BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal

Archives for November 2008

Taking on Mugabe

Razia Iqbal | 17:58 UK time, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

cont_blog-.jpgThere appears to be little to celebrate in Zimbabwe at the moment.

Political stalemate; economic collapse and now a deepening humanitarian crisis with reports of a cholera epidemic.

Today I spoke to a writer in Zimbabwe, whose story and spirit is heroic and deserves acknowledgement. His name is Cont Mhlanga and he has just become the first recipient of a prize called the ArtVenture Freedom to Create Prize, awarded by a philanthropic organisation funded by a private investment group in Singapore.

He has won $50,000. The money will no doubt be useful. His freedom to create has been curtailed many times in the last 30 years. As a playwright of political satires, Mr Mhlanga has been the target of state surveillance, intimidation, arrest and detention. His life is always in danger. None of this stops him from speaking out.

He said he wished the world would stop talking to Robert Mugabe. He wants the world to listen to the voices of the people, the people whose lives he writes about. He said he writes in the hope that "even one line I have written might give people the confidence to oppose and get rid of once and for all, the man who is responsible for this country's ills".

I asked him if he was worried for his safety by talking to the BBC? Without hesitation, he said: "You don't have to be scared for me. I use my pen to influence people to do the right thing."

Boris and culture

Razia Iqbal | 17:02 UK time, Monday, 24 November 2008

boris_226_getty.jpgHere's a thing: Boris Johnson thinks that one of the most important reasons to support the arts is that "they are an end in themselves. They are not just an add-on to your administration".

The Mayor of London was launching his new Cultural Strategy Group at City Hall, chaired by Iwona Blazwick of the Whitechapel Gallery. He said his policy on the arts was that it wasn't elitist, but was democratic and anti-dumbing down. And he declared that arts and culture can save the economy.

I suspect many would just scoff at that last claim, even though creative industries in the capital account for 12% of employment and bought £21 billion to the capital's output in 2002.

It is good that Johnson thinks the arts are an end in themselves, but it's a pity that some of what he says is likely to create uneccessary divisions between high and low culture. He thinks that institutions should stop patronising young people by giving them hip-hop and movies, and give them access to the fine art instead.

His chief of arts and cultural strategy, Munira Mirza argues that it is too often presumed that young people will only like art they can immediately relate to. But what's wrong with offering kids hip-hop or involvement in film-making, something that might grab them immediately? I'm not saying we shouldn't offer them Shakespeare and opera, too, but don't be surprised if they don't all embrace Hamlet or La Traviata with the same amount of enthusiasm as making a short film about their friends dancing, for instance.

Once a child latches onto the possibility of creativity and the possibility of their imagination, who's to say that the leap from hip-hop to Shakespeare is that huge?

It's the imposition of a particular set of criteria that stifles creativity of any kind, surely?

Should B Of The Bang be saved?

Razia Iqbal | 16:08 UK time, Thursday, 20 November 2008

B of the BangI promised on Tuesday that I would update you after I had spoken to Thomas Heatherwick, the designer who had probably the first major setback of his otherwise rather glittering career.

There won't be a decision from Manchester City Council on what will happen to his B Of The Bang sculpture until next year - and the ball is definitely in the council's court. But it was clear from my conversation with him that he wants to see it saved.

Heatherwick was constrained in what he could say because of the legal settlement. But it was obvious the piece is very dear to his heart. Not least because it's his design, but also because he was a student in Manchester and he passionately believes that exciting choices can be made about our built environment - that cities need things that make them distinctive and that sculpture can play a significant role.

I think that if the council - who, let's not forget, had the ambition to commission his piece in the first place - were willing to fix what has gone wrong, then they have the option to do so with the money from the settlement. They, of course, have to weigh up local sentiment and it continues to be divided pretty much down the middle.

Local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, says the sculpture is set to be pulled down, but that decision is far from certain. The newspaper appears to be presenting what it clearly thinks is the prevailing view: That the sculpture must be removed, and it is running a video entitled D for Disaster. On other Manchester websites, such as Manchester Confidential, postings are full of enthusiastic support of the work.

Public art gets people involved. It's meant to, and passion is an important part of that debate.

Strictly surreal

Razia Iqbal | 18:19 UK time, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

It is, to say the very least, a slightly surreal sight, watching John Sergeant, broadcaster and former political editor, holding a news conference about his decision to quit the light entertainment/reality television show, Strictly Come Dancing.

He said the prospect (quite real apparently) of him winning a competition in which he is without question the worst dancer, would be a joke too far, even for him.

It's an honourable position, I suppose, in the context of being true to a definitition of how a competition works. He has clearly enjoyed his time in the limelight and has provided great, clean fun on a Saturday night.

I was struck a few days ago by another political correspondent (also formerly of this parish), Nick Jones, saying that John Sergeant understood that to become a good political correspondent you have to become a celebrity. Do you? John Sergeant is obviously good at spotting opportunities to re-invent himself and many people in the country have taken him to their hearts.

But I suspect that even among fans of this show, there may be those who will argue that our culture has stooped so low in our worshipping at the altar of celebrity, that a frothy, enjoyable light entertainment show should become a focus of national debate.

I literally bumped into a woman today at the National Gallery, who was walking into the special room where Titian's Diana and Acteon painting is hanging. She overheard me talking about John Sergeant stepping down from Strictly and she was crestfallen. It was a genuine "watercooler" moment, which made me smile. What a pity for the National Gallery in London and Edinburgh, that talk of Titian comes very low down the pecking order of national conversations.

Another aspect of this which is lost in the razmatazz, is to do with the pursuit of interactivity. And this may come back to bite. The majority of those who have posted on BBC message boards, think this is a stitch up and want John Sergeant to stay in the show.

There is a sense of ownership when people get involved with broadcasters, and the tenor of the emails is that if the public vote means anything, then their votes should be respected. Obviously, no one can be forced to dance on a Saturday night, but John Sergeant's decision to walk away from the competition has prompted a suspicion amongst viewers, that he may have been forced to step down.

It is just a show, but people take their involvement with it seriously; this is as much about that as it is about entertainment.

A generous gesture

Razia Iqbal | 10:18 UK time, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

We are approaching the 31 December deadline for raising £50m for the Titian painting, Diana and Actaeon, and the good news today is that the National Heritage Memorial Fund is contributing £10m.

Not everyone will agree it is good news though.

The campaign is gaining a head of steam, but some big fish have weighed in, such as Sir John Tusa - chairman of the University of the Arts in London and former managing director of the Barbican arts centre - to say such campaigning is a distraction from other good causes, like securing a future for the UK's most talented art students.

And the argument over whether it is of national importance that the painting stays in the UK isn't exactly raging, but murmuring. The artist Bridget Riley weighs in today with her support. Will it be an arts catastrophe if the painting is lost to private hands?

'B' for bother?

Razia Iqbal | 13:57 UK time, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

B Of The BangIt's not a good day for the artist Thomas Heatherwick, who, along with his sub contractors, must find £1.7m to pay damages to Manchester City Council for his disintegrating sculpture, B of the Bang.

I met Thomas in 2005. That was when B of the Bang was touted as one of the most exciting pieces of public art around. He was so enthusiastic about the piece. And he had good reason. Named after something the athlete Linford Cristie had said about leaving the blocks "on the 'B' of the Bang" of the starter pistol, it is a 180-tonne starburst of metal spikes, redolent of that explosion of energy at the beginning of a race.

heatherwick.jpgIt looked like a major engineering feat, but then bits started falling off, and a public work of art had to be cordoned off for the safety of the public. Around that time, Heatherwick was being talked about by many as a man with a glittering future and international commissions were coming his way thick and fast.

It is hard to categorise Heatherwick: his work involves artistic ideas, innovation, engineering and design knowledge. This is a major blow to him and I suspect he is profoundly disappointed. The damages alone could set him back years, though it's not clear how much he has to pay and how much the sub-contractors will pay.

But it doesn't have to be disastrous in creative terms. Heatherwick is an original thinker and this setback shouldn't prompt people to write him off. I'm hoping to speak to him this afternoon so I'll update you later.

Meeting Angelina

Razia Iqbal | 10:42 UK time, Thursday, 13 November 2008

An interesting thing about interviewing A-list Hollywood celebrities is that you are rarely left alone with them. And they don't come more A-list than Angelina Jolie.

I went to New York to talk to her about her new film, Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood. We had our own suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and the luxury of a full 25 minutes with Ms Jolie.

jolie_changeling226.jpgUsually, the PR company, who are paid by the distributors of the film, arrange filming with obvious publicity shots of the film behind the interviewee, and control the amount of time with a star - routinely between four and seven minutes, strictly timed. The room is usually full of people, make-up artists; publicists; those who hold the stopwatch and tell you when to wrap up. The level of control is staggering.

Moments before Angelina (celebrity culture breeds a rather odd familiarity) arrived, a young woman came into the room and said in a contrived, casual manner: "Oh by the way, no personal questions, please".

I more or less ignored her. Although there had been much in the press about how she was losing weight (she had just recently given birth to twins) and how there were rumours of an estrangement between her and the father of her children, Brad Pitt, and naturally, the PR really wanted to avoid stories about her life, but focussed instead, on the film, I also knew that I would do what I always do: gauge how comfortable the interviewee is with any question, let alone a personal one.

And then, she walked in. I interview a lot of very famous people and am not prone to be being star-struck. But I was nervous, because the level of management in the movie business can turn perfectly nice, ordinary people into aloof, prima donnas. And there was the added anxiety of control.

But she walked in alone, and we were without any PR interference for the entire interview. I am sure that is partly why Angelina Jolie was relaxed, engaging and the kind of person I could easily have spent a day with, just shooting the breeze.

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And for all the constraints of such interviews imposed by PRs, she mentioned Brad in her first answer, talked about her children and the importance of family life to her, and how she really will not carry on acting for very much longer. She plans to do fewer and fewer movies and more and more work with children's charities around the world, which has given her more purpose than she ever had.

She is one of the least controlled celebrities I have met, and it accounts for the ease she conveys. Obviously, she lives in a rarefied world, far removed from ordinary life for the majority, but the encounter proved to me that she revealed a down-to-earth quality which may otherwise have been lost or muted, had there been zillions of people faffing around her.

First Night: Gethsemane, National Theatre

Razia Iqbal | 12:32 UK time, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Gethsemane Sir David Hare is the shining knight of political theatre, so when he writes a new play, it is often viewed as a theatrical Event with a capital 'E'.

His new play, Gethsemane, which opened at the National theatre last night, comes with a fair amount of pre-publicity. It features a cast of characters who bear a strong resemblance to cabinet members and close confidantes of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Sir David, though, is adamant that Gethsemane is pure fiction - and that is true, at least in the sense that the dialogue is all imagined.

This is his third play at the National to draw on public events. The first, Permanent Way, was pure fact, transcribed. Stuff Happens, about the events which led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was one third transcribed and two thirds imagined.

None of this really matters. What does matter is that, this time, Sir David has chosen to tackle the prescient topic of the separation of Politics from Vision.

The Home Secretary, Meredith Guest (Tamsin Grieg, once again showing how deftly she can hold an audience) is married to a wealthy businessman, whose "innovative" portfolio has resulted in him facing charges in a country where English is not spoken. Their teenage daughter, Suzette (brilliantly played by Jessica Raine), is caught smoking dope. The party's chief fundraiser, Otto Fallon (Stanley Townsend, surely informed by Lord Levy, former chief fundraiser and close friend of Tony Blair) uses his influence to keep a lid on the story. To make matters murkier, Suzette is embroiled in a sex scandal involving, among others, a journalist - who, although prevailed upon to keep quiet, exposes the whole story.

Sir David HareYou know you are in a David Hare play when the opening sees a character swathed in flattering light, walking onto the stage and addressing the audience directly about belief and doubt. She is Lori, (Nicola Walker), an idealistic former teacher and the moral conscience of the piece. Her husband, Mike, (Daniel Ryan) works for Otto Fallon, but by the end of the play is disillusioned with the dubious practices at the heart of fund-raising.

It is possible to see this play and spend the evening wondering which real person really said what; and what storylines are conflated together to create an entertaining mix of the machinations of powerful people in business, politics and the media. But that would be to miss Sir David's point. He wants us to ponder on whether it is unreasonable to expect a higher calling in politics than mere survival and possibly benefiting financially from getting into bed with big business. He doesn't have many answers, but he poses important questions and reminds us that theatre can feel vital as an artform.

More on the Babylon exhibition

Razia Iqbal | 12:06 UK time, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A look at the British Museum's Babylon exhibition, which opens to the public tomorrow.

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British Museum's tough message

Razia Iqbal | 17:45 UK time, Monday, 10 November 2008

babylon.jpgSince Neil MacGregor took the helm at the British Museum more than five years ago, he has become Britain's chief cultural ambassador. His mission: To take the museum to the world.

The institution already has one of the greatest collections of world artefacts on the planet, and to consider them collectively is to ponder on the whole achievement of humanity. So, when it joins forces with the Louvre in Paris, and the Pergamon in Berlin, you know you're in for a treat.

And so it is with Babylon: Myths and Realities. Focussing closely on the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605 - 562 BC), it explores the truth of the stories of Babylon. When Nebuchadnezzar's ziggurat was the centre of the world, his empire stretched from Gaza in the west, to the Persian Gulf in the east, from Armenia in the north to the Arabian desert in the south.

The gems in the exhibition need close examination in order for them to shine, but it's worth the effort. This was the civilization which gave the world its first legal code; written language; weights and measures; the use of the number 60 to subdivide measurements of time and early examples of astrology.

And then, what hits you in the final room of the exhibition is the tragedy of what is happening in what is present-day Babylon, southern Iraq. The British Museum does not mince its words. It accuses the coalition troops who are serving there of having caused irreversible damage to what it describes as one of the world's most important archaeological sites.

The extent of this destruction is made public for the first time in the exhibition. After the fall of Saddam, many historic sites were looted by Iraqis, hunting for antiquities; Babylon was spared that fate, only to fall to a worse one, from which the Museum says it will never recover: Occupation by more than 2,000 soldiers.

It was the digging of long trenches for military purposes, levelling areas of the site, driving vehicles around it, establishing a helipad in one of the most famous sites of the ancient world that the Museum regards as scandalous.

The institution has been politically prescient in many of its shows, from the 2005 Persian exhibition to capturing the mood of terracotta diplomacy in its China blockbuster, The First Emperor. This exhibition is contained and detailed, but hits its target very hard.

[You can get a taste of the exhibition in our audio slideshow]

Love is in the air

Razia Iqbal | 09:38 UK time, Wednesday, 5 November 2008


I love the idea that the economic downturn has fuelled a sharp increase in sales for Mills and Boon, don't you?

Romance, it seems, is recession proof and it appears millions of us want a happy ending. And that is just what you get with Mills and Boon, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The company, which began as a general fiction publisher, is thriving. UK monthly readership is more than 1.3 million. A Mills and Boon book is sold every 3 seconds in the UK.

All those Booker shortlisted authors and winners must weep at such statistics. It might feel terribly old fashioned, but the Mills and Boon romantic ideal is still alive.

There must be something in the air with happy endings, as the Barbican this week hosts the European premiere of the original Prokovfiev score of Romeo and Juliet, with a Mark Morris-choreographed production.

The original score was banned because the composer dared to alter Shakespeare's ending to a happy one - and it was deemed to be too modern.

Well, these days it appears, happy endings are just what the doctor ordered.

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