Tuesday, 11 February 2014


Sunday 9th February saw the feature-length pilot episode of cop drama Babylon on Channel 4. If you're reading this soon after the event, then you can still watch Babylon on 4od here.

The trailers had been fairly funny, but in common with most films and tv I'd expected the actual show to be pretty poor, with its only decent parts used up in the advertising. In particular it seemed inconceivable that James Nesbitt would turn in a decent performance as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, or that his character would be anything other than a very negative caricature given that the show was directed by Danny Boyle.

So it was with a smile that I realised, an hour in, that actually I was rather enjoying myself. I'm not a police officer and it's not something that's ever appealed to me, but I've spent a great deal of time with cops both on-duty and off. There were many things that the writers got absolutely, almost scarily, correct. The inane humour, born of over-familiarity and boredom, was exactly right - some parts of the show felt like they could be a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The first half hour of overtime is indeed "for the Queen", and the Two Chairmen pub, less than two minutes from the real Scotland Yard, certainly does serve up really, terribly, bad pies.

In short, this is a show that deserves a full series. Yes, it might still tank, especially if the writers burnt all their decent material in the pilot, but it's well worth a punt. What I really hope is that the decision to air a pilot on British tv is one small step towards American-style television production, where good enough shows win money for a pilot and, if considered better than the majority of their peers in that season, get further funding to go on and create a fantastic series with really high value production specs. Sniff all you like at the country or the medium, but America has given us the world's best tv, from The West Wing, Prison Break and Dexter to The Wire, Breaking Bad and Homeland by way of Modern Family and 30 Rock. Unlike British tv, they don't run out of steam after 6-12 episodes, and unlike Scanditele they don't take 500 hours to investigate one dead bloke. We could learn a lot, and I really hope that this is the first sign of something good happening to British tv.

On the obvious lure of unions

This is based on something I first posted in September 2010

I don't belong to a union, I never have and I doubt I ever will. The strikes of last week and the one that has been called off today are pointless because the unions will not achieve their Luddite objectives. All that such strikes achieve is that RMT/TSSA members lose pay for no reason and most Londoners and commuters are severely inconvenienced. Believe me, familiarity breeds contempt: there are many things about the unions and the way they go about things that leave me fuming.

However, disagreeing with a strike is very different from disagreeing with the right to strike. I've always thought that you'd be a fool not to realise that there are several obvious reasons why people join unions. The very reason LU staff enjoy a secure job with good pay and benefits is because of union action. People in other industries and the private sector used to have unions, but gave them up in the good times when their wage packets were growing by the month. Wages in the unionised public sector didn't grow exponentially in that time, but when the 2008 crash happened they kept their value while those in other industries went down with the ship.

Today, in our greed-driven policy environment, people in non-unionised companies and sectors wonder why they have lower pay than they deserve and why they have jobs which are at the whim of their senior managers. Instead of doing something about it, instead of blaming their poor choices and their historic greed, they choose to attack those who played the long game and did better out of it.

You don't get to keep your job and lifestyle the way it is by rolling over. Everyone else saying "that's not fair, we can't protect ourselves so why should you?" will not make union members think "oh yes, how right you are". Having witnessed what has happened in other industries which no longer have union representation, they will only redouble their efforts.

So there you have it. Don't like your salary? Have a worthless pension? Disagree with the right of LU staff to strike? If you answered yes to all those questions then unfortunately, you're either stupid, or a hypocrite.

One final thing. If you think that public image, media coverage and spin is the be all and end all, then you have probably said or thought at some point in the last couple of weeks "what does Bob Crow hope to achieve? Every Londoner hates him". What you need to realise is that Bob Crow doesn't give two hoots about you, or your opinion. His constituency is his members, not Londoners at large. He got to where he is through crony-only votes in tiny-turnout elections, but that's what counts. It's precisely why he can sleep so easily, even in the Rio sunshine, despite your disapproval.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat

An interesting letter appeared in Spanish daily newspaper El País on Wednesday which sums up quite nicely my thoughts about the reaction to the Santiago de Compostela rail crash. I feel it is worth reading in its entirety, and so I hope that neither the author nor El País will mind that an inconsequential English blogger has translated and republished the letter in full below:

In a country where we use the term "the presumption of innocence" on a daily basis in reference to the ever increasing number of cases of corruption which become apparent, the whole world - starting with the Interior Minister - has laid the blame of the crash near Santiago at the door of the driver.

