those who are earning lots of money. Yahoo!
  • churchill_smokingukip“Hold country wide referenda on the hunting ban”. Yes, that should be a definite priority. Why should those pesky foxes – many of whom I suspect arrived in this country illegally – get away with lounging around all day doing nothing? A bit of exercise will do them the world of good.
  • “Global warming is not proven – wind power is futile. Scrap all green taxes, wind turbine subsidies and adopt nuclear power to free us from dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil and gas.” It’ll come as a relief to many of us affected by the recent long winters, wet summers and flooding that it’s all in our imagination and nothing to do with so-called “Global Warming” after all. Thanks to the learned scientists at UKIP for that welcome news. And how typical of the BBC to try and keep it quiet.
  • “UKIP would like to offer people a choice of how they wish their health care to be delivered. Patient choice in a monolithic government funded system is one of the greatest challenges now facing the NHS and we believe that other models are worth considering to see whether lessons can be learned from abroad.” Er, does that sound a little like privatising the National Health Service? More work for G4S (Health Services) me thinks…
  • “As the UK regains its place as an independent global trading nation, we will need to ensure that we can defend our trade, and our independence… UKIP would re-establish the UK’s defence capabilities at viable levels.” Quick, put everything you’ve got into British Gun Boats PLC!

So there we are: UKIP in a nutshell. Who in their right nicotine-stimulated mind wouldn’t want to return to a time when the United Kingdom was truly great, before those pesky Europeans pushed their human rights and employment regulation nonsense onto us and spoilt everything?

Hang on… it’s just occurred to me… Maybe I misunderstood the question. The answer to “What does UKIP stand for?” might just be “United Kingdom Independence Party”. Sorry, Little Britain… er, England (but let’s not split hairs).

Charles Dickens’ characters fall into two main categories: the memorable and the totally unforgettable. I can think of no other author who has created fictional characters the equal of vivid Victorians such as (in no particular order): The Artful Dodger, Smike, Joe Gargery, Fagin, Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber, Sam Weller, Daniel Quilp, Mr Dick, Bill Sykes, Magwitch, Frederick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Mrs Gamp, and, of course, all the title characters. And that’s just from memory, if I had a crib-sheet in front of me, the list would run to dozens, if not hundreds, of names.

I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football (hopefully following not too far behind…) when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass? I have been enchanted by his work ever since I first watched those atmospheric black and white Sunday teatime adaptations on the BBC, back in the monochrome 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full colour broadcasting, there is something about black & white telly that sprinkles even more magic dust over Dickens’ characters and storylines. The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist of the 1940s. For some reason we didn’t touch Dickens for our school exams – no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, though – and I had to discover Dickens’ writing because I wanted to, not because I had to.

For the past couple of months, the British media has been on Dickens overload. Every celebrity from Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins to Mariella Frostrup and Aled Jones have offered up their praise and opinions on the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. There’s a genuine risk of over-kill and a sad realisation that in a year’s time there’ll probably be no Dickens at all.

That’s the way media people think. No one has ever given me a realistic explanation as to why newspapers, magazines, radio and TV don’t “do” something unless they have an event to “hang it on”. I’d find Charles Dicken just as interesting 199-and-a-half years after his birth as exactly 200, but maybe I’m odd.

There’s a theory that suggests that Charles Dickens’ characters and brilliant – if occasionally over-convoluted – plots were so well-crafted because he had to write them in instalments. The theory falls down when you realise that many other authors wrote to the same constraints and (sadly, perhaps) their work has grown ivy and perished over the years. I think we just have to admit that Dickens’s survived is because they were so extraordinary to start with. Take this extract from Little Dorrit:

An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.

‘Nothing changed,’ said the traveller, stopping to look round. ‘Dark and miserable as ever. A light in my mother’s window, which seems never to have been extinguished since I came home twice a year from school, and dragged my box over this pavement. Well, well, well!’

He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.

He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’

Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.

There’s no room here to offer a Charles Dickens biography, but enough space not to ignore the basic facts.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire on February 7th, 1812. It was a memorable year all round: poet Robert Browning and the architect Augustus Pugin shared the same birth-year; the metric system was first adopted in France; Napoleon invaded Russia (later commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture); and Britain went to war with the United States. By the time of his death, 58 years, four months and two days later, Dickens had written 15-and-a-half novels, 6 novellas and numerous shorter pieces.

