‘Is Anything Happening?’ is an Erudite and Entertaining View of International Journalism

Robin Lustig entered international journalism as a graduate trainee at Reuters new agency in 1970, exactly a year after I had. Our early careers at Reuters followed similar paths: he with foreign postings in Madrid, Paris and Rome, while mine were Paris, Buenos Aires, Belgrade and Havana. After that, our professional itineraries diverged, with Robin going on to scale dizzy heights at The Observer and the BBC, while I plodded along in humbler positions at ITN and elsewhere.

So when this book appeared, I was eager to read how it had all worked out for another of my generation of ‘foreign news apprentices’ who began our privileged and exciting careers with those initial awe-inspiring months at Reuters famous headquarters, 85 Fleet Street, London.

Of course, any book sub-titled ‘My Life as a Newsman’ is likely to be of interest to all other serious journalists; but this one is written in a style which, being both erudite and amusing, succeeds in educating and entertaining sufficiently to make it attractive to the general reader having no personal connection to our journalistic trade.

The book is kept constantly lively by Robin’s real-life stories from the world’s trouble-spots; revelations about the haggling among powerful men for control of The Observer; tales from the BBC into the sometimes chaotic last-minute juggling of running-orders behind the scenes at The World Tonight while he maintained a tranquil facade; insights into the physical acrobatics involved in delivering live reports from awkward place abroad; and much more.

If you want to know what it was like getting the news out before the existence of the internet, smartphones, skype and all the rest of today’s cyber-paraphernalia, this is a good book from which to find out; but you will also enjoy plenty of revealing insights into human behaviour in a wide variety of situations along the way.

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‘Is Anything Happening?’ is an Erudite and Entertaining View of International Journalism

Listening to a radio play, I found myself back in a summer school in Moscow in August 1968

I’ve just been listening to a play on Radio 4 about some British teenagers at a Soviet summer beach camp in August 1968, when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. Boy, did that bring back some powerful memories.

          I had spent half of my university year abroad in Czechoslovakia from September 1967 to January 1968. After the next term in France, I attended a summer school for Russian language in Moscow for three weeks, arriving home in Brighton on the fateful evening of August 20th.
          The next morning my father woke me up with a cup of tea and the words: “The Russians have invaded Czechoslovakia.” All I could think of at first was what might be happening to my erstwhile student friends. In that moment, and following the TV, radio and newspaper coverage during the following days and weeks, my naive youthful idealism was stripped away forever.
          The play, ‘May There Always Be Sunshine’, by Alan Pollock, resonated in so many ways at the level of temporary friendships and relationships. I wish I had kept a diary. There are so many details I cannot remember of what it was like being a 20/21-year-old English student ‘behind the iron curtain’ at the time when Dubcek was trying to liberalise Czechoslovakia.
          I cannot pretend to have understood what was going on at the top. My only real contact with the ‘Prague Spring’ was when I travelled alone from the small town of Presov in eastern Slovakia, where our group of 10 British students was staying, to the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, to visit a Slovak pen-friend whom I had acquired before this student exchange had been mooted. She took me into Bratislava University, which was plastered with pro-Western posters and seething with anti-Soviet agitation.
          The realisation of having been kept (or having kept myself) in the dark, and later seeing on TV the tanks rolling across a country I had come to like, undoubtedly contributed to my determination to become an international journalist after graduating. In future I would ask the hard questions, whatever the political colour of the government. In the end that got me into serious trouble in Cuba, and I was expelled by the Castro regime – but that’s another story.

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Listening to a radio play, I found myself back in a summer school in Moscow in August 1968

A debased culture of smartphone-staring and talentless ‘reality’ is killing touring theatre

I was very sorry to learn yesterday that another excellent touring theatre company, the Brighton-based Talking Scarlet, had succumbed to insolvency.

In recent years, I have attended every Talking Scarlet play I could catch in Stevenage or Eastbourne; but despite the fact that the quality was always excellent, I usually found myself sitting in a very small audience.

I’m afraid that if the great British public doesn’t turn up to live theatre, other than populist West End musicals, soon there won’t be any live theatre, apart from those blockbusters at one end of the spectrum, and tiny fringe productions above pubs, for which the actors seldom if ever get paid, at the other end.

For the time being, great institutions such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company continue thanks to state subsidies, but in the current political climate of destroying anything which doesn’t make a profit, one wonders for how much longer even they will be allowed to survive. In any case, touring companies tend to perform plays which fill the important and accessible space one or two steps below the lofty intellectualism of the subsidised theatre.

The national preference now seems to be for staring at videos on smartphones, joining crowds of 10,000+ to watch stand-up comedians in gigantic arenas, and so-called reality TV shows in which talentless ‘celebrities’ set the trend for gross misbehaviour. Oh, and of course, elite sport which acts as a vehicle for crude tribalism and nationalism.

Another aspect of the audiences I find myself among, besides their low numbers, is that they are old. Where are the young theatre-goers in the provinces? They scarcely seem to exist. Apparently our schools, under pressure to focus on subjects which will ‘get you a job’, are failing to provide much in the way of cultural guidance in terms of how to spend wisely some of the money which that job, if you get it, will earn for you.

Where touring plays are concerned, we are deeply into a ‘use it or lose it’ situation; and it looks as if we’re going to lose it, because public taste has decayed almost to the level of ancient Roman circuses and mediaeval bear-baiting.

There Is Still Joy Among The Sadness

A debased culture of smartphone-staring and talentless ‘reality’ is killing touring theatre

Trespass by Emlyn Williams is not just a seance romp, but tackles a tragedy taboo at the time

One could be forgiven for expecting Trespass by Emlyn Williams to turn out to be a dated pot-boiler in a hackneyed genre: phoney spiritualist medium rips off gullible, wealthy woman who can’t cope with her husband’s recent death.

But the play turns out to be anything but such a spoof. On the contrary, it was probably ahead of its time in 1947 by tackling challenging aspects of morbid obsession and taboo sexuality.

To reveal more about the moral unravelling in Act II would be to spoil the harrowing dénouement. Suffice it to say this work is very far from being a rehash of Noel Coward’s séance frolic, Blithe Spirit, which debuted six years earlier.

I’m no great expert in the history of censorship, but I suspect it would have been impossible for Williams to get a full-on exploration of his core theme past the Lord Chamberlain in 1947; so he cleverly snuck it through, disguised as a popular séance romp. Even thus softened, one feels it might have shocked audiences.

In this production, a talented cast all contribute energetically to breathing new life into an old script.

There Is Still Joy Among The Sadness

I particularly enjoyed a succession of spooky monologues in which various characters relate having undergone strange experiences; and I loved the slightly OTT deliveries of these.

Michelle Morris as the widowed Countess Christine conveys the polished bossiness which one expects of that social class, both verbally and physically, as if she had herself been born into the aristocracy.

Jeremy Lloyd Thomas commands the stage charismatically as the tormented medium Saviello.

Rebecca Wheatley’s larger-than-life Mrs Amos brushes away all snobbery in the Big House with her down-to-earth northern exuberance.

David Callister as the psychic researcher, Dewar, after learning by chance of the secret at the heart of the story, takes us with him on a journey into darkness as he morphs desperately from chirpy enthusiast into a kind of latterday male Jocasta, striving in vain to prevent the unthinkable from being revealed.

What that secret is, you will have to find out by going to see the play. I thoroughly recommend that you do so.

(I saw ‘Trespass’, produced by Talking Scarlet, at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, on Saturday 17 June 2017)

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Trespass by Emlyn Williams is not just a seance romp, but tackles a tragedy taboo at the time

‘Strictly Murder’ will keep you guessing right until the end via twists, turns and red herrings

If your taste in live entertainment is an old-fashioned thriller, Strictly Murder is just the outing for you. I went along hoping for a good yarn performed by competent actors without fashionably modern over-direction, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s 1939 and an unmarried (ooh-er, missus) English couple, Peter and Suzy, are sharing an isolated cottage in Provence, because in those days the French were apparently more tolerant than us strait-laced Brits about ‘living in sin’.

A big, valve radio set, of the kind that I remember twiddling the knobs on as a kid in the 1950s, creates an atmosphere of the impending Second World War as, between whistles, whooshes and crackles, it conveys the voices of Chamberlain and Hitler.

The first suggestion of something sinister comes when an old neighbour, Josef, who has an ancient rifle, a thick German accent and very few of his marbles left, repeatedly wanders in and out of the cottage without knocking.

The plot thickens in the classic style of the genre with the arrival of a smartly-dressed, politely-spoken Englishman, Ross, who has been looking for Peter, a struggling artist. When he tells Suzy that her partner isn’t who she thinks he is, it’s game on.

The script by veteran TV drama writer Brian Clemens is full of suspense, twists, and occasional corny but amusing shocks; like Peter brandishing a huge kitchen knife near Suzy when actually he’s only going to use it for a bit of food preparation. (I actually heard a woman near me whisper, “Ooh, I can’t look!”)

There Is Still Joy Among The Sadness

There are more red herrings in this play than you’d find on a supermarket fish counter, and in the second half one of them is so obvious that you find yourself thinking, “Yep, there’s definitely a mega-twist coming up any moment now.” But that’s okay, because it’s always smugly satisfying to be proved right, isn’t it?

