Don’t blame reviewers for stupid judgements of attractiveness

Above: Six people cast entirely on acting talent alone and definitely not on shallow grounds such as looks because film and TV are too virtuous to do such a thing.

COMMENT: Reviewers need a debate amongst themselves of whether to mention attractiveness in reviews. The film and TV industries, however, are the last people to be taking lessons from.

This topic reared its head back in April, and my immediate reaction was “Oh no, not this again”. Ever since I naively offered my 2p’s worth on Quentin Letts’s notorious “jolly fit” remark (and realising later I’d played straight into his attention-seeking hands), I’ve tried to stay out of this argument. I partially relented just over a year later when I begged everyone to stop feeding his attention-seeking habits (and failed miserably). But the latest version of this row was over Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. As a publication seemingly made a scapegoat out of an individual review, and the film critics’ guild subsequently weighed in, it became a censorship issue. And as with all censorship issues, I must have my say.

If you managed to miss this, well done. But for your benefit, this blew up when Carey Mulligan publicly railed against against a review that contained an ill-advised phrase that her character “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag”. Now, without seeing the film I can’t comment on the validity of this phrase. (I have heard a lot of good things about Promising Young Woman, but I’ve heard good things about lots of other films and never got round to watching them, so don’t hold your breath.) What he was possibly trying to say was that Carey Mulligan doesn’t suit looking like Harley Quinn, whom director Margot Robbie played so successfully, but I’m not really interested in one sentence of one review. This is an issue we need to take seriously, and every incident like this should spur reviewers on debate this.

However, the problem I have is hypocrisy. Whilst there are a important ethical questions to be discussed, at the moment the answers seem to be mostly coming from the film and TV industries. For reasons I will go into, they have absolutely no business lecturing the rest of us on valuing women based on looks. Even Carey Mulligan herself is not immune from being part of the problem. But before going into this, I may as well be open about how I handle this.

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7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe

Through most of the last year, there has been a lot of justified alarm over the future of theatres. Amongst that is what would happen to the the festival fringes. But what no-one forecasted was for Edinburgh Fringe alone to be in uniquely dire circumstances. Whilst Brighton Fringe is bouncing back better than anybody’s wildest dreams, Edinburgh has still not even listed a single show. As everybody now knows, in Scotland they’ve been ultra-cautious and planned restrictions well into August and beyond. The problem is the level of restrictions demanded: two metres indoors for performing arts, ignoring all possible forms of mitigation such as masks, barriers, or everyone facing the same way. That is virtually impossible to comply with.

Make no mistake, this is the perfect storm for the Edinburgh Fringe. Had all festivals in the UK been in this situation, it would have been more secure, but with strict rules only applying to Scotland, the festivals south of the border have stepped up where Edinburgh can’t. Last year’s Warren Outdoors was a success because they were able to programme a lot of popular acts seeking to fill an Edinburgh-shaped hold in their schedules – it now turns out this was only the tip of the iceberg. Now many of the the Edinburgh venues are staging new festivals in England: Pleasance is running “Fringe Future” in partnership with the Vault, Gilded Balloon are running a pop-up festival with their inflatable cow, and Assembly is running “Assembly Garden” in City of Culture Coventry. As a result, many of Edinburgh’s favourite acts have already signed up for these or other non-Edinburgh fixtures. There is no guarantee they’ll go back to Edinburgh.

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My thoughts on Alphabetti’s Aware

I said I wasn’t going to review Aware from Alphabetti Theatre – I don’t think I am fairly judge a performance based on artistic merit on an issue where I openly take sides. However, I presume a large part of Alphabetti Theatre’s aim is to raise awareness, I can do my bit by giving my own take on neurodiversity in respect of these issues. The short version is that I believe they did best they could realistically achieve from one production, but there’s a lot of details to get through here.

First, a catchup on where Alphabetti Theatre is.* Alphabetti Theatre has gone from one of the most cautious theatres to one of the most bullish. Last year, when most theatres were looking at an autumn reopening, Alphabetti were predicting nothing until the New Year. They did go for a low-scale socially distanced production for Christmas, but we know what happened then. But when May 17th was named as re-opening date and numerous theatres went for that very week, Alphabetti went one step further and went for an audio production, Listen In, which you could listen either online or at a table at the theatre. The table in theatre option didn’t go head in the end, but respect for trying nonetheless.

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Why it’s right to stop covering SSD Concerts

Note: I wrote this article on the 3rd April, after Narc magazine published its editorial about not covering SSD events but before the manager announced his resignation – that happened between writing the first draft and linking the sources. However, I am posting this anyway, as what I said still applies.

COMMENT: It is too soon to pass judgement on the sexual harassment allegations on Glassdoor. But as long as SSD continue to respond to the allegations the way they are, NARC Magazine is correct to stop covering their events.

When I wound up my coverage of the Tyneside Cinema scandal, I finished by saying I did not want to come back in a few years’ time when the next scandal breaks and ask why nothing was done. Well, never mind years – it is barely six months since the damning report and the resignation of the CEO and Chair of Trustees and we’ve got another case on our hands. This time, it’s in the music scene, specifically in relation to SSD Concerts, regarded by many as the leading music promoter in the north-east from big events to the grass roots. On this occasion, however, we do not have to wait for pressure from a major funder before action is taken; numerous bands and venues have cut ties in protest.

Normally, when an organisation is implicated in serious allegations, I open my coverage with an examination of the evidence available. And that is indeed what I tried to do here; it was slow business, with events continually moving as was I writing. However, one event has taken place that has spurred me into action: NARC magazine has announced it is ceasing its coverage of SSD events. (See also this page for numerous links to background info.) It is fair to note that – unlike Tyneside Cinema, where it was possible to sit on the fence – NARC, as a magazine dominated by music coverage, had to pick a side this time. But it is my understanding (based on an off-the-record source that I trust) that this editorial decision was not made out of obligation, but was taken proactively and wholeheartedly. Having criticised the local arts media for inaction during previous scandals, I shall now back them up for doing the right thing.

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Live reaction to the Sia film

Content warning: contains commentary to depictions of disability that some people may find offensive (duh)

6.00 p.m.: And thank you to everyone follow me except the Sia superfan on Twitter who’s been stalking me, straw-manned me at least twice, and paid no regard to the fact I might know something about this subject.

So, here’s the low-down of what I’ve learned:

  • Sia’s film isn’t quite as bad as I expected, but only because my expectations were rock bottom after her fucking awful trailer.
  • The obvious problem which everybody is rightly calling out is the excessive amount of “cripping up” done to depict a character. I don’t agree that you shouldn’t be allowed to produced something that some people find offensive (if you did no-one could produce anything), but it is good practice to avoid causing offence if it’s not necessary. Sia failed miserably there.
  • The less obvious problem is that the character of Music is relentlessly portrayed as incapable of everything and anything. And yes, there are some people whose conditions are that bad. But Sia said the point of the film was to show autism is a gift. What gift? She might have intended to depict that, but I didn’t pick that up and I don’t see how anyone else could.
  • The other thing that might have saved the film was getting to know Music beyond the disability. But that didn’t happen. The character was barely developed in the second half of the film at all, and that was the biggest missed opportunity to redeem the film.
  • One thing that counts in the film’s favour is Kate Hudson’s portrayal as Zu. If you cut Music out of the film completely – and let’s face it, that depiction isn’t going to be missed by anyone – we could probably have had an okay film about an ex-alcoholic struggling with rehabilitation.
  • To be honest, however, I think the root problem is that Sia is completely out of her depth. You really need to know what you’re doing to pull off something this outlandish, and this is more like a Tom Hooper take on Cats than a David Lynch take on a detective series. Sia may well have intended to put positive features of Music’s character into the script, but that just doesn’t come across at all.
  • The worst problem, however, are the people rallying around her. The film comes uncomfortably close to saying all autistic people are incapable of anything and they’re a burden on society and all carers are martyrs – but the more her fans double down on defending the film, the closer they get to the ideology of Autism Speaks, even though they say they have nothing to do with it. I’m pretty easy going, but for once, this worries me.