The biggest selling of all his novels is A Tale of Two Cities. Don’t ask me why. The book with the most adaptations is A Christmas Carol, possible because Christmas does come around once every year…

The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens in the Top 100. They were: Great Expectations (17), David Copperfield (34), A Christmas Carol (47), A Tale of Two Cities (63) and Bleak House (79). Dickens and Terry Pratchett shared the distinction of having the most works in the first 100. (I wonder if that would be repeated in even 20 years from now.) For me, the big surprises were that Bleak House did so well (a clear two years before the ground-breaking BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance), and that Oliver Twist did so badly – only managing to scrape in at number 182.

You would have thought that with all the adaptations, in particular Lionel Bart’s spirited musical would have propelled Oliver Twist into the top 150 at the very least. It’s not as if the storyline – including the memorable line: “Please sir, I want some more!” – isn’t well known or that Charles Dickens’ characters in Oliver Twist are not up to standard. My theory is that we prefer our Dickens a little darker… preferably in black and white.

Stand by for the hard facts about Charlie Sheen’s Roast:

Everybody in the USA seems to be obsessing over Charlie Sheen’s Roast – or, to give it its real title, “The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen”. It’s been the biggest search on Google in the USA since early September. But what on earth is it? When I first saw the term I honestly thought it was some elaborate joke centred around the Sunday “joint” with all its drug references.

What was or is Charlie Sheen’s Roast?

When I actually looked into it, I saw that Charlie Sheen’s Roast was a two hour TV programme (including ads, so probably only around 25 minutes of actual insults), broadcast on the US Comedy Central network in September, that follows a tried and tested formula on American TV. The format began in 1949 with Maurice Chevalier, was famously hosted in the 1970s by Dean Martin and the latest edition was the recently screened Charlie Sheen’s Roast. It’s been attempted on British TV by Channel 4, but didn’t catch on. More about that later…

For those who, like me, haven’t a clue what a “roast” is – other than something British cooks cremate on a Sunday lunchtime – here’s a quick run-down… A “celebrity roast” is an event in which someone in the public eye (the “roastee”) is subjected to a barrage of  mostly scripted comic insults and tributes from a panel of comedians and other well known faces, presided over by a “roastmaster”.

It works because the “roastee”  takes the insults and jokes in good humor and does not see them as serious criticism. In a bizarre twist on the concept of “This Is Your Life”, many regard being roasted as a great honour. Watching Charlie Sheen’s Roast, it seemed more like a lynching with jokes.

Charlie Sheen’s Roast was scheduled for the very same Monday that Two And A Half Men aired for the first time with Ashton Kutcher in Charlie’s long-time role. It all started going wrong for Charlie – in public, at least– on May 20, 1998, when CS was hospitalized after overdosing on cocaine. Various problems surfaced over the years and on October 26, 2010, the police escorted him from his New York hotel suite. According to the New York Police Department, Sheen admitted to being drunk and taking cocaine. Warner Brothers took the opportunity to fire him from the sit-com.

Since then, drug-taking and drinking to excess have been linked to the actor. There’s even a website called charliesheenjokes.com, featuring barbed attacks on the actor, most of which aren’t particularly funny. Here are five typically unfunny examples:

  • Saint Pat gets drunk on Charlie Sheen day.
  • Charlie Sheen won American idol using sign language.
  • Remember that time Charlie Sheen lost, me neither. Winning!
  • If NASA wants to put a man on Mars , just ask Charlie Sheen how he got here and reverse engineer it!
  • You do not drug test Charlie Sheen, however Charlie Sheen does test drugs.

Back to Charlie Sheen’s Roast. I’ve seen most of it online and it’s a pretty embarrassing two hours worth. The six (and a half) best Charlie Sheen’s Roast gags (at least the ones that weren’t too rude or cruel) are:

  1. Charlie Sheen: “It’s true, I’ve hung around with a lot of shady people over the years… losers, drug addicts, dealers, desperate whores. But to have you all here on one night is really special.”
  2. Amy Schumer: “Your marriage to Denise Richards, it was kind of like her Vietnam because she was constantly afraid of being killed by Charlie.”
  3. Jeff Ross: “Charlie if you’re winning, this must not be a child custody hearing. Only time your kids get to see you is in re-runs. Charlie, don’t you want to live to see their first 12 steps?”
  4. Jon Lovitz: “How much blow can Charlie Sheen do? Enough to kill two and a half men.”
  5. William Shatner: “Prostitutes cost a lot of money, Charlie. Hasn’t anyone told you that actresses will sleep with you for free?” and “First off Charlie, I’m eighty-years-old. You’re what, forty-seven?…” [Sheen says: “Forty-six.”] “…Then how come we look like we went to high school together?”
  6. Kate Walsh: “Despite all those years of abusing your lungs, your kidney, your liver, the only thing you’ve had removed are your kids!”

