Monthly Archives: April 2013

Thatcher and Me (and a quiz)

Just in case there’s anyone who feels they haven’t read enough articles about Margaret Thatcher over the last few days, here’s another one for you (with a quiz). It’s not about Thatcher and the miners, pole tax or the backstabbing Cabinet, nor is it about her relationship with Europe, America or the Falklands, nor has it been hanging around in my desk since 2003. It’s written today and it’s about the time I met her in Battersea Park with Coco the dog.

It was two years ago and a sunny empty day in the park, made all the better by the fact that most people were at work and unable to mess it up with mystery meat hotdogs, sprawling picnics and an electric train that runs over dog walkers as children on board dribbling ice-cream laugh at their screams.

We were walking round the ponds, the best part of the park, and Coco ran up to a group of well-dressed people and jumped up at a lady wearing a tan woollen coat. It looked expensive and Coco looked muddy. As I tried to catch Coco, the lady took off her glasses, the same way a former prime minister used to in PMQs, and said “Is that a spaniel?” “No, it’s a shih tzu,” I replied, as those famous eyes locked on mine and I realised who it was. “We used to have spaniels,” she said.

Apparently Russell Brand also met Margaret Thatcher around this time. He describes her as a pale phantom, watering plants: a little old lady. Don’t believe him. He is clearly prejudiced against gardening. Even though we were in the park, even though we were talking about dogs, Margaret Thatcher was impressive, formidable and arresting – so much so that when I got home I was inspired to do something I’d never normally consider. I began to read The Downing Street Years. It took me so long I ran up a £25 library fine.

Despite costing us the price of a meal for two at a dog friendly pub, Coco and I have been hoping to bump into the Iron Lady again ever since. There have been reported sightings of her in the park over the past months, but it’s only today that I finally managed it – as she glided past in a union jack covered coffin during her funeral procession.

The Other One and I were packed into a crowd of people, many wearing tweed or the muted tones of classy work wear, outside the Royal Courts of Justice. As the coffin passed, a business man in a suit, clutching a flag and sitting on top of a red phone box shouted “We love you Maggie! Round of applause for the best prime minister ever.” And everyone either clapped or booed excitedly, depending on their preference.

A chap from the Northern Echo interviewed me about my opinions ‘as a Northerner’; a self-proclaimed Thatcher supporter got teary-eyed talking about inflation rates; and a frazzled looking woman told me off for being too cheerful. “Show some respect. It’s a funeral,” she said, clearly disappointed I wasn’t droning on about my taxes or singing “ding dong, the witch is dead.”

When I was a kid, growing up in the North East, pretty much everyone hated Thatcher. I’m not sure anyone hates anyone or anything as much as they did then. Maybe that’s why Thatcher’s death has inspired so much feeling in the last week, whether it’s anger, sadness or a mix of both. We’re nostalgic for an era of ‘toffs’ and ‘wet liberals’; a time when everyone knew which one they were and what they stood for and against.  Penguin biscuits were bigger, politics meant something, pop songs had a proper tunes and we were all young.

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A Quiz: What kind of a Thatcherite are you?

David Cameron says “we are all Thatcherites now.” Answer the following questions to find out what kind you are:

1. What was your reaction when you heard that Thatcher was dead?

a). Quick, update the website!

b). As long as I’m alive, Thatcher will never die.

c). Sad, because she was an old woman. Annoyed, because she destroyed the industries

d). Who’s Thatcher?

2. What have you been up to the past week?

a). Carefully constructing elaborate effigies and burning them in the street.

b). Downloading our leader’s greatest speeches from YouTube and quoting them at work.

c). Feeling uncomfortable about people celebrating someone’s death. However, she did destroy the industries.

d). Eating crisps, going to the cinema, why – what’s happened?

3.  How did you mark Thatcher’s funeral today?

a). You woke up at 3am, made a banner saying that you’re unhappy for your taxes to pay for all this (not that you pay any), had a four hour journey into London (which you live-tweeted), and when the big moment came you turned your back on the coffin. That’ll show her.

b). You woke up at 3am, put on your best suit and pottered down to Fleet Street to ‘soak up the atmosphere.’ You made a banner saying that you’re happy for your taxes to pay for all this (not that you pay any), cracked open the champers, and when the big moment came you toasted The Lady as she passed. Chin chin!

c). Watched it on the BBC. Nothing like a bit of pomp and pageantry, whatever your political views, and nobody does this kind of thing better than the beeb. It almost makes up for the fact that you missed the Olympics Closing Ceremony due to work commitments. However, she did destroy the industries.

d). When was it again? I was probably asleep.

4. What key item of clothing would you be unable to do without on a day like this?

a). My ‘Kill the Rich’ t-shirt with badges on. I wear it to all of these things.

b). My ‘True Blue’ scarf. It’s been hidden in my gym locker since 1987.

c). A Union Jack hat left over from the jubilee. Might as well use it again.

d). Leggings. They’re more comfortable than jeans.

5. What do you miss most about the 1980s?

a). My job.

b). Everything.

c). Duran Duran.

d) Before my time.

Results

 Mostly As

You are as anti-Thatcher as it gets and have been waiting for this day since 1979. You had a website counting down the days to her death before websites were even invented. Your numerous blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates are all themed around how much you hate ‘that woman.’ However, despite making and burning more effigies than you can count, you now feel a strange sense of loss. What will you do tomorrow? It’s almost like someone’s just died.

Mostly Bs

You are an old skool Conservative who has been in the closet since 1992. This week you have been finally able to reveal your true (blue) colours. No longer do you need to feel guilty about drinking bottles of lovely fizzy stuff on a Friday and wearing ridiculously expensive shoes. You’re not alone. Other people own diamond cufflinks and they will accept you for who you are. It feels great!

Mostly Cs

You are what would have formerly been called a ‘wet liberal’. You are neither one thing, nor the other and you certainly don’t want to upset anyone by saying the wrong thing in the minefield of things that have been said this week. Obviously you never liked Thatcher, but you have to admit she was impressive – even though she did destroy the industries. But she was also a strong woman. But what about the miners? And the industries? She destroyed the industries.

Mostly Ds

You are too young to remember Thatcher. You don’t know or care who she was ‘cos all of that happened literally hundreds of years ago. The last thing you need is a history lesson. Why’s everyone so obsessed with the past? What’s the point of protesting against someone who is dead? They can’t do anything anymore. They’re dead, duh! What about tuition fees? Why’s no one talking about tuition fees?

Theatre: Life of Stuff

In the same year as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was published (1993), Simon Donald’s The Life of Stuff won an Evening Standard award, and so began a trend for dramas set in Scotland revolving around taking drugs, getting pished and listening to banging dance music.

Marking the start of Theatre 503’s Second Look strand of work – giving plays from the last 30 years their first revival – it’s a piece that feels less fresh than it might once have done, but has a raw and visceral energy magnified by a superb cast whose performances sparkle with conviction.

A fudged assassination organised by gangster nightclub owner Dobie, played with charisma by Gregory Finnegan, kick-starts a frenetic plot of double-crossing, throwaway brutality and angry shouting by smashed people clutching bottles of spirits. This is a world where drinking from a glass is as inconceivable as sitting still to 2 Unlimited – one made even more intense by the theatre’s intimate seating, rearranged both sides of the stage.

Rhys Owen’s impressionable Leonard flits from downtrodden eczema sufferer to menacing thug, as Paula Masterton and Pamela Dwyer’s drugged-out Holly and Pamela teeter precariously on the rooftop. In the basement, Owen Whitelaw’s Fraser, an unlikely killer stripped of his clothes, develops an unusual friendship with Claire Dargo’s cynical, puking Janice.

Comedy and violence dance hand-in-hand towards a tense ending, whereupon an unexpected visitor with a sawn-off shotgun threatens to blow half the characters away.

Theatre 503, London. Until 04 May

Written forThe Stage

A prostitute in a library or a pregnant woman with an AK47: What exactly are ‘good’ female characters?

