Repetition with variation

Adaptations: This week’s world of art brings us recycled ideas and re-packaged money-makers

Brick Lane hits the Big Screen

Monica Ali’s controversial novel Brick Lane hits the big screen today (Friday, 26 October) with a gala screening at the Times BFI London Film Festival", three weeks in advance of the national release (Friday, 16 November).

With Sarah Gavron directing, the screen adaptation of Brick Lane stars Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik and Christopher Simpson. About London’s East End Asian community, Ali’s novel sparked outrage among members of the Bangladeshi community, and left others calling her the new Zadie Smith.

Regarding the controversy, Abdus Salique, chair of the Brick Lane Trader’s Association, told The Guardian, "she is not one of us, she has not lived with us, she knows nothing about us, but she has insulted us."

Meanwhile, Monica Ali defends the novel and the film, writing that the "controversy" was over-exaggerated – and possibly cooked-up – by an overzealous media.


For more on the London Film Festival

Also: catch the film and a conversation with Monica Ali, November 9 at the ICA, and the film and a Q&A with director Sarah Gavron, November 15 at Curzon Soho.

Also, see the Asians in the Media, which publishes "news and commentary on Asians in British media and how the industry relates to minority-ethnic communities"

Dirty Dancing Everywhere!: More from the world of adaptation

Recycling is rarely frowned upon in this ever-green age; but then recycling is rarely coupled with the repeat-commercialization and making of multi-million dollar profits. Have we gone too far with adaptations, stretching single ideas to their limit with the release of slight variations on the same commodified image or thought?

To what extent do adaptations provide new ways of looking at a popular story (Example: A film adaptation of Beowulf, the Old English epic poem from around 1000 AD hits the screen in the UK on November 16).

Or to what extent are adaptations commercial marketing schemes concocted to continuously resell the same idea in slightly different packaging, providing only the illusion of change, innovation, and variation? (Example: this October sees the nationwide UK release of Dirty Dancing: The Video Game, to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary.
Released in 1987, Dirty Dancing has sold over 10 million DVDs. A stage adaptation of the film is currently on at the Aldwych Theatre in London, and WE TV are responsible for "Dirty Dancing: The Reality Series").

Al Gore: Nobel Prize Winner and Trend Setter?

Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize came as a disappointment to many as his recent environmental fervour beat out the revolutionary protests by Burmese monks for the title and $1.5 million (£737,000) prize.

Perhaps Gore needed something to throw his energy into post-election-failure, and sought green as therapy? There is no shortage of cynics who are sceptical of his commitment to the environment.

But regardless of the motivations, politician after politician (first Al Gore, then John Kerry, and now Newt Gingrich) is coming out in support of the environment, publishing books, making documentaries, and holding public debates on environmental protection and the hazards of climate change.

This Thursday, 1 November, former US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (famous for overseeing the 1990s "Republican Revolution in the House) will release his A Contract with the Earth, an environmental manifesto for the Green Capitalists, stressing the need for bipartisan environmental strategy and showing the way forward for environmental entrepreneurship and the creation of incentives for businesses to be more environmentally friendly.


Al Gore started the trend with An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film and book

Senator John Kerry came out with This Moment on Earth March 26, 2007.

See a 2007 PBS Interview with Newt Gingrich

The Times on "nine inconvenient untruths" in Gore’s 2006 documentary

Leonardo DiCaprio’s 11th Hour documentary on rapid environmental degradation

James Harding writes on green capitalism and the "green rush" in New Statesman

Battle of Ideas vs. Anarchist Bookfair

Class divisions in London’s radical intellectual communities will be mapped geographically this weekend as those who can cough up £75 will head to the Institute of Idea’s Battle of Ideas at the Royal College of Art and those who are hungry for more than just debate will head to the 27th annual Anarchist Bookfair at Queen Mary & Westfield College in London’s East End.

Both events have been in the works for months, hence their overlap is likely not a lapse in judgement but is rather indicative of the demographics of the contemporary political left.

The dramatically well-funded Pfizer-sponsored Battle of Ideas is a "two-day festival of high-level, thought-provoking debate" featuring everything from discussions on academic freedom to talks on the lack of student radicalism to conversations on "Will Ethical Shopping Save the World?"

Meanwhile, the Anarchist Bookfair is free and open to the public, boasting a range of meetings, film screenings, discussions and workshops dedicated to radical political thought and activity. Events include a discussions on housing and worker cooperatives, "men and feminism," and documentaries on workers in the London Underground and women in the Spanish civil war.

Visit the Institute of Ideas website for full program details

See the Anarchist Bookfair website for more information

Modern Art Cabbies: Bringing Art to the Masses or Innovative Marketing Strategy?

Two of Liverpool’s cabbies are now driving around the "Capital of Culture" charged with gabbing about the 2007 Turner Prize (while video-taped, mind you) with their customers. The Tate Liverpool’s Taxi Project, initiated in June 2007, gave taxi drivers intensive courses on contemporary art, the history of the Turner Prize and the exhibit’s controversies. The conversations will be screened alongside the Prize nominations, with the Tate’s hope that they "offer a snap shot of opinion and feeling in the city about the Prize and about art and life in general."

But is the project really an attempt to bring art to the masses? Or is it part and parcel with a larger marketing strategy and a growing tendency to employ "casual advertisers" who infiltrate social gatherings and put their gift of gab to use on behalf of commercial companies. (Recall the controversies over student product promoters on American university campuses, who are paid to strike up conversations with their fellow students about the newest Apple computer or the health benefits of various soft drinks).

The Taxi Project and the 2007 Turner Prize are sponsored by Metquarter", "Liverpool’s premier shopping destination. With 40 top stores…[it] is home to leading fashion and lifestyle brands including M.A.C, BOSS Hugo Boss and Flannels" and by Arts & Business, an independent organization which has recognized "the importance of brand building [and] innovation" and helps companies achieve their objectives by developing unique connections between business and the arts.

Jennina O’Neil, Metquarter’s Marketing Manager explains their sponsorship of the exhibition and Taxi Project because: "we liked the idea that our customers could enjoy the shopping experience here [at Metquarter] and then jump in a cab and talk about art on their way to a gallery." Similarly, Janet Dunnet of Arts and Business lauds Metquarter’s sponsorship as an innovative and exciting reflection of "their brand and their way of doing business."

So, when art is commodity, and when art exhibitions have eager corporate sponsors, can art education be separated from marketing?

The Times on the taxi-driving Tate promoters
Liverpool as the 2008 European Capital of Culture
"Do corporate sponsorships compromise theatres?" in The Guardian

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution