“Only One Sexist Comment”

kuenssbergOkay, so yes, Laura Kuenssberg is exhibiting political bias.  That’s one problem for and about the BBC for sure.  But, so are many journalists. When Nick Robinson was attacked by Scottish Nationalists for his Indyref reporting, there were several petitions which didn’t attract many signatures.  One on change.org gained 19,000, although it didn’t reach its target, compared to the speedily reached 35,000 on the now removed 38 Degrees petition calling for Laura Kuenssberg’s sacking.  And the Robinson petition asked for his suspension, not for him to lose his job and whole career. Go figure.

The question is, what is the appropriate level of response to this bias? And it is not insignificant that we’re having this conversation about the BBCs first female political editor.

This morning, blogs and news sources are sharing this link to the comments on the removed petition – stating that only one comment was sexist, and therefore it shouldn’t have been taken down.

Aside from the more extreme defamatory language used about Kuenssberg, especially on Twitter,  a quick skim of these comments (I haven’t included all of them) reveals more than one sexist, gender biased statement, such as:

‘She almost spits and gurns whilst attacking them. She was at it again last night!’

‘She is entirely bias towards the Tory Party, Cameron in particular I think they may have had or are having a thing. There is definitely something there’

‘The bias this woman shows on repeat is repugnant.’

‘Laura is not a political commentator. But she can be a very good gossip columnist’

‘this woman is an insult to the general populace’s intelligence and spouts utter drivel.’

‘She sucks badly’

‘The woman is an utter disgrace’

‘She’s a Jewish extremist.’ (Oh, so a bit of anti-semitism in there too.)

‘She’s a Scottish cow who should keep her name out of UK politics.’

‘mad woman’

‘Like a whippet curled up in the lap of George Osborne. He feeds her a Corbyn bone and she gnaws at it savagely.’

‘She is a self centred witch’

‘daddy donates to red tories..’

‘Look at that mouth. It matches the rhetoric.’


‘she’s rubbish – bring back Nick Robinson’ (Who also has a politically biased opinion … but is safely male?)

‘If she were an ex-, you’d have taken out a restraining order – her Twitter feed reads like a stalker obsessed with Corbyn.’

So only one sexist comment, then?

We should have a zero tolerance approach to any form of sexist language. Here we have the continual reference to ‘this woman’ (would you say ‘this man’?), the comments on her physical appearance, her father, clear sexual innuendo and the old favourite, comparing her to a witch (witch-hunt anyone?). It’s the same effect as calling girls and women ‘bossy’.  The language is based in negative gender assumptions, and it creates a negative discourse.

It’s a very significant issue that we think we can talk about women in this way (and defend others talking about women in this way).  Arguably, this is actually a bigger, more destructive and socially ingrained problem than one person’s reporting of one politician.  Because if we let this way of speaking continue, about any woman, whatever her perspective, it harms all women, for a long time, and shapes the language we use about women in all contexts.  Check yourself!  And the language you use and support.

“In Memoriam Sherlock”

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on the run. Hiding in a damp alleyway somewhere in the back-end of Marylebone, they catch a breath, handcuffed together, and regroup. James Moriarty, Sherlock’s greatest enemy, has framed the world’s only consulting detective for a string of crimes, all of which he purported to solve; even his closest allies within the police force are now doubting that their erstwhile collaborator was ever anything more than an elaborate, sociopathic conman. “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever,” Sherlock reflects. “A lie that’s preferable to the truth: my deductions were a sham. No-one feels inadequate, Sherlock’s an ordinary man.” Sherlock Holmes knows that we want him to be humbled.

Efforts to topple the great detective from his self-selected lofty heights have a long vintage. They began with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who famously attempted to rid his career of the success that had so blighted it by sending Holmes careering off the edge of a cliff; it is a need which has continued to be fulfilled right to the present day, in manners as disparate as Michael Chabon’s in The Final Solution or Mitch Cullin’s in A Slight Trick of the Mind, both of which imagine Holmes in his creaking senescence, and Matt Frewer’s in four TV movies for the Hallmark Channel, in which Holmes is a joke of a character, zany and cartoonish in a fashion that renders him a laughable caricature. Attempts to humanise Holmes – Rupert Everett’s turn in The Case of the Silk Stocking – or to uncover his psychology – Nicholas Meyer‘s The Seven Per Cent Solution –  have the same ultimate end: to find a chink in Holmes’s armour, and to prise him open.

It is to the credit of the latest series of Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s reimaginng of Conan Doyle, that it takes this trope and uses it for another purpose: to, on the contrary, re-affirm Holmes’s other-worldliness. To one extent or another, the gambit may be slightly weakened by its similarity to the plot of Moffat’s most recent season of Doctor Who, in which a disassociated super-being with few meaningful relationships has only one option if he is to avoid the power of his own myth: fake his own death (and here Benedict Cumberbatch’s pitch-perfect Sherlock is given in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ the motivation of Holmes’s creator), and recede from the immortal limelight. On the other hand, and with a hat tip to the reputedly “preternaturally urbane” Graham Sleight, I’ve been mulling over Jon Blum’s post about ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’, the first of the latest Sherlock trilogy, and along with much of the rest of his analysis tend to agree that beneath the surface resemblance between the Doctor and Sherlock beat three quite different hearts.

In fact, let’s begin with the Belgravian imbroglio. As Blum points out, the episode caused some consternation, since many viewers felt its depiction of Irene Adler – a character who appeared in the first of Conan Doyle’s short stories, got married, and left again – fell short in its gender politics of a literally Victorian forebear. Moffat’s Adler is a professional dominatrix with a string of high-profile clients (an earlier age may euphemistically have called her an ‘adventuress’) who seeks security not from a twist of gold around her finger but by blackmailing the British state. When Holmes arrives at her home, dressed as in the original story as a doddery clergyman, this Adler sees through him; when Holmes tricks her into revealing the location of her hidden valuables, this Adler has booby-trapped the safe; and, when orchestrating her escape, this Adler has no need to dress as a man and do a moonlight flit – she incapacitates Holmes, using his body against him.

That Adler is ultimately and rather triumphantly defanged is also true; but, it seems to me, her role is not to defeat the series’ hero (since nor does she achieve this in the source text): it is, in a manner far more potent than a few Watsonian lines at the end of a story, to test and undermine his commitment to reason and rationality (a characteristic so fundamental to the Holmes character that even Guy Ritchie’s foppish iteration shares it). Holmes’s feelings for Adler – again, so much more far-reaching and plainly stated than in the source text – lead even he to question the central, Spockish tenets of his existence. All limbs and rolling eyes, crashing to the floor, Holmes is out of control not because he cannot solve a puzzle, which of course he may always do at the very last minute, but because he has been incapacitated, literally brought low.

Likewise, in ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ (the first of two titles this season which play with plurals), Holmes is confounded by the barrier which exists between the world and his mind. In this case, his senses are assaulted by a non-corporeal influence, glimpsing a gigantic hound on the moors – even though, as he insists, ‘hound’ is an archaic term wildly out of place in a world of SMS and first-name-terms, and despite the fact that, to paraphrase Jeremy Brett’s dyspeptic Holmes of ‘The Last Vampyre’, “werewolves don’t exist!” How to respond, then, to a problem which does not yield to the rationalistic observation method Sherlock brings to bear upon every problem? He is for a while at a loss, and confesses an extended moment of real doubt to John (a masterful Martin Freeman, who will not receive the attention of Cumberbatch but deserves all the plaudits). Holmes – naturally – ultimately solves the mystery. But he does so by passing through a Gethsemane, and the audience enjoys it. We – and here we should sigh a sad, patronised, joyless sigh – ‘identify’.

All of this leads to a new kind of precipice, both figurative and literal: Sherlock, defeated and check-mated, is goaded to self-annihilation by Moriarty, atop the roof of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital. At the end of an episode which gleefully retells The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first of Basil Rathbone’s appearances as the detective and the source both of the courtroom drama and the Tower of London heist, the site of Sherlock’s first contact with John is refigured as an alternate location for what Conan Doyle long ago wished would be his last. The Reichenbach fall of the title, however, is not a torrent of water but a movement from unconquerable rescuer of a stolen Turner to potential suicide standing at the edge of a tall building as his greatest enemy brands him a less than worthy adversary. “I’m disappointed in you, ordinary Sherlock,” groans Moriarty, chagrined that even his finest adversary is, in the final analysis, no match for his genius – just normal, just human. Just a sham.

Of course, all that follows  – with different moves, but the same shape as Conan Doyle’s original Swiss tango – exists, as it exists in the real world which so confounded Conan Doyle’s assumption that Sherlock Holmes was mortal, to disprove Moriarty’s thesis. Sherlock, like Holmes, is extra-ordinary, capable of evading certain death, of solving every puzzle, of championing the power of human faculty. This is how we should understand and embrace him – not as an impossible ideal, a tabloid celebrity whom we, like Katherine Parkinson’s Kitty Reilly, are desperate to tear back down (see that issue with Moffat and women? It’s there, but let’s leave it for another day). Sherlock Holmes offers us necessary hope: we leave Freeman’s John walking into a bleak landscape of duller colours, having begged a tombstone to perform one last restorative miracle.