So I’m signing off. Thank again for joining me on this marathon. Let me know if you want to buy the film. I paid £8. I’ll burn it on to DVD. And then snap it in half.

Goodnight.

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Don’t be mad at Seyi Omooba. Save your anger for Christian Concern.

COMMENT: The outcome of The Colour Purple is a cause for relief for the arts – but we must not allow the organisation behind this to make it into their victory.

I never seriously expected this court case to go any other way, but I’m thankful Leicester Curve won and Seyi Omooba lost. To an outside observer not familiar with the story, you might be forgiven for thinking for believing this was a case about religious discrimination. If it had been that, I would have been on her side. It was not. This was about the right for religious people do engage in whatever form of discrimination they choose just as long as their preferred brand of bigotry is mandated by their religion. Had she won, the precedent would have been catastrophic, not just for the arts, but everywhere. Thanks goodness she didn’t get her way.

And, inevitably, the arts world is making her into a pariah, not that I blame people for feeling that way too much. I’m staying out of the dogpile because I don’t kick artists when they’re down. Seyi Omooba’s career in the arts is almost certainly finished – who’s going to want to employ someone who pulls that sort of stunt? – but I still find career-gravedancing distasteful. Even if she brought it on herself. Even if there was no option but to end her career this way. They other reason I’m not joining in is that I’m uncomfortable with the arts world’s habit of making pariahs out of individuals. Especially here. Seyi Omooba is, at best, an expendable footsoldier, and at worst, a brainwashed victim. The real enemy is the organisation who put her up to this, Christian Concern, and if we do not realise that now, we will regret it later.

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On Tyneside Cinema (part 2)

I realise there’s been a lot of things going on to distract us, but it’s time I did the follow-up to the Tyneside Cinema scandal I promised once we had an outcome. Just when everybody seemed convinced the report into allegations of sexual harassment would be a whitewash, the report came out – and it was bad enough to prompt the chief executive and chair of the trustees to resign. An action plan has also been drawn up with the Board of Trustees have adopted. This hasn’t settled every dispute – I will outline those shortly – but, crucially, Save Tyneside Cinema have changed their stance from hostile and confrontational, to working with the cinema for the best outcome.

The outcome for Tyneside Cinema is in my view the right outcome, with some give or take on a few details. But … are we learning all the right lessons? The arts industry was supposed to put an end to sort of behaviour this four years ago when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and the theatre and film industries drew up plans to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. And yet it has. It’s not just one bad apple either; around the same time there was a pretty bad scandal breaking about a Scottish ballet school. How is this still happening years after the entire performing arts industry vowed to put an end to it?

The answer I gave last time – the one I felt I could safely say at the time without danger of prejudicing the outcome – is that we got complacent. We collectively behaved like the job was done as Weinstein faded from the news. In particular we assumed that arts organisations forming better codes of conduct would do the job – an assumption that, in hindsight, now looks dreadfully naive. Now I can say a lot more about what this culture of complacency is and who should be doing better. And not everyone’s going to like this, because a lot of these people who are falling short have so far avoided any real scrutiny.

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This Sia film (or: FFS, how many times do I have to say this?)

COMMENT: Yet again, a production about autism is being deservedly panned for crass decisions. And yet again, the dogpilers don’t deserve the moral high ground either.

You bastards. I’m sure you’ve specifically done this to annoy me. I’d barely finished my last piece on disability access and how much I hate grand gestures, especially from people who don’t listen. And now what happens now? A massive bonaza of grand gestures from people who don’t listen, all centred around a garish film trailer. Music is an upcoming film I’ve never heard of, from Sia, a musician-turned-director I’ve never heard of; and it would have quite happily have stayed this way were it not for a shitstorm over the depiction of an autistic character. As always, it is not right to criticise something on the internet without giving people the means to see what it is and makes up their own mind. So I am duty-bound to post this. I am very sorry to inflict this on you.