Peter, Suzy, Josef and Ross are portrayed convincingly by Gary Turner, Lara Lemon, Andrew Fettes and Brian Capron, and it is the truthful acting which enables the audience to suspend our disbelief in the fictional nonsense.

Corrinne Wicks freshens up Act II by appearing on the scene as an uncannily tall, blonde police superintendent, whom she plays in a way guaranteed to scare any recalcitrant suspect. (Well, she scared the crap out of me, anyway).

After two hours of bluff, double-bluff and  triple-bluff, by which time your head is spinning with possible explanations, I guarantee you won’t guess the truth that will be revealed in the final climactic scene.

But you might leave the theatre with a nostalgically patriotic spring in your step, especially as your departure will be accompanied by bouncy SS marching songs. I can’t helping thinking that if the British Army had had songs like that we’d have won the war by Christmas.

(I saw ‘Strictly Murder’, produced by Talking Scarlet, at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage, on Wednesday 7 June 2017)

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‘Strictly Murder’ will keep you guessing right until the end via twists, turns and red herrings

‘Invincible’ highlights the chasm between working-class and middle-class cultures

I’ve just seen ‘Invincible’ by Torben Betts, which I missed in London but which is now touring, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge.

Act One was largely what I expected; a pacy, well-observed comedy of manners. Trendy lefty middle-class couple move from London to the North and invite their new, working-class neighbours round, in a street where every other house is flying a St George’s Cross flag. Predictable misunderstandings ensue, as class and culture collide.

What I did not expect was the descent into darkness in Act Two. No spoilers; but let’s just say, if you believe our armed forces are being misused by politicians in the service of global capitalism rather than defending our country, it’s a bad idea to throw that opinion aggressively into the face of a couple whose soldier son is currently putting his life on the line in Afghanistan.

We were treated to disconcertingly believable performances by all four actors: Elizabeth Boag, Emily Bowker, Graeme Brookes and Alastair Whatley. The characters are realistically ambiguous in their strengths and weaknesses, but it’s postman Alan, presented initially as a thick, boring, football fanatic, who ultimately shows far more emotional intelligence than the too-clever-by-half interlopers.

If I have a criticism, it is that the middle-class couple, Emily and Oliver, get little relief from their depiction as sanctimonious spoilt brats, whilst their proletarian counterparts, Alan and Dawn, are fairly uniformly salt-of-the-earth good eggs; but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Although the play begins firmly in Ayckbourn territory, it develops into something much deeper, with important things to say about the yawning abyss between the misnamed ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ and the people in the provinces slogging their guts out under austerity. Neither side is wholly right or wrong. Each needs to listen to the other.

This may have been the last play of its genre to have been written and performed pre-referendum. With that new, gaping crack of hostility called Brexit that now divides our country down the middle, its message is even more important.

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‘Invincible’ highlights the chasm between working-class and middle-class cultures

‘This House’ will please Westminster politics buffs, but won’t be to everybody’s taste

Yesterday evening we saw a play called ‘This House’ at the Garrick Theatre: a satire, I suppose you could call it, on the activities of the ‘whips’ in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.

It was harsh a lot, funny a bit, and exposed the cruelty of how Labour, with a tiny majority, were forced to keep bringing the sick and injured into parliament to walk through the division lobbies because the Tories withdrew the pairing system in a cynical ploy to try to vote down the government.

I found that and other aspects of the system a travesty of democracy; and if the language was as foul and the casual violence as commonplace among real MPs, I feel disgusted by the behaviour of our honorable members.

The mostly multi-role performances were all strong and convincing, but there is inevitably a lack of dramatic tension when you already know what actually happened.

Irritatingly, every so often an MP would explain ‘in words of one syllable’ to another MP how some aspect of parliament worked, as if they didn’t know. This was obviously for the benefit of the foreigners who make up so much of West End audiences these days (unsurprisingly when tickets cost £70), but to us Brits at a theatre in our own country, it grates.

Although the play is mostly very pacy, it runs for nearly three hours, and in my opinion would benefit from some judicious cutting. For instance, a laboured metaphor about Big Ben taking a long time to repair doesn’t seem to add anything much, and could go altogether.

On the other hand, there’s a scene depicting John Stonehouse faking his own death by drowning in the sea which is so clever it merited a round of applause, but didn’t get it.

Verdict: well worth seeing if you’re an enthusiast for the inner workings of Westminster politics and like seeing famous names effing and blinding a lot; otherwise there might be better choices on offer in London.

Click here to buy my latest novel ‘Murder of a British Patriot’

‘This House’ will please Westminster politics buffs, but won’t be to everybody’s taste