Across the churchyard, hidden and unseen – but prepared, like another figure of British legend, to return when we are most in need him – Sherlock Holmes, unhumbled, abides.

“Heaven Make Me Free Of It”: Doran and Tennant’s Hamlet

"Should I gurn yet, Gregory?"

I had a ticket to see David Tennant’s Hamlet at Stratford. Work commitments and the vagaries of the British rail network meant I had to leave my seat vacant, though – so hurrah for the BBC, who on Boxing Day aired a 3 hour film version of Gregory Doran’s production.

‘Film version’ over-emphasises the concessions to the medium made in transition: there are no real camera tricks here (a few shots of the action seen in CCTV footage notwithstanding), and the frames hold langurously to the actors and their lines. What mininal reaction shots there are are beautifully chosen – early on, for instance, Tennant’s face is shown several times as Claudius speaks of his grief. Occassionally, too, characters speak direct to camera, though tastefully always during soliloquys and always fleetingly – “Aye, there’s the rub,” Tennant admits to us in a moment of affecting eye-contact candour.

The main joy of the transition is in the location – the house in which it is set, all black marble and dark woods, is shot gloriously, and is in perfect tandem with the indeterminately modern dress and the direction of key scenes (particularly, for instance, the ‘nunnery’ scene or that in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question Hamlet about Polonius’s corpse). In blue and black hues, the film encourages paranoia and foreboding – those CCTV cameras feature heavily – and the unshowy framing nevertheless exhibits variety enough to entertain.

Largely, though, this is a cleverly filmed play, static and concentrated on language and the actor’s physicality. This is all the better, because the film’s purpose is clearly to record, in the way of Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen’s King Lear, the gathering of a rare cast in a landmark production. The character of Hamlet is often put into relief by those who surround him, and Tennant’s is well served by the supporting players: Penny Downie’s powerful Gertrude and Mariah Gale’s fragile Ophelia, Peter de Jersey’s doleful Horatio and John Woodvine’s sonorous Player King, but especially Oliver Ford Davies’s subtle and memorable Polonius. Even Osric (played with obsequious glee by Ryan Gage) is done rather well.

Patrick Stewart, though, as almost all the reviews at the time pointed out, is a quite singular Claudius: sympathetic but also monstrous, regretful but relentless. His ‘my offence is rank’ speach is quite simply a masterclass: full of emotion but far from declamatory, all control and restraint whilst also deeply affecting. His wolfish half-smiles at Ophelia’s funeral are beautiful; in his conversation with the newly rebellious Laertes, he is commanding but also, one feels, not a little foolhardy: there is in this King something of the Prince, just far better repressed. Stewart’s Claudius, too, longs for the bare bodkin.

The comparison between Claudius and Hamlet is less kind to Tennant. His Prince is at times furiously convincing – in the Closet scene he is rivetting, as in his ‘I am alone’ soliloquy and his confrontation over a recorder with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the exchange with Horatio in which he admits regretting “that to Laertes I forgot myself”. But where Claudius is a study in control, perhaps fittingly – but not always successfully – this production’s Hamlet spins wildly. Sometimes, it works – in that gloriously changeable scene with his erstwhile university friends, and also in some of the scenes with Polonius (though this be madness…). In others, however, it simply feels over-played or shapeless – “O, that this too solid flesh would melt” is too much too soon, and in the exchange with Claudius about Polonius’s death the madness is played more than the emnity; the stuff with the players, particularly just prior to and during their performance, is far too broad and open, whilst the “Dost come here to whine?” rant against Laertes’s grief starts well but veers into raving. Close-ups often help Tennant’s pacing – “to be or not to be” is rendered memorable primarily by its intimacy, so too his stately “how all occassions do inform against me” – but how far this is direction propping up delivery is harder to tell outside of the theatre.

Still, what Tennant achieves is a Hamlet simultaneously coherent – he is to some extent pretending madness – but also, crucially, quixotic – how far he knows himself, controls himself, becomes increasingly uncertain, though by the play’s close all has resolved into fatalism. This is no small achievement. Indeed, it’s a considerable one, and with along with the production’s other virtues makes it well worth watching, and a key contribution to the play’s storied history. This version emphasises Hamlet’s refusal to remain within a limited system – by contrast, Laertes (a comparatively weak Edward Bennett) buys into Claudius’s power structure, whilst the King’s own will to power allows him to withstand the lash upon his conscience. But, despite the bankruptcy of this acceptance, Doran is ambivalent about the wisdom of rejection, since there is no real alternative to that against which Hamlet rails. Claudius at least achieves peace where old Hamlet did not, and the effect of the Prince’s choice upon the other characters, and indeed all of Denmark, is catastrophic. This Hamlet is maddened but also, in all ways, a little maddening – and that is no bad thing.