I do not know this man and I do not wish to defend him, but all the precise causes of the derailment are not yet known. I believe that the speed was excessive, but I also believe that a disaster of such magnitude has to be the result of a confluence of different factors and not speed alone.

It is necessary to ascertain why all the signal-activated alarms and brakes that should have alerted the driver did not function, and why the entrance to this station was built on such a curve. Let us not condemn anyone without getting all of the facts straight: let us give him, like all the others, the opportunity of "the presumption of innocence".

My sincerest thoughts and sympathies go to all the families of the victims of this tragedy.

Paloma Díaz Sanz, Pozuelo de Alarcón, Madrid

Monday, 29 July 2013


The worst thing about the Spanish rail crash is that it should not have been possible in 2013.

When a disaster of this kind occurs it is easier for everyone to say "it was a accident waiting to happen"; for the papers to scream "Rail chiefs (hospital chiefs / education chiefs / army chiefs &c.) were told 94 times about failings in x, y and z". It is less easy, less palatable, to witness a crash the causes of which it should no longer be possible to create.

Since its inception, the rail industry's general approach to safety appears to have been one of trial and error. Rail travel is today the safest mode of transport, for the passenger at least, but this is only because so many people have died in such a wide variety of crashes since man first put wheels on to rails. After every disaster, we try to design out the cause from the way in which we run the railways. People die, but we tell ourselves this is not in vain because no-one will die again for that reason.

But this has happened before. I blogged a couple of months ago about the Moorgate Crash, after which the inquiry said that London Underground should install automatic modes of protection to its trains to ensure that they stop when they ought to and only ever travel at the correct speed. Since then, railways across the world have installed safety systems which either involve a computer controlling every last movement of the train or, more commonly, still require a person to drive the train but with the safety net of a computer which will stop the train if that driver overspeeds or passes a signal at danger.

Spain's very modern AVE high speed rail network utilises a version of the second system, so what went wrong? Certainly it would seem that the driver failed to brake the train as he should have done, although without having seen the black box download we don't know that for sure. He has been arrested, charged and bailed in a move which looks uncomfortably like scapegoating, and the Interior Minister's comment yesterday that "there are perfectly rational reasons for arresting him" makes it seem that he feels the need to defend against such accusations. Why did overspeed protection not kick in? Is it in use on AVE, and if not, why not?  Why, after a straight run of some eighty kilometres followed by a sharp cut in the speed limit to a reported 80kph (50mph), was the fate of a trainload of people left to the judgement of a single human being? Why have more people died and been maimed because of a systemic fault that we identified and thought we had rectified so many years ago?

Investigating the actions of the driver is of course the right thing to do, and it is possible that the charges brought against him will stick. But unless the investigation looks seriously at why the system failed so catastrophically, not only will any successful prosecution of the driver be a serious miscarriage of justice, we will be leaving the door open to exactly the same thing happening again.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Review: "A Taste of Contemporary Catalan Theatre" at Arcola

The Arcola Theatre is an impressive little place in a distinctly unlovely part of east London. It is bigger than it first appears, the main building housing a large bar room and two studios, while a big top-style tent makes for an innovative space thirty metres down the road. When we arrived, the bar was buzzing with people excitably waiting for the Sons without Fathers, a Chekhov adaptation that looks pretty good.

Unfortunately as it turned out, we were not there to see the Checkhov, but the Sirera and the Soler. Believe me when I tell you that this blog is the first and last time those three names will ever be mentioned in the same sentence again. A Taste of Contemporary Catalan Theatre is an evening of two mercifully short plays which run back to back.

When we entered the tent, the substantial Spanish- (not Catalan-) speaking cohort who were sat all around us could not stop commenting on how guay (cool) the tent was as a setting. By the time the evening had come to an end, the overused word of the moment had changed to aburrido (boring, tedious), and I feel that this Castillian contrast mirrors my own feelings perfectly.

Rodolf Sirera's The Audition takes as its basis a topic which would make for a half-interesting five minute conversation and spins this out to an hour of theatre. A mad marquis has summoned a famous stage actor to his residence. After dressing as and pretending to be a valet while keeping the young and arrogant man waiting for over an hour, the marquis sheds his disguise and challenges the actor to perform a scene from a play that he, the marquis, has written.