“Something must be done,” people on stage are saying to people in the audience who are saying it back to them. I’m at a post-show discussion. It follows twelve short plays aiming to depict women in new and interesting ways. The evening’s been organised by Equal Writes as a response to recent research showing that there are twice as many roles for men as women in theatre. Things aren’t any better in film and TV with statistics by the BBC and Cultural Diversity Network highlighting that men also outnumber women 2:1 on screen.

Despite this, lots of people want more and better characters for women. In February, I wrote a blog trying to encourage some into the BBC Script Room. But what exactly does a ‘good’ female character mean? Is she someone who breaks down the barriers of a patriarchal society using only a rolled up copy of the Guardian? Is she the familiar wife, daughter or girlfriend but with better dialogue? Or perhaps she’s so different to everything we’ve seen before that we’d struggle to recognise her?

The majority of the plays at the Equal Writes evening, selected from hundreds of entries, do three things.

• They show women in a believable way.
• They undermine how women are sometimes seen by others.
• They’re funny.

Some are naturalistic, some are stylised or satirical. Walkie Talkies, by Kaite O’Reilly, is a disabled woman’s critique of life in a super caring care home. Andrew Curtis’s Flags shows two older women from different backgrounds arm wrestling over their heritage. Sarah Rutherford’s La Barbe is a surrealist comedy about office culture. Paul Macauley’s Piece of Cake is a family drama that ridicules the advertising industry.

The twelve scripts contain lots of original ideas but also some familiar ones: for instance, older women needing to be looked after, women fighting over men, and mother and daughter relationships. The difficultly in creating a completely original female character is that she also has to be identifiable – someone we can recognise. And what we recognise is partly informed by film and TV – places where female characters can be shown in limited ways.

So what can writers do to avoid regurgitating the same types of women, while still giving audiences something they can identify with and understand?

A way Hollywood tries to get around this is to turn female characters into men. Action films are full of literally ‘strong’ women, just as capable as blokes, with durable clothing and an AK47 to prove it. Famously Ripley from the Alien films was written as a man. Recently, The Killing’s Sophie Gråbøl said she played Detective Inspector Sarah Lund as if she was male (see here). Both are generally seen as examples of good female characters. However, getting rid of a female characters’ sexuality in order to make her less female and, presumably, less rubbish seems a rather convoluted and, in some ways, destructive way of making her ‘good’.

Another popular technique is to place female characters in traditionally male-orientated genres, as with Thelma and Louise. In some ways the audience knows what to expect (a road trip) and in some ways they don’t (female protagonists). More recently, Bridesmaids fused elements of the ‘gross-out’ film – a genre normally populated by teenage boys or men pretending to be them – with a female-driven romantic comedy. In both instances, the characters aren’t so outlandish it’s impossible to relate to them, but they aren’t completely familiar either.

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel created The Bechdel Test, which can be used to test how well women are portrayed in any kind of comedy or drama. For your script to pass, all you need to do is answer the following questions with “yes”:

• Are there two or more women who have names?
• Do they talk to each other?
• Do they talk to each other about something other than men?

How did you get on?

Good characters, both male and female, also have flaws. One of the dullest kinds of female supporting roles is the voice-of-reason, trying to rein in the behaviour of maverick larger-than-life men (see my recent review of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone). Sometimes a better female character means one who’s worse. Miranda isn’t popular because she’s perfect. Neither are Patsy and Edina, from Absolutely Fabulous – one of the few series where female characters significantly outnumber male ones. Equity’s Joan Blackham, who has been compiling informal statistics on the number of women in TV shows, also highlights Call the Midwife and Prisoners’ Wives as examples of good dramas where there is a fairly equal ratio of male to female characters.

Back at Equal Writes, lots of impassioned people are talking about something called ‘gender parity’. Paul Macauley, the writer of Piece of Cake, later admits on his blog that he hasn’t a clue what this means. I doubt he’s alone. It’s true, something does need to be done, but you can only achieve so much in a post-show discussion, however enthusiastically you wave you hand in the air and lovingly construct questions about things like ‘discourse’. The real power lies with those who write and produce enjoyable scripts.

Written for BBC Writersroom