16 films and plays I find objectionable (that no-one else seems to have a problem with)

Pocahogwash: Disney’s amazingly untrue story about a brave young Native American princess who single-handedly threw out the evil forest-destroying British, before welcoming in the the wise all-American settlers, who later stole their land and massacred them. Probably starring Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman as the evil British captain, Captain Evil.

Following straight on from my Roald Dahl piece, where I said I didn’t see what the problem was with the text that had been changed, and earlier pieces such as my reaction to Puppetgate, where I wasn’t offended, you might be asking: “Okay, is there anything you have a problem with?” The main reason I stay out of the usual cycles of outrage is that I have better things to do. I treat material I might object to the same as material that’s not to my tastes in general – I don’t have to watch it, and nine times out of ten it’s obvious it’s going to be like that from the publicity. You have a much stronger case standing up to censorship of things you do like if you respect other people’s rights to watch things you don’t.

But there are nevertheless things I think overstep the line. For example, I wrote at length about Music (or, as I like to describe it, the shit version of Rain Man), and I could go on forever joining in dogpiles. But I’d rather challenge things that aren’t getting attention. With some of society obsessed with the pettiest micromanagement of some popular works, I can only look at other works and ask: why aren’t people up in arms about that? Some problems are things I wouldn’t expect most people to notice; other times, it’s issues commonly talked about – why does this one get a free pass? And top of the list is so blatant, there’s only one reason I can see to tolerate it, which is rank hypocrisy. But we’ll get to that alter.

So, the rules. Some of the things in this list I personally consider objectionable. Other things I think are unfair to other groups of people. In the latter case, I’ve done a bit of cursory research to see if the people concerned also have a problem – if not, I let it go. It pisses me of no-end when self-righteous arseholes decree what neurodivergent people are offended by without asking us, so I have no intention of getting offended on other people’s behalf. The other rule is it’s got to be something that isn’t facing widespread criticism. Otherwise, it’s joining in dogpiles.

And to be clear: I don’t want any of these cancelled. Offence alone is never a valid reason for censorship. The usual tactic used by Mary Whitehouse-wannabes is to conflate offensive with harmful, but nine times out of ten it’s nothing that can’t be solved with the “off” button. Some at the end start to overstep that line, but not enough to overcome my support for freedom of speech.

So here we go. Prepare to have your favourite films, movies and plays ruined.

16. I Dreamed a Dream

I have nothing against Susan Boyle or Elaine C. Smith – but there’s no escaping the awful hypocrisy surrounding of the people responsible for the sudden rise to fame. I’ve written about this before, but the fairy story constructing around Susan Boyle is a textbook example of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Why was the country so surprised that a woman who wasn’t conventionally attractive and behaved a bit odd turned out to be quite good at singing? Because for years Britian’s Got talent – with the full backing of ITV and the entire press – has been systemically pedalling the narrative that anyone looks a bit funny is talentless. All they did was express surprise that some defied the stereotype they created in the first place. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Cowell and Co had a change of heart after Susan Boyle’s performance. They did not – right afterwards it was back to business as usual. (A similar gesture with Lost Voice Guy many years later does not compensate for this either.)

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We need to talk about Roald Dahl and sensitivity readers

A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look levely.

COMMENT: The outrage over the changes to the Roald Dahl books has been blown out of proportion. But it does raise some uncomfortable questions of corporate ownership of work, moral double standards, and the power to censor.

Thanks a lot mate. Here I am trying to catch up with the various shit-shows hitting the arts and now what happens? Everybody’s up in arms about Roald Dahl’s books being given the sensitivity reader treatment. And since one of the principal tenets of this blogs is being anti-censorship and pro-artistic freedom, I need to weigh into this, as this is a censorship issue.

Like many censorship debates, a lot of the commentary is misleading. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a full rewrite of beloved classic works to appease the wokie feminazis, or a long-overdue reform to make the works relevant to a modern audience. Al is usually the case, the truth somewhere in between – and a lot more boring. What it has done, however, is lift a lid on just how much power publishers have. They might not have done anything particularly dramatic, but they could go a lot further if they wanted. And there don’t seem to be any checks or balances.

None of what I’m saying is intended to be a dig as Roald Dahl’s literary estate. I don’t know who’s responsible for the thumbs up or thumbs down, but to date they seem to have a pretty relaxed attitude to adaptations of the books. They have ranged from very faithful depictions to major retellings, and the various visions on screen and stage have ranged from excellent to abominable to just weird. That’s okay: the great ones live on in memory, the terrible ones are forgotten, and nobody is ever put off the books. This, however, is complicated by rights recently being acquired by Netflix. It’s not clear if Netflix has any powers or influence that they didn’t have previously, but it would explain a few things if they have. I will return to this later.

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7 Thoughts I have on the Jerry Sadowitz uproar

COMMENT: Some say it was hate speech, some say it way misunderstood – either way Pleasance mishandled the situation and Jerry Sadowitz has gained from the cancellation.

If you’ve made it this far past the Edinburgh Fringe without hearing about the Jerry Sadowitz fiasco, well done. For the rest of you, I’m sorry to have to remind you of this. But just when we thought that all of the arguments over the decisions made by the Festival Fringe Society were dying down, this blew up.

So, Jerry Sadowitz is a comedian who I’d never heard of and would probably continued to have never heard of were it not for a couple of performances at Pleasance EICC in the second weekend on Edinburgh Fringe. (Fringe Newbies: EICC is one of the biggest venues on the fringe, which the biggest of big name comedians perform at.) Out of the blue, the second of the two performances got cancelled. A bit of puzzlement at first, accompanied by some nerves – after all, the last known cancellation imposed on artists was one of the most notorious McCarthyite affairs in the history of the fringe. Then word got round about what it was he said and did that led to this. A lot of argument over what he meant, but on the face of it: holy shit. If anything was going to get you booted from a venue, this would.

The Fringe itself is open access, but the venues themselves are free to do what they want, and the decision to cancel was The Pleasance’s. This led to a big debate over freedom of speech at the Edinburgh Fringe. I gave some thoughts at the time, but now things have calmed down, it’s time to give some more.

A lot of the debate has been polarised by ideological leanings. For many people who’ve expressed an opinion one way or the other, it strongly looks like they made up their mind first and looked for argument to support their position second. So I should probably remind you at this point that I am myself very anti-censorship and pro-artistic freedom – although these comments, on the face of it, pushes my patience to the limit. You’ll have to decide your yourself if you trust me to be objective.

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The Bruntwood doesn’t want you. Now what?

Credit: dgim-studio on Freepik

COMMENT: The arts industry does aspiring writers no favours by implying script submission is the only route into play writing. There’s a far better way to hone your craft than waiting for the thumbs up of the reading room.

Today, the Bruntwood prize revealed its longlist. And out of the 1890 entrants, 1760 of you got the news you’re not on it. And, worse, you have no information of what you did wrong. They did of course congratulate you on your achievement of writing a play and getting it out there. But that is little consolation, and when “sending it out into the world to be experienced by other people” can mean “having it read once then put in the bin” it’s a bit of a platitude. “There’s always next time” is the usual upbeat message – but how are your prospects next time supposed to be any better? What have you learned from this?

To be fair to the Bruntwood Prize and all of the other major competitions, they are aware of the questions of whether they are there for everyone or the lucky few. In the case of the Bruntwood Prize, they publish a series of “toolkit” articles from various writers on how to make your scripts better. But you have probably already read those, and you still lost. You have also probably been on playwriting courses for beginners, read books about playwriting and searched for tips on the internet – and you’re still getting nowhere. What are you meant to do now?

Well, I’ve been there. I found a way forward. And it wasn’t by playing the game of submit-reject-sumbit-reject-submit ad infinitum. I do not claim to be an authority on how to write a good play, but this year I got my first nomination for new writing award on the fringe circuit and my first professional writing commission has just been produced, so I think my experience counts for something. Nevertheless, I have something to say that many of you aren’t going to like, and I don’t think the Bruntwood will like either. I have a lot of nuance and caveats to add to this message, so please try not to take this at face value, but there’s no getting round the fact this is an unpopular thing to say:

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Edinburgh Fringe must make a choice

Rubbish piles high on a big
This particular mess wasn’t Edinburgh Fringe’s fault. But there’s a lot of other messes that the Fringe Society need to clean up.

COMMENT: The fundamental mistake made by the Festival Fringe Society was trying to please everybody. They must realise this is no longer possible, decide who they want to please, and be open about it.

Well, we made it. Edinburgh Fringe was set for a bumpy ride, and the first few days were particularly turbulent, with complaints about support for reviewers, the relocation of Fringe Central, the lack of an app, and all sorts of other things being aired in the first week. There were even worries that the Big Four might break away and work entirely off their own ticketing site with other venues invited to join. Then the festival got underway properly and attention turned to what was actually being performed. In a way, it had parallels to the 2012 Olympics: lots of complaining in the run-up, but taking a back seat to the festival people love. Then came the Jerry Sadowitz saga and Assembly and Pleasance started fighting each other, undermining any prospect of a co-ordinated breakaway. Meanwhile, the performers at the free fringe venues have started clashing with the Big Four again – it seems the Festival Fringe Society was caught in the crossfire.

At the time of writing, it looks like the worst is over. Ticket sales are probably going to be okay. It’s not clear what sort of size we’re looking at next year, as it’s possible that numbers this year were inflated by postponed plans from the last two years, but we’re unlikely to be facing meltdown. There might also be a reduction as expectations of what post-Covid fringes would be like have been tempered with reality, but a modest reduction might be a good thing if it brings demand on accommodation down to something sane. The worst mistakes made this year can be rectified for next year. The app can be brought back, or, at the worst, the website can be improved to do the job. We can have the discussion of how best to support reviewers. Finances should be in a better state to roll back some of the less popular economisations. At this stage, I’m quite relaxed about 2023.

However, there is a root problem that isn’t going away any time soon, which is that Edinburgh Fringe has hopelessly outgrown the city that hosts it. Demand outstrips supply for both accommodation and performances spaces, and piles up expenses for performers; and although Edinburgh Fringe has tried to source some cheap accommodation, this is only a drop in the ocean. The bottom line is that unless you have a trust fund, already live in Edinburgh, or are able to run in one of the cheapest tech-free venues (or preferably a hybrid of all three), you are taking on a huge financial outlay without anything guaranteed in return. Anyone who thinks that your reward is directly proportional to how good your play was is naive – so much comes down to luck and factors outside your control. The Festival Fringe Society, remember, isn’t that big an organisation and can’t do that much about it. Even the Big Four supervenues can’t do that much about the sky-high rents that landlords charge for their spaces.

What the Festival Fringe Society can do, however, is decide who the fringe is for. The idealistic answer is “everybody who wants to go”, and I don’t think we should change that (indeed, if they dropped the open access I would probably stop going). However, we can still decide who Edinburgh Fringe is optimised for. Does the Festival Fringe Society concentrate its efforts of helping the minnows thrive in an environment where they compete with some big commercially successful players? Or should the society concentrate on a festival which the brightest and best compete for the prestige, and work on a sink or swim basis for everyone else? Both are valid aspirations, but they are very different aspirations that will please some and alienate others. However, alienating some performers is an improvement on alienating everybody, as happened this year.

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My proposal for how to do content warnings

Don’t worry! One billion dead humans but the dog survived.

COMMENT: Good content warning systems empower audiences to make informed choices. Bad content warning systems don’t respect this. And the best system I’ve seen comes from a very unlikely source.

So, outside of theatre blogging, my exciting news is that I have my first professional writing commission. This, however, has left me with a bit of a dilemma. In some theatres, this script would come with a pretty massive content warning. Okay, I have previously been flippant with content warnings (such as links to Mail Online having “content warning: Daily Mail sidebar”), but I’m really not kidding this time.* The problem is that it would not be possible to tell you what this content warning is without spoiling the story – it’s up there with “Snape kills Dumbledore”. Equally, however, I’m aware that there will be some people who really really really really don’t want to hear about the relevant subject material. The term “trigger warning” is I think massively overused and applied to every trivial/incidental mention of something unpalatable, but I really really really mean it here.

* For anyone who saw Waiting for Gandalf: this is worse.

So far, I have handled this delicate matter by respecting the policies of the theatre company and/or venue. My reasoning is as follows: at venues that don’t give content warnings, the people who go know what to expect, but you can’t reasonably foist something unexpected on an audience at a venue that routinely warns you what’s coming. The problem I’ve found with some content warning-heavy venues is that they are so dogmatic they will quite happily give away a plot twist – even one on which the whole play depends – in the name of showing how responsible they are. You might as well stand outside the queue for the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, shouting that the play may be distressing to those suffering trauma for unexpected news of parentage.

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A curated fringe won’t be a kinder fringe

COMMENT: An unwelcome part of open access is people spending too much money on Edinburgh Fringe who clearly aren’t ready – but it’s not open access you should be blaming for that.

With Edinburgh Fringe 2021 having pulled back from the brink, most are now expecting 2022 onwards to be the road to recovery. Few people, however, are enthusiastic about a return to 2019 levels. For years, Edinburgh Fringe has had a big problem of supply and demand. More and more people want to take part, but Edinburgh isn’t that big a city, and there’s only a finite amount of accommodation and finite number of buildings that can be made into theatre spaces. Consequently, the cost of these two things is going up and up and up; and no, the money isn’t being squirrelled away by greedy venue managers, but simply a product of landlords – in many cases Edinburgh University – simply renting out space for whatever people are prepared to pay.

As a result, there’s been a lot of talk of building back a “kinder” fringe. There are several things that might address the supply and demand problem without undermining open access (one of which I’m come on to later). Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably in the current climate of culture wars, a movement seems to be emerging that would rather undermine open access. I won’t link any particular story as this is a trend rather than specific people, but they do seem be edging towards the easy solution: let’s just not allow people who aren’t us to take part. At the moment the language used is that the principle of open access is “outdated” and maintains the “status quo” (whatever that means), but I think I can see where this is going.