The scene is a death scene, and it is the marquis' theory that actors are incapable of acting "correctly", that is to say truthfully, unless they are actually going through the emotions of their character. Empathy or sympathy with the character is not enough. To test this, the marquis has the actor play his role when there is nothing wrong with him, and then again after he has been poisoned and reasonably believes that death is imminent, though not a certainty as the marquis holds a bottle of "antidote".

The actor fails both auditions: the first, because he was simply "acting"; the second because while he felt close to death, because he still had hope he could not feel (and therefore could not act) entirely hopeless.

As a five minute conversation, it may be half-interesting to discuss whether actors can ever really act "truthfully" as if they really were their character, or to discuss whether this even matters. After that five minutes though, surely both parties would agree that there are far more pressing and interesting things to discuss, and move on. Sirera fleetingly examines the attitudes of people towards others depending on social class before appearing to bore even himself and move on without mentioning this motif again, and by the time the actor playing the actor has convulsed for a final time and died you get to wondering whether the object of Soler's exercise all along was to see if he could demonstrate what he was talking about by giving his audience a reasonable fear of death by boredom. The two stage hands who dragged the corpse off a couple of minutes in to the interval garnered a longer round of applause than the play.

In hindsight I suppose that I, as an institution-loving democracy junky, was never going to like Against Democracy. Even so, the sheer crushing awfulness of Esteve Soler's play rather took me aback. Written as seven sketches, this is hysterical leftyism at its most amusing. In the first sketch, an expectant couple make small talk about how poor their local council is at providing parking (no, really) while stuck to a giant spider's web. After the woman's waters break, she ends up giving birth in their car because the traffic is so bad, but unbeknownst to her she has brought in to the world some form of humanivore arachnid which then proceeds to eat both parents alive.

In another sketch, two parents wake their 18 year old son in the middle of the night to tell him that his conception was a mistake, that his years on this earth have been unprofitable, and that they will have to "let him go". Out comes the revolver and he is shot dead.

Later on, Dick Cheney and King Leopold II of Belgium are drinking in a bar, though the barmaid won't serve them as she knows who they are and finally plucks up the courage to call them "scum".

All the sketches rant about capitalism and democracy, and a couple even feature economists. The problem with this play is that while it deliberately tries to shock - the production company's website brags that "the audience’s laughter will soon stick in their throats" - it fails to do so because the arguments and the analogies are so clichéd, so endlessly rehashed, that they cause the eyes to glaze over.

As we left the tent, a man behind us likened the experience of watching Against Democracy to "being hit again and again by a sledgehammer of playground morality". If this is award-winning Catalan theatre, perhaps for the sake of the arts alone Catalunya should remain a part of that Iberian cultural powerhouse it affects to despise.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Value for Money

In Cumbria earlier this week, I paid five pounds per single ticket for a ten minute journey on a bus that had taken 40 minutes to arrive. Londoners: you don't know you're born.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Life Ending Arguments

The BBC website today carries a story on its homepage about a young man killed by a train after an "altercation", which the British Transport Police are treating as suspicious. This case looks decidedly fishy and like the young man who died was being hassled, mugged or attacked. The sad and, for me, unfathomable truth though is that many people end up on our tracks and those of Network Rail not because they are being hassled, or because they are mentally ill or pushed or tripped, but because they have just had an argument with their other half. The incident last week at Highbury and Islington on the Victoria line, which some of you may have been caught up in, was just such an event. The woman who ended up under the train had jumped on to the track because she had been having an argument with her boyfriend, who looked on in horror from the platform. Miraculously, she was entirely unscathed, but others have not been so lucky. At Wimbledon last year, this time on the mainline, a man and woman were having a blazing row when she dropped her mobile phone. She followed it on to the tracks after ignoring, in her rage with him, her boyfriend's pleas not to do so, and was hit by a fast train on its way to London. There are several more instances of this I could tell you about, each as sad and frankly incomprehensible to me as those discussed here. All the cases I know of involve women being the ones to get on to the track, and in none of cases were they sectioned afterwards. Is this really something that a perfectly sane person is capable of doing in the heat of an argument? I am certainly no stranger to fierce rows, but would like to think - wouldn't we all? - that it would never come to this.