Will Charlie Sheen’s Roast kickstart a new TV trend?

The British attempts at Comedy Roasts came in 2010 when Channel 4 recruited Jimmy Carr to be “roastmaster” for a short series in which Bruce Forsyth, Sharon Osbourne, Chris Tarrant, Davina McCall and finally Barbara Windsor were roasted by the likes of…  Jack Dee, Sean Lock (who summed up the mood when he ad-libbed: “If the money’s right, I’ll slag off anyone”), Gok Wan, Patrick Kielty, Keith Lemon and Chris Moyles.

Channel 4’s tag-line to the series takes an optimistic upbeat view of it all: “A host of comedians and celebrities pay fond – and irreverent – tribute to some TV legends in these star-studded Comedy Roasts.” Yes, we don’t really have the same skills as our American cousins (these were not in the same class of vileness as Charlie’s Sheen’s Roast) … or the same tastes.

I’m pretty sure that Channel 4 have now dropped the idea of any more UK Celebrity Roasts and the chances of Charlie Sheen’s Roast making it on to mainstream British TV are (thankfully) remote.

It’s all Richard Herring’s fault.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll start at the beginning…

One major benefit of owning an iPhone is, instead of listening to other people speaking rubbish to each other via their own handsets, you can inflict podcasts on yourself. I subscribe to 63 at last count, ranging from Lord Melvyn Bragg proving how intellectual he is by prodding patient academics about Neuroscience, to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo arguing about films and pronunciation on BBC Radio 5 Live. I was particularly partial to the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross podcasts from the BBC but that pleasure was recently snatched away from me by readers of the ‘Mail On Sunday’. Grrrr.

Deprived of my weekly dose of BBC presenters fucking actors’ granddaughters on air (Was that it? my recollection is hazy), my current favourite is a pod by comedian Richard Herring and his journalist “colleague”, Andrew Collins. One of the attractions of these things is the way the podcasters reveal themselves over 35 or more hours of conversation. Try as they might to present a favourable if slightly skewed image of themselves, time, conversation and caffeine will tell.

Collins has a thing about wheat, wants to kiss a duck (but only once – he’s not a pervert), and cooks his own mince-and-onion lunches, transporting them around in Tupperware containers. He’s also a regular in the Waitrose wholefoods sections, though Richard Herring seems to snaffle most of his nuts and trail mix during the course of their podcast. Andrew is apparently married, but we never hear a word about the Mrs or even know her name. He’s also a self-confessed bird-fancier and travels to Norfolk with a friend on bird-watching missions. His minor-key pomposity coupled with a low resistance to caffeine often results in a revealing rant or two.

Richard Herring is a different kettle of podcaster. Over 40 and an Oxford graduate, so no intellectual slouch, he comes over as a cross between Peter Pan and Che Guevara. Living alone on Marks & Spencer ‘ready meals’ in a large house in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, Herring veers between drinking too much beer or none at all, and reveals a concern for his podginess. He and Collins record the podcast in the attic of his house, amongst the remnants of Fortnum and Mason hampers sent over by his manager. It is a recurring theme of recent podcasts that Herring doesn’t have to worry too much about the credit crunch. In fact he enjoys the recession because it means he doesn’t have to queue at all at Marks & Spencer.

The point of all this is that, for a year now, Richard Herring has written a daily blog. Yes, a blog entry every single day.

This morning, after listening to an old podcast – I’m currently catching up with ones I missed – I took a peak at my own blog and saw to my horror that I’d not written anything here for almost two months.Two months. Although I can’t claim that this omission has had much effect on the low mood of the nation, it’s obviously not very good.

Richard Herring’s Blog can be found at his website: richardherring.com
Andrew Collins’ website: wherediditallgoright.com
Your can download “The Collings and Herrin Podcast” from iTunes or from here: Collings & Herrin Podcast