Notes on a scandal

June 10, 2018

Nobody does political scandals quite like the English. I live in Spain and we’ve had our share over the last few years, but for sheer entertainment value it’s hard to compete with the Profumo Affair, Labour MP John Stonehouse’s faked suicide, Jeffrey Archer and the prostitute, Jonathan Aitken and the Paris Ritz Hotel bill allegations, and David Cameron’s notorious university initiation ceremony involving inserting a private part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead pig. It is such a competitive field, but I still feel pride of place goes to the downfall of the charismatic leader of the Liberal party.

The story was told in a 2016 book called A Very English Scandal by John Preston. Curiously, in Wikipedia it is called it a true crime non-fiction novel. But no it is a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless, it turns out to be a real page turner with an amazing cast of characters. It was recently adapted into a three-part drama series by the BBC, which I can thoroughly recommend.  Jeremy Thorpe was an MP by 30, and just seven years later he became one of Britain’s youngest ever party leaders. he was a brilliant politician, who had an eccentric fashion sense and according to Preston, “favoured a cashmere overcoat with a velvet collar and, rather more eccentrically, a brown bowler hat.” There was his lover, Norman Scott, who was mentally unstable and had a tendency to blame everyone but himself for his problems. There was Peter Bessell a fellow Liberal MP and a failed businessman, who took money from party funds to hire a hitman. The professional killer, Andrew Newton was known to his friends as chicken brain.

After a chance meeting in a friend’s stable in 1960, Thorpe commenced a sexual relationship with a young man who was then called Norman Josiffe. He subsequently changed his surname to Scott, which was how he was known when he became famous. At the time homosexuality was still against the law. Once the affair was over Thorpe saw Scott as a blackmailer who could wreck his political career. The higher he climbed on the political ladder, the greater was the threat to his ambition from Scott.

After the break-up Scott found employment here and there, but he never really stuck at anything.  He had a disastrous and brief marriage, and fathered a son who he was barely allowed to see. He often lived in poverty, and went through periods of severe mental illness that led to a suicide attempt. Given his financial difficulties, he would look to Thorpe, the man he blamed for everything that had gone wrong in his life. He was particularly obsessed with his National Insurance card, which he needed to get a job or benefits. Thorpe would wash his hands of his erstwhile lover and he would leave it all to Peter Bessell. By 1974 Thorpe was on the verge of joining a coalition with the Conservative leader Ted Heath, where he might have headed the home or Foreign Offices. That did no happen. Norman Scott would not go away. There were compromising letters and journalists sniffing around. Something would have to be done. Thorpe wanted to have Scott killed.

This is where it all descends into farce. Andrew “Gino” Newton, the man Thorpe’s men chose for the job, was so incompetent that he went to look for Scott in Dunstable instead of Barnstaple. The former town is in Bedfordshire, where Newton would spend a couple of days before he was told he was in the wrong place. He then had to drive 230 miles to the north Devon town, where he finally found Scott. He persuaded him that he had been hired by an anonymous benefactor to protect him from a hired hitman

He too him in his car out to Exmoor First he shot Scott’s Great Dane. He was then going to shoot his intended victim, but his gun jammed and Scott was able to get away. Newton had to speed off and Scott was able to hail down an approaching car. The first thing he said to the driver was that it was Jeremy Thorpe who was behind it all. The shooting of Rinka the Great Dane on October 23 1975 at a wet and windy lay-by on Exmoor had the opposite effect to what was intended. A scandal that may well have gone away would now wreck the career of Jeremy Thorpe. He would subsequently be arrested and would appear in court.

The trial began on the 8th May 1979, just five days after the election that saw Margaret Thatcher swept to power. Incredibly,       Thorpe had stood in his own North Devon constituency, where he was defeated by the Conservative candidate. Another of those standing was the satirist Auberon Waugh who campaigned against Thorpe representing the Dog Lovers’ Party. In an election address declared: “Rinka is not forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof, woof.”

There were four defendants, but only Thorpe faced two charges. Thorpe hired a superstar lawyer, George Carman. He did a brilliant job of discrediting the three star witnesses – Bessell, Scott and Newton- as hypocritical, untrustworthy and amoral liars. Well it is true that they were not perhaps the most credible of witnesses to start with. His other stroke of genius was to persuade Thorpe not to testify. That could have been a real disaster.

The star of the show was the judge, the Honourable Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley. His fair and ballanced summing-up has entered the annals of legal history:

“It is right for you to pause and consider whether it is likely that such persons would do the things these persons are said to have done. While the accused were of “hitherto unblemished reputation,” Bessell was a “humbug” and Newton a “chump”. As for Scott, he was “a hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy… he is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But of course he could still be telling the truth… you must not think that because I am not concealing my opinion of Mr Scott I am suggesting that you should not believe him. That is not for me. I am not expressing any opinion.”

This summing up was brilliantly satirised by Peter Cook in his Entirely A Matter For You sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kyos-M48B8U

After deliberating for 52 hours, the jury unanimously acquitted all four men on all charges. The previously impassive Thorpe broke into a broad smile, tossed the three red cushions on which he had been reclining out of the dock, then leaned over and kissed his wife. ‘Darling, we won!’ he exclaimed to her, while he congratulated his old Oxford chum Carman with the words: ‘Well rowed, Balliol!’

Despite his acquittal, Thorpe’s reputation never recovered and he faded into obscurity. Had all this not happened, Thorpe would now be remembered as one of the most of the great politicians of his era. In an interview not long before his death in December 2014, he remarked: “If it happened now, the public would be kinder.” He is surely right about attitudes to homosexuality – the past was another country. Yet it is amazing that the Rt Hon Jeremy Thorpe seemed blithely unaware that murdering someone might actually be wrong. In 2014 Michael Bloch published biography of Thorpe, which had had to wait until after his death. He said that Thorpe was a man with a massive sense of entitlement, who thought who thought the rules were for little people. He also had a penchant for illicit sex and got a thrill from being able to escape the consequences; he had a Houdini complex. In the end though, Scott would be his nemesis.

 

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A Man Like Putin: the backstory

May 13, 2018

I first heard Someone Like Putin on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. The song, which is performed by the duo Singing Together, first appeared as far back as 2002 and quickly topped the charts in Russia. It went on to become a Putin theme song, and is still played at his rallies. I didn’t realise the fascinating backstory to this catchy propaganda song. This PBS documentary takes a look at how it was created…


Adapting books: turning oxen into bouillon cubes

February 4, 2018

Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes. John le Carré

As an author, you can’t expect a movie to be an illustration of the book. If that’s what you hope for, you shouldn’t sell the rightsBernhard Schlink

When you’re making a movie of a book, people are always waiting with their knives.    Joel Edgerton

A book can be a great friend, an advisor, a means to an end. A book reveals so much more than a movie would ever do. For example, when I watched the movie “The Hours” I was fascinated by the story. Just a year later I decided to read the book. And what was my surprise that I was even more dazzled by its writings than I was by the images… The images in my head were more vivid than the film could ever transport me to that feminine universe that the author was trying (and so successfully granted me) to conceiveAna Claudia Antunes

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Auguste and Louis Lumiere recorded their first footage of workers leaving a factory on 13 February 1895. It didn’t take long for moviemakers to seek out books. It is hard to say which is the first ever adaptation as many silent movies have been lost. There were William K.L. Dickson’s eight short films based on Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. When I say short they seem to have been under a minute. The 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès was inspired by a couple of Jules Verne’s novels, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. It is also frequently referred to as the first science fiction film. In contrast to Rip Van Winkle we the legendary German director Erich von Stroheim’s rendering of a Frank Norris novel Greed. This silent 1924 MGM film was originally 462 minutes long, although it was cut down to 140 minutes for cinematic release. Since these early days there have been many more. But is it a good idea to take a 500-page novel and put it on the silver screen?

For me there are two fundamental disadvantages of adapting books to the silver screen. The first of these is that you have to leave out so much. This is the same argument when you have an abridged audiobook. You have to concentrate on the plot. This is a fine, but there is so much more to a book than this. The larger canvas a novel provides allows the authors to develop their characters. The second obvious drawback is that books let readers use their imaginations. It is invariably a disappointment to see a director’s vision of what we have already imagined. If you really love a book it’s highly unlikely that a film will make you want to be unfaithful. I feel that way about Bonfire of the Vanities. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was another big let-down. You’re much better off with the books or the radio series.

Films do have their advantages too. Imagination is good, but directors can produce some spectacular images. If you add brilliant acting, what’s not to love? What’s more life is short. We don’t have time to read all the books out there. Sometimes I prefer to spend a couple of hours enjoying the film. It is true that once I’ve seen the film I find it almost impossible to read the book. I realise that this is not completely logical as they are often very different. It’s just that I find it difficult to invest the ten hours that a book may well take me. I have read both the Silence of the Lambs and Jaws, and I liked both of them, but I think the films were better.  There are others where I imagine that the film may be better but I can’t be sure as I haven’t actually read the book: The Godfather Psycho and Doctor Strangelove come to mind

I have long thought that TV is a better way to adapt. You do lose some of the cinematic brilliance, but you do avoid the biggest problem the lack of time. This is clearly seen with the TV adaptation of I, Claudius. I love the book, but the TV series is spectacular. It is not for spectacular special effects; what it does have is brilliant acting and the time to develop the story. And in recent years we have seen the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu we now have adaptations with high production values. Over the last few years I have enjoyed a number of excellent adaptations Show Me a Hero, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Night Manager and Decline and Fall. What I like now is that many of the dramas are base on non-fiction. This year we have TV series such as McMafia, Sharp Objects, The Alienist, Fahrenheit 451 and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story to look forward to.

In the end the best option is to enjoy all the different cultural forms. I think there is much choice out there. The only problem is to find the time.

 


My Favourite TV shows of 2017

December 17, 2017

These are fifteen of my favourite TV shows of 2017. Here they are in no particular order:

 

Feud

Fauda

Decline And Fall

The Handmaid’s Tale

Valkyrien

Detectorists

Big Little Lies

The Moorside

Mindhunter

Quacks

Babylon Berlin

Three Girls

OzarkThe State

The State

13 Reasons Why

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I could have mentioned Alias Grace, Halt and Catch Fire, Line of Duty, The Deuce, or The Trip to Spain too. And I have not included any documentaries either. I might feature those in January.


Logos, the good, the bad and the downright obscene

March 26, 2017

Last week I listened to Radiotopia’s magnificent podcast about design 99% Invisible. The particular show featured an interview with award-winning designer Michael Bierut. He is author of How to use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look good, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world, which came out in 2015. He is a partner at Pentagram in New York City and is the man behind the Obama and Hillary’s logos for the last three presidential elections, as well as designing the sign outside of the New York Times building on 8th avenue and these signs outside the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, which elegantly remind dog owners of their responsibilities:

Logo is an abbreviation of logotype. Wanting to identify yourself, your work or your compsny is not new. In the past there were such things as coats of arms, signature seals, watermarks, silver hallmarks and literal brands. The first trademark legislation in England was passed by parliament during the reign of Henry III in 1266 and required all bakers to use a distinctive mark for the bread they sold. Nevertheless, it was the Bass red triangle which would revolutionise international brand marketing. in the 19th century Bass began applying red, blue or green triangles to their casks of Pale Ale depending on which of their three breweries they came from. After 1855 the triangles were all red and on January 1st 1876 the Bass Red Triangle became the first trademark to be registered under the UK’s Trade Mark Registration Act 1875. The rest is history.

Logos come in all shapes sizes and styles. Bierut has identified three types

  1. wordmarks: Google, Disney and Coca-Cola
  2. pictorial logos: Apple, Shell and Mercedes Benz
  3. abstract iconography: Adidas, Chanel and the Nike Swoosh

These are archetypes and a design may have more than one feature. For example, the famous I love NY combines 1 and 2.

The interview on 99% Invisible is called Negative Space Logo Design with Michael Bierut. The concept of negative space is essential for understanding many logo designs. Positive space refers to the areas in a logo that are the subjects, or areas of interest. negative space is area around the subjects. The classic example is the one when you either see two faces or a vase.

If you are seeing a vase, then you are seeing the white area as the positive space. The black areas become the negative space. If you see two faces, then you are seeing the black areas as the positive space and the white area as the negative space.

This allows designers to be very playful in what they do. They can often conceal messages. A famous example is the FedEx logo, which has am arrow between the E and the X:

Many other companies have hidden messagrs in their logos:

Baskin Robbins are famous for their 31 ice cream flavours and you can see the number in the logo:

The first letter in the Pinterest logo resembles a pin:

The Amazon logo has two for the price of one. First, the arrow points from “a” to “z”, suggesting the huge range of goods Amazon offers. And secondly, the entire thing looks like a smiley face:

Logos can be overrated. In the end they derive their meaning and usefulness from the quality of the company or organisation they represent. If a company is second rate the logo will eventually be perceived as a failure. Colour is a key element in logo design and plays an important role in carving out a brand identity. Colours acquire connotations and associations, though these will vary in place ant time. Here is achart I found online which shows how colours are used by companies:

Since the fist appearance of the red Bass triangle in the 19th century logos have conquered the world. but not everyone is happy with this. Sometimes logos can be attacked. One group who have been active for nearly three decades are the Adbusters Media Foundation. The Canadian not-for-profit, anti-consumerist, pro-environment activists are famous for their campaigns – Buy Nothing Day, TV Turnoff Week and Occupy Wall Street. I do not share their ideology but I do enjoy their spoofing of popular companies and advertisements.

Here are a couple of examples:

Sometimes, though, the damage is self-inflicted. One recent example is the logo for Trump Pence in 2016. Onceyou’ve seenit, it is impossible to unsee it :

When logos go wrong, sex is often the cause. Here are some examples that I found online:

Locum – a Swedish real estate company.

Megaflicks

Catholic Church’s Archdiocesan Youth Commission

I do have my doubts if they are all real.   This has been my brief tour of the fascinating world of logo desgn.


A couple of videos

March 26, 2017

Here are a couple of videos about logos:

Michael Bierut talks about what makes a truly great logo.

22 Hidden Messages In Famous Logos


Martin’s quirky movies #5 Confederate States of America

February 12, 2017

csa-moon-landing

Loyal readers of my blog will know that I am a big fan of counterfactual history. In fact I dedicated a blog post to it – In defence of counterfactuals. As well as bringing history to life, they make a serious point: we live in a chaotic, uncertain world. When we study history, we need to be aware that things could have turned out differently. I am also a fan of counterfactual historical fiction. Recently I finished reading The Underground Airlines, the 2016 novel by Ben Winters, set in an alternate United States where the American Civil War never occurred and where slavery is still legal in the “Hard Four” southern states. Reading this book motivated me to go back to a film I had seen more than a decade ago in the days when I would actually go the cinema.

The film I am referring to is C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. It has a similar premise to Winters’s novel. This 2004 mockumentary, directed by Kevin Willmott, imagines a Southern victory with the result of the creation of the Confederate States of America. he film has various elements. What I love is the way Willmott blends reality and fiction. The central conceit of the mockumentary is a fake documentary within a fake documentary. This documentary is produced by the British Broadcasting Service. As it’s supposedly being broadcast on television, it is interspersed with faux commercial breaks.

The sad thing is that many of the products advertised really did exist: Sambo X-15 Axle Grease, Darkie Toothpaste, Gold Dust washing powder, Niggerhair cigarettes and the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant. This type of racism is not so distant. I can still remember the Robertson’s golly or the Black and White Minstrel Show when I was growing up.

There are fake adverts giving a modern take on the slave trade. We have the Slave Shopping Network and its slave auctions:
States of America. The film has various elements. What I love is the way Willmott blends reality and fiction. The central conceit of the mockumentary is a fake documentary within a fake documentary. This documentary is produced by the British Broadcasting Service. As it’s supposedly being broadcast on television, it is interspersed with faux commercial breaks.

The sad thing is that many of the products advertised really did exist: Sambo X-15 Axle Grease, Darkie Toothpaste, Gold Dust washing powder, Niggerhair cigarettes and the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant. This type of racism is not so distant. I can still remember the Robertson’s golly or the Black and White Minstrel Show when I was growing up.

There are fake adverts giving a modern take on the slave trade. We have the Slave Shopping Network and its slave auctions:

And once you have the slave what better than an electronic shackle to keep control of your property:

These ads may be fake, but there was said to be Drapetomania, a mental illness that caused Black slaves to want to flee captivity. It was first diagnosed in 1851 by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright, who said that this disorder was “unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers.” He put it down to masters being overfamiliar with their slaves, treating them as equals:

If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night–separated into families, each family having its own house–not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbours, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed–more so than any other people in the world. If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.

Willmott alluded to Cartwright in another of the ads:

When you create counterfactual history like this, you create an alternate universe. Indeed, there are many differences. The film’s official website contains an expanded timeline of the history of the C.S.A. In this world the Civil War is known as The War of Northern Aggression. President Lincoln is not assassinated at the Ford Theatre, but lived in disgrace until 1905. President William McKinley’s assassin is an abolitionist rather than anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Rosa Parks is identified as a Canadian terrorist and a member of the J.B.U, the “John Brown Underground”. It is the confederate flag which is planted on the moon. Tim McVeigh blows up the Jefferson Memorial in Oklahoma City, with his execution being broadcast on pay-per-view. The “Muslim Menace” looms large. The Gulf Wars become the first and second Crusades, whose goals include regime change, the guarantee of oil supplies, and the conversion of the entire population to Christianity. Perhaps the history is not so alternate after all.

The ultimate message of the film is that maybe the South did win. That many of their attitudes did prevail. This is a complex question. Incredible progress has been made. The idea of an African- American president would have seemed like science-fiction barely a generation ago. The great institutional barriers have gone, but structural inequality is another matter.