Now, as most of you should be aware, I am a staunch supporter of open access. Not all arts festivals or venues need to be open access – indeed, it would be impossible for many of them to work that way – but it is vital that such festivals exist for those who wish to go that route. Why? Because there is way too much gatekeeping in theatre, and across the arts in general. Too many venues have exact ideas of what art people should be making and watching. That wouldn’t be so bad if every venue had their own tastes, but increasingly they’re all after the same thing, and if you’re not to the liking of one you’re not to the liking of any. Open festivals are a crucial check in the balance of power – if you’ve got something good to show an audience, and the audience likes it, no-one can stop you. I have to say, the loudest voices undermining open access seem to be the people who benefit the most from the current culture of gatekeeping. Perhaps they assume they’ll be amongst the approved line-up of a vetted fringe. I suspect it’s more likely they’ll get a nasty surprise, when the big venues pick big comedians and other commercially lucrative acts over them. But I have no intention of letting it get to that stage.

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Rod Liddle doesn’t understand freedom of speech

COMMENT: Controversial speakers have free speech to express their views, but the people you’re talking to have free speech to make it clear what they think. Especially a speaker who thinks he’s entitled to talk down to people who never asked for him.

And now, a rare post on this blog: a post about neither theatre nor anything else in the arts. The reason I’m doing this is that, as well as christontheatre being a theatre blog, it is also an anti-censorship blog. Normally, I am anti-censorship in the name of artistic freedom, but I am also pro freedom of speech in general. Until, now, however, everything I have written has been in support of people on the receiving end of censorship. This time, however, I am going to be singling out someone who thinks his right to free speech is being infringed when it isn’t. There are a lot of people like him, they give free speech a bad name, and it is in the interests of anyone who values free speech to stand up to this bullshit.

The reason I’m taking action over this one is because I’m doing something I’ve criticised other people for not doing: speaking out when things you say you care about happen on your doorstep. This relates to a shitstorm going on at my old university which I still have connections to. Tim Luckhurst, the principal of South College (the newest college of Durham University), invited a speaker for the end-of term Christmas formal dinner. Normally a non-issue, interesting and entertaining speakers (along boring, unfunny and incomprehensible speakers) come to dinners all the time. However, this speaker was Rod Liddle, who made exactly the kind of speech you’d expect Rod Liddle to make. Contrary to what some people think, the students of Durham University are not a bunch of ultra-right-wing Katie Hopkins worshippers and this speech went down like a lead balloon. This has escalated into widespread calls for Luckhurst to be sacked.

I will give my 2p’s worth on that row later, but what I’m really interested in is Rod Liddle’s reaction to this. He is demanding an apology from Durham University and implying that his right to free speech has been infringed. Now, there are some valid criticisms to be made of the anti-Liddle protests, but that does not stop Rod Liddle being wrong. For the reasons I will go into, Rod Liddle has not had his free speech infringed – and, if anything, he is the one who lacks respect for free speech. Here’s why.

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Never mind Hershel Fink. The entire theatre industry is failing the Jews.

COMMENT: The Rare Earth Mettle debacle exposed that the Royal Court did not take complaints of anti-Semitism seriously – but there’s little reason to believe any other theatre would have behaved any better.

A common mistake made by theatres in the regions is to obsess over the latest drama hitting a London Theatre. Nine times out of ten, it’s a local issue of little consequence elsewhere in the country – or at least not as bad as more serious issues on your doorstep your local theatres are ignoring *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough*. If this uproar over the naming of a character at the Royal Court was only a London issue, I would quite happily have left it to Londoners to argue over. However, this one I believe goes deeper than a local row. I am in agreement with the majority of people that the Royal Court has screwed up big-time, but I’m not convinced it’s wise to single out one theatre here. I fear this is a symptom of an endemic nationwide problem.

So, for those who need to catch up, this is all about a play at the Royal Court satirising billionaire, master bullshitter and possible Bond villain-in-waiting Elon Musk. Now, I could put a lot of energy into why Hyperloop and all his other miracle transport solutions are bollocks, but that’s a different story completely and not for a theatre blog. Everyone was fine with this play until the name of character based on Musk was announced: Hershel Fink. Cue outrage from all Jews in London (pretty much) for stoking stereotypes. The Royal Court apologised and agreed to rename the character to Henry Finn, which might have settled things down had they not attempted to blame their mistake on “unconscious bias”. Then a Sunday Times article (£) came out that suggested this concern had previously been raised and ignored, prompting a second statement promising to reflect further. It could have been worse, but boy, what a fiasco.

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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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