Sia says this film is about showing autism as a gift, and not a disability. Having watched this twice (I don’t think I can take it a third time. “A musical cinematic experience?” Fuck my life.) I get the impression that Music is a kind-of Blue Cross Week Rain Man. A lot of people on the autistic spectrum – tired of people who think we’re all incapable social misfits with mythical casino superpowers – are a bit narked off by this film. I don’t blame you. And with this has come a lot of people assisting us with our outrage. All in all, this looks like a re-run of All In A Row a year and a half ago, when everyone was expressing outrage over using a puppet on stage to depict an autistic child.

But just hang on a second – it’s all very well piping up every 18 months when someone does something as crass as this happens, but what about the rest of the time? During the furore over All In A Row and the furore over Music, I heard plenty of people proclaim the important of being inclusive to artists with autism; but between these two events, the effort I’ve seen go in roughly amounts to the square root of sod all. It would useful to identify and remove the everyday barriers that stand in the way of artists with autism (or any disability), but I’ve seen to next to no efforts to even ask what the barriers are. So forgive my scepticism to those of you who’ve suddenly rediscovered your dedication to the cause this month.

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Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.

COMMENT: The highly-publicised practice of giving grants and opportunities to artists with disabilities is good for a few but does little for the many. If you’re serious about helping, you’re going to have to do some hard and thankless work.

Apologies for the long essay here. As they say, I’ve written a long letter because I don’t have the time for a short one.

It’s quite common for acts of hypocrisy or censorship to push me to boiling point, but this is the first time I’ve been prompted to speak out by good intentions. I might be imagining it, but I could swear that in the last few months most of the local theatres have gone into overdrive announcing all the ways they are supporting artists with disabilities. It is not clear whether this was something planning in its own right or it’s a side-effect to theatre’s reaction to the George Floyd murder (presumably by accompanying opportunities for black artists with opportunities with other minorities), but they’ve really gone to town advertising what they’re doing. It varies from theatre to theatre, but it’s a predominantly a mixture of partnerships with disability advocacy organisations and opportunities for artists with disabilities – either in conjunction with partner organisations or schemes in their own right.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead! (Skip to Summary)

So why should I have a problem with this? In principle I should be delighted that disabilities are being taken seriously, especially mental disabilities. We have been making progress on obvious areas such as wheelchair access for decades, but it’s really only in the last 10-20 years that society has started getting to grips with access for people who think differently. Disability discrimination is quite different from other forms of decision in one respect: whilst you generally need some pretty unpleasant views about someone’s race, sexuality or gender to discriminate on those grounds, disability discrimination can simply come down to thoughtlessness. Something as basic as failure to respect communication preferences can be huge problems for some people, an the fact this is finally being recognised is a good thing.

The problem is a lot of people are way ahead on being seen to be fighting disability discrimination than doing actual fighting. I’m afraid I’ve seen little evidence of any theatre making progress where it counts: identifying where the barriers are and removing them. The unfortunate truth is that the hard work needed for real change is an unglamorous job that requires a lot of trial and error, which offers few opportunities to advertise the good you’ve done. The one recurring problem I observe with the arts is that they will always pick a simple and easy solution over difficult and complex reforms. As a result, superficial changes take precedence over any real attempt to solve the root problems – and this culture of grand gestures is a prime example.

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The top 10 times I got it wrong

This might looks like another novelty lockdown piece, but it’s actually something I’ve been planning for over a year. It’s the eight anniversary of my theatre blog when I wrote this. On the third and sixth anniversaries I wrote about what I’ve learned, but for this milestone I thought I’d do something different. It’s sort of about what I learned, but only what I learned the hard way.

As any regulars will know, I made up my mind quite long ago that I don’t want to be an unconditional cheerleader for theatre, and definitely not a cheerleader for the people in charge of theatre. I want to be noisy and frequently off-message, supporting decisions when they’re right, speaking out when I think it’s a mistake. Nor do I go along with consensus just to fit in with what everyone else think of plays. I plan to keep it that way, because there have been times I’ve stuck my neck out and later been proven right, the most obvious case being Pantogate – I was asking questions long before their treatment of staff and actors came out in the open. But I don’t always make the right call. There several thing I’ve said that, looking back, I now thing I got wrong. In general, I’m embarrassed I wrote this now.

So, let’s get straight to business. The worst mistake I ever made is …

wait for it …

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