Death of a Liberal and other stories

Death of a Liberalman

David Mamet’s announcement that he has foresworn “brain-dead liberalism” for a more Hobbesian strain of conservatism (“I do not think that people are basically good at heart”) prompted page three coverage in the Independent and nearly 400 posts on the Village Voice blog, which carried the original article. Amidst the consolatory Chekov extracts and “Welcome home David” back-patting, Jennifer Matsui wrote: “Now that he pisses into the same golden urinals as Steven Spielberg and air kisses mogul trophy wives at charity events, he can reveal his true colors while posing as a brave and principled "contrarian" a la Christopher Hitchens.” But with all quiet on the Hitchens’ front, Mamet was rather short of defenders. At least only criticised him for the poor style of his polemic: “He jumps willy nilly from point to point, anecdote to anecdote, losing his way every time.” Gawker, mind, was a little more wary of Mamet’s motives: “Maybe you more politically savvy, high-minded types can parse it better than I, but to me it seems to be just a weird, regressive attempt to publicise his new-ish Broadway play November., which may be wise in light of the cool reception revivals such as Speed-the-Plow have received in recent years.

Slave trader Winehouse?

Another week, another accolade for Amy Winehouse – and this time it’s “poster girl of drug abuse”, ‘awarded’ to Amy by the UN drug office’s executive director, Antonio Maria Costa. According to a report by the International Narcotics Control Board, the singer, and other substance-abusing celebrities are partly responsible for the rise in European cocaine consumption, which Costa compared to the slave trade for its potential to devastate West Africa. As Hecklerspray pointed out, “those poor people have got problems enough as it is without feeling the need to stagger round their villages in just their bra shouting "My Blakey!" all the time as well.” But the Telegraph’s Neil McCormick was somewhat baffled as to why the UN had only just managed to draw the link between drug-takers and music-makers (pray, where did Costa spend the 1960s?) and irritated that the argument had been so over-simplified: “Pop culture doesn't tell one story about drugs, it tells all kinds of stories, reflecting society as much as shaping it.” And of course, even if Amy is to repent, could the New Statesman’s Rachel Cooke really handle another celebrity penitential on a par with Alex James’ recent Colombia Panorama special?

Recent arrivals: the New York City Ballet, complete with 85 dancers and its own orchestra for a 14-night stint at the Coliseum. It’s taken more than 25 years, and the combined efforts of Sadler’s Wells and the commercial organisations Askonas Holt and Raymond Gubbay to procure them, but will Balanchine’s dancers justify the wait and £95 top-ticket price? Early reviews from the Guardian and the Times suggest yes.

Just through customs: Mr Lonely, Harmony Korine’s new film, which opens in the UK today. A Marilyn Monroe impersonator takes a Michael Jackson-alike to a Highlands retreat for celebrity seconds. Worth the view? See Daniel Trilling’s feature and Ryan Gilbey.

Ready for departure: not Terry Pratchett, who despite being diagnosed with early-onset dementia, intends to “scream and harangue while there is time”. The writer donated $1 million (£495,000) to Alzheimer’s research this week presumably because he’s fond of screaming.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear