BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal

Archives for January 2009

Meeting Alan Bennett

Razia Iqbal | 13:36 UK time, Thursday, 29 January 2009

bennett226.jpgIt has been said about Alan Bennett that he gives interviews about as often as Osama bin Laden. He has been known to grace the airwaves of my wireless from time to time, but a television interview is a rarity. So, when Bennett said yes to an interview for the Ten O'Clock news, I spent a lot of time feeling queasy with nerves.

Television book clubs may have boosted the great reading public's relationship with writing and writers, but there are few living authors who are held in more affection than Bennett. I wonder why that is, given that he keeps himself to himself, doesn't court publicity, and writes about his shyness in a way that makes you utterly live in his head, but with your gaze turned away.

Is it because he is so deliciously funny, or because he is a supremely clever chronicler of a lost and disappearing world? Or perhaps it's because he is a writer who is difficult to fault for consistently engaging in British cultural life.

We talked about a play he wrote nearly 30 years ago, in 1980, called Enjoy, which lasted only seven weeks in the West End - a surprisingly short time for a Bennett play at that time - and resulted in a low period for the writer. The play is about how the last back-to-back house in a part of Leeds is dismantled and placed in a museum by sociologists, one of whom turns out to be the long-lost son of the couple who live in the house. It is unlike Bennett's other naturalistic plays and has a surreal, expressionistic quality.

Enjoy has been revived in the West End, with a stellar cast led by Alison Steadman and David Troughton, and has, remarkably for a serious play, already taken £1m in advance ticket sales. Bennett is naturally surprised and pleased about this, but mostly, I think, feels vindicated by the fact that the play's central thesis - about the way the heritage industry sometimes attempts to preserve and remember the past - has come to pass, and when he wrote the play, even he didn't think he was being prophetic

Watching the play, I found myself thinking about how successfully Bennett has mined his past and his upbringing, and how lovingly he has given voice to working class life and communities, without being either nostalgic or sentimental.

The play is as much about writing as it is about the past, about the purpose of treating one's background as material. Inasmuch as Bennett is interested in talking at all, he is interested in what comes next, rather than looking back, and what comes next is a new play at the National Theatre called The Habit of Art. When I asked him what motivated him to continue to write, he simply replied: "It's just what I do".

Marking a milestone

Razia Iqbal | 17:48 UK time, Monday, 26 January 2009

This month witnesses the 250th anniversary of the British Museum.

A lecture to mark the achievement is available at www.britishmuseum.org and is an instructive and rather moving piece written by Neil Macgregor, who has been running the museum for the last seven years.

In fact, it feels like a template for how museums all over the world should be run. During his tenure at the British Museum, visitor numbers have exceeded all other cultural attractions in the country, with six million visitors a year.

Who, in the face of such numbers can argue against the general public's interest in and engagement with art?

And he has turned what was a financial mess into a shiny diamond. Macgregor's quiet passion for the museum is on display in abundance in the lecture.

And in an age of the soundbite and the pressure to reduce and condense, it is wonderful to see a major cultural leader profess that if the museum has a mission statement, it would be "to complicate the question".

Next month sees a major exhibition open on Iran, the third in a series of exhibitions looking at emperors. This one focuses on Shah Abbas: the re-making of Iran, and underlines Macgregor's desire to forge cultural links with countries which have not enjoyed the warmest of relations with the West.

It is the wisdom inherent in learning about history and what it can teach us about the present and our engagement with the world, which interests Macgregor and his team of curators.

The power of language

Razia Iqbal | 13:24 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

obama_getty.jpgBarack Obama cares about language. His respect for it is evident, and his awareness of its power will be on display and tested today, more than ever. Reading his memoir, Dreams of My Father, it is obvious that throughout his life Obama has turned to books to acquire insight, and his rise to prominence has in large part been built on his skills as an orator. I was struck by Philip Collins' (Tony Blair's former speech writer) dissection of classic rhetoric in this month's Prospect magazine. He says that Obama at his absolute best "combines a poetic form of expression with a poetic compression of meaning, while rarely straying from ordinary language. His speeches do take wing, but the flight comes from the rhythm of the sentences as much as the elevation of the language".

Much has already been made of the self conscious parallels between Obama and the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's ability to move with ease from the heightened and magisterial to the ordinary in his speeches has clearly been a model for Obama. He has admitted he frequently re-reads Lincoln and has been intimidated by his speeches. It is also true that like Obama, Lincoln was a lifelong lover of books. More importantly, he was shaped by what he read, most notably, the Bible and Shakespeare, both of which honed his poetic use of language, as well as his philosophical view of the world. In Fred Kaplan's new biography (Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer), the author examines how Lincoln uses language as a tool to explore and define himself.

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This goes to the heart of what informs Barack Obama and his eclectic literary tastes. This idea of self creation is a singularly American one, and deeply rooted in so much of its literature, so, not surprisingly, it has a hold on Obama's imagination. He said in Time magazine, just a year after he came to prominence at the 2004 Democratic Convention, that the humble beginnings he shared with Lincoln, reminded him of a larger, fundamental element of American life - the enduring belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams.

Through his personal story and as a reader of all those great African American writers, from W E B DuBois, to Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin (to name only a few), Obama understands dislocation, but also sees with a profound clarity that in knowledge lies the freedom to invent a new self. And he has done so, creating a potent symbol of hope for his country, and the wider world.

In writing his speech for today, he has been helped by the youngest chief speech writer in Whitehouse history, 27-year-old Jon Favreau, who Obama describes as his "mind reader". Good speechwriters understand language and have to be in command of it, but great ones understand the context in which it is spoken. More than one billion people on the planet will be listening to Barack Obama today; I have little doubt that the moment will be full of soaring cadences coupled with a great deal of substance.

Poetry for the masses

Razia Iqbal | 14:58 UK time, Monday, 19 January 2009

elizabeth.jpgPoetry is the least flashy of art forms, and rarely gets to sit centre stage. However, tomorrow, with millions of people watching in Washington DC, and an estimated 1.5 billion more around the world on television, 46-year-old Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of African-American studies at Yale, will take to the stage and recite a poem after President Obama gives his inaugural speech.

At that point in the proceedings, people may be desperate for a break, but I suggest we all pay attention.

There are those (George Packer in the New Yorker) who have argued that little in contemporary poetry aspires to speak of, or for, the nation. Others say pop music is a likelier vehicle for that. Well, we've had a display of that already - as Stevie Wonder, Shakira and Usher sang Higher Ground, and Bon Jovi and Bettye LaVette performed Sam Cooke's civil rights anthem, A Change is Gonna Come. And I wish I could have been there when Pete Seeger sang This Land is our Land.

But getting back to Elizabeth Alexander: She is a friend of Barack Obama (is he the first President to count poets among his close friends?) and the indications are she will step up to the mark and impress. She has five books of poetry to her name, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

obamas_getty.jpgWhen asked what she is hoping to accomplish on the day, her answer was instructive: "I am hoping to offer language that will give people a moment of pause. That there is almost a quiet pool in which they are able to stand and think for a moment. I think that's part of what poetry does. It arrests us".

The proof will, of course, be in the poetry.

Previous inaugural poets have not had the most impressive track records. Indeed, Ms Alexander is only the fourth to fill the role. Robert Frost was the first, at John F Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. It wasn't his finest hour, as the sun and wind dazzled him so much that he abandoned the poem he had written for the occasion, and instead recited "The Gift Outright", which he knew by heart.

President Clinton, too, had mixed success with his choices of poet - Maya Angelou the first time and Miller Williams the second (you are forgiven for saying "who he?"). The Republicans, it seems, are poet-phobic.

Walt Whitman once said: "To have great poetry there must be great audiences, too". He may have been talking about the quality of a poet's readership, but tomorrow, Ms Alexander's verse may well be broadcast to more people than any poem ever composed. Will such an historic occasion give rise to historic poetry? The public voice in American poetry of course has its roots in Whitman but, interestingly, the poet who struck a chord the most with Americans after 9/11 was W H Auden, with his chilling: "The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night".

Fortunately for us, Ms Alexander cites Auden as among the poets she has been referencing for her the work she has prepared for this occasion. Others include Virgil, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Gwendolyn Brooks.

For Ms Alexander's poetry to be more than merely ceremonial, she will have to be both affecting and true. Perhaps she could do no worse than allude to John F Kennedy's sentiment when he attended the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst college: "When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. When power leads man towards his arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence."

Oliver's feel-good factor

Razia Iqbal | 14:42 UK time, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

It's not the most obvious feel good story line: a workhouse boy gets sold into virtual slavery, escapes, only to find himself befriended by a thief who exploits homeless children, is threatened by a villain who commits a murder, which is witnessed by the boy.oliver226282.jpg

Perhaps it is just familiarity, but there is something rousing and comforting about the musical Oliver!, and we so want the boy to have his happy ending, that our ability to suspend disbelief is not difficult, as the bleak life of Victorian London contrasts with one fun tune after another.

John Gielgud once described the music from Oliver, as "very amateur, though catchy and appropriate".

However, in the production which is about to open on London's West End stage, no expense has been spared.

At the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with an 80ft deep stage, it as lavish a production as you are likely to see. Even if you thought the music was amateur in conviction and execution, there is nothing amateur about Cameron Mackintosh's Oliver!

It has already broken records, setting a new benchmark for being the most successful West End show to date, taking £15 million pounds in advance ticket sales. With top ticket prices at £60, that is astonishing in itself.

But audiences are likely to flock to this show for the same reason theatre producers put on extravaganzas in the 1930s. People need entertainment, and an antidote to bad times.

And this production will also have wider appeal because of the BBC television show I'd Do Anything, which cast Nancy and the three Olivers.

It also has, in its favour, Rowan Atkinson as Fagin. He is only in it for six months though, being unable to tolerate, as he told me, doing the same thing over and over again. It took Cameron Mackintosh fifteen years to persuade him to take the part.

He doesn't play if for laughs only, though there is perfect comic timing in his performance. There is also villainy aplenty, and he makes much more of Fagin's Jewish identity than other stage versions.

And while any musical version of Dickens' novel will be devoid of the writer's social rage, a new audience, through the television show, is ready made to embrace the tunes..

Red carpet revelry

Razia Iqbal | 12:10 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009

It is often said that winning a Golden Globe - or several - is a good indication of success with that other more coveted golden statuette, the Oscar. The chances that Kate Winslet will defy that cruel American interviewer, who asked her how she would feel about being the most nominated Oscar loser, have just gone up, as she scooped two Globes.

And though Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire was seen as a maverick outsider, that it won in every category it was nominated in, makes it the film to beat come Oscar time. However, bear in mind the following fact: over the past four years, none of the Globes' best picture winners has gone on to win the Academy Award.

When I spoke to Danny Boyle at the beginning of December, he felt that the setting for the story in India was a world so removed from the American Academy, and he wondered shyly if the film would do well in terms of awards. But later in the interview, he put his finger on it when he said it was really a Rocky story and perhaps that is why it has captured the imagination of Americans audiences.

I suspect that the Academy are a sentimental bunch and, this year, Slumdog may be the exception and take the Oscar for best picture. Watching snippets of the Golden Globe ceremony, I thought how strange it must be being an A-list actor nominated for awards: it's where your acting skills have to be at their best.

You have to prepare your face for winning and not look too sore if you lose, and in fact be actively pleased for the winner, even though you are masking terrible disappointment that it wasn't you. And such is the broad appeal of these awards, televised for a gobal audience and then reported in newspapers, magazines and on news bulletins, that your every twitch, smile and demeanour is there for everyone to see and judge.

It's all frothy fun, but of course it's also big business. Winning awards gives any film a huge boost and producers and studios work very hard to persuade those with voting rights in all these ceremonies that their films are the ones to back.

Amidst the business and red carpet revelry, I always feel that awards for works of art are a nonsense. How is it ever possible to judge "the best" in such an endeavour? Of course, it's not, but even I must acknowledge a warm feeling of watching Winslet overcome with emotion.

When I met her to talk about both the films she won for, The Reader and Revolutionary Road, it mattered to her so much that she might win for playing characters which are once in a lifetime experiences. And if more people are exposed to otherwise serious films, then that can only be good for cinema.

Two other wins at the Globes made me smile from ear to ear: the Israeli director, Ari Folman, for his staggering meditation on the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in the animation film, Waltz with Bashir, (best foreign language film) based on his memories as an officer in the Israeli army and A R Rahman, otherwise known as the Mozart of Madras, who won for best original score for Slumdog Millionaire. A genius and a gentleman, who deserves the wider recognition this award will bring.

A lasting legacy?

Razia Iqbal | 18:50 UK time, Friday, 9 January 2009

It is surely questionable to think that designating a city as European capital of Culture for one year will create a renaissance which will be of lasting benefit. Not least there is the knowledge that true capitals of culture are sometimes centuries in the making.

Liverpool, this year's dual European Capital of Culture, along with Stavanger in Norway, hands the baton to Linz, Austria and Vilnius, Lithuania, on Saturday, and while there has been much about Liverpool 08 that will be deemed a success, there is a central truth about using culture to re-generate deprived areas: whatever political parties think, culture isn't a tangible thing that can be imported into a place and it's a risky enterprise to think that it works that way.

The statistics for Liverpool are impressive: 7,000 events took place, involving 10,000 artists and 60 premieres. A defining and memorable highlight was the appearance of a 50 foot mechanical spider weaving its way through the city, causing chaos and intrigue, and involving the interest of many thousands of people.

The appearance also of some of the city's most famous sons: Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Sir Simon Rattle, made its mark and nearly 70,000 school children were involved in a Liverpool 08 project, which was no doubt deemed a gauge of success.

But, in the end, cultural re-generation is about the economy and flashy, irregular cultural events can't sustain the way a city needs to develop if it is to flourish in the long term. Don't get me wrong, cities need culture, but it has to evolve and build on the existing character of a place, not land like an alien and hope to engage with the locals: The Public in West Bromwich is only the most recent disastrous example of that.

A year on, Liverpool can look back on big successes, but there will be many people in Liverpool who will not figure in the statistics, who have not been touched by Liverpool 08, who live in swathes of the city ignored by the capital of culture. They are the ones the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has to think about as he embarks on creating Liverpool as a template for setting up a competition to find a UK city of culture every two years or so.

Life and literature

Razia Iqbal | 14:48 UK time, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

We all know that we are living a lot longer than we used to - and our ageing society poses all kinds of challenges for government and employers.

In this context, it has been alarming to hear what Martin Amis has to say about the elderly. You'll recall that his 1980s novel, Money, painted such a prescient picture of the excesses of capitalism. He now thinks that we have civil unrest to look forward to, as the younger generation realise the elderly are starting to make costly demands on public services, and talks about a "silver Tsunami". Can this bleak picture have any truth in it? I hope he is utterly wrong.

diana_athill.jpgSo, even if it's just for today, put all those stories about elderly people becoming a burden on society to one side, and stand up and cheer for Diana Athill. At the age of 91, she has just won a literary prize - in the biography category of the Costa Book Awards, for her memoir of old age, Somewhere Towards the End.

In a series of interlinked essays, she talks about (amongst other things) atheism, gardening, caring, getting old and death - still such taboo subjects.

I am looking forward to reading it and learning from it. From everything I have read about her glittering career as an editor to the likes of Norman Mailer and John Updike, I am certain that the book is sublimely written and full of her wonderful spirit.

Still waiting...

Razia Iqbal | 17:53 UK time, Monday, 5 January 2009

So, New Year's Eve has come and gone, and while the majority of people will be looking ahead to new resolutions, new plans, new diets, those at the National Galleries of Scotland and in London have been fielding calls from journalists, who are asking for some plain news.

The end of last year was the deadline set for raising £50m to buy Titian's painting, Diana and Actaeon, from the Duke of Sutherland. That deadline has passed with no indication if the money has been raised. As a result, newspapers have been speculating. The Independent rather boldly told us that the campaign has been successful, with a £17.5m grant from the Scottish Executive. But there is no official confirmation of that amount.

The National Gallery in London will only say that very good progress has been made in both the fundraising and negotiation of terms in acquiring the painting. It was the Duke of Sutherland who imposed the 31 December deadline, and what's unclear now, is whether it has been extended.

I am told the initial deadline was for ensuring the money had been secured, and not a for an announcement. So we wait, and while we wait, the speculation over the amount forthcoming from the Scottish Executive has prompted a minor political row over the value of the painting.

Glasgow MP Ian Davidson told BBC Radio Scotland: "It's difficult to argue that this is a part of Britain's cultural heritage, when it's a picture by a long dead Venetian - it's not as if it's Jock McTitian".

There are bound to be many who agree with that sentiment, but I guarantee there will be just as many who think that is narrow-minded and playing to the lowest common denominator for political point-scoring. There was one story I was overwhelmed by, early in the campaign, where a woman had sent in a cheque with a very precise amount, and a note saying she hoped the painting could be saved for the nation. When called by the National Gallery and asked why she had sent such an amount, she said it was her weekly pension.

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