A few cans of Hairspray

Brian Coleman gives his acerbic verdict on the hit West End musical

In the days when I had a life (before I became a professional politician) I was a regular West End theatre-goer and so it was last Friday, during that blissful period between Christmas and New Year when public servants can have a week off, I went along to the Shaftesbury Theatre to see the new hot show, the musical Hairspray.

Now the London Assembly is currently conducting an investigation into the physical state of the West End theatres and as the Shaftesbury lies in the Borough of Camden (within my constituency) I have always had a soft spot for the building.

This dates from the time I lead a deputation to the then Philistines at Camden who wanted to cancel its licence on the grounds it was producing "loud music".

Anyway, having forked out £60 for my ticket plus an outrageous £6 for a programme (a complete rip off), I was not feeling sympathetic towards the theatre owners who have the nerve to suggest the London Assembly should propose a surcharge on West End tickets to give them the money to upgrade the facilities.

Hairspray is a sell out and the Shaftesbury Theatre struggles to cope. "Good to see the men having to queue to use the loo," remarked two ladies in the Royal Circle Bar at the interval.

Rather than a surcharge on tickets quite why the theatre owners cannot screw the show producers for more I have no idea.

As for the show itself it was certainly loud. Michael Ball was taking a well earned holiday from his role in drag as Mrs Turnblad and, frankly, the understudy was playing it less like Divine (in the film) and more like Danny La Rue.

"The understudy just likes being on stage a little too much," remarked the well informed Theatre Usher.

Mel Smith as Mr Turnblad had a look on his face that seemed to say it was this show or three weeks Panto in Bognor Regis.

The only principal who seemed to recognise the need for some serious acting during the evening was the excellent Tracie Bennett (ex-Coronation Street) as Mrs Von Tussle.

The show was not helped by the fact the set (which looked as though it had been designed for a touring production) broke down twice during the first half, an occurrence that my helpful usher told me had happened three times since the show opened.

However the serious error for a West End musical was that it had the ugliest line up of Chorus Boys I have seen for many years - except for the principal young male lead called Ben James-Ellis who sang and danced so energetically he had sweat pouring down his pretty face by the end of the evening.

The fundamental problem with my evening was the audience. This is NOT a family Show - it is a serious musical with important underlying social themes.

Many parents had brought their young children (some looked as young as 9 or 10) and yet there were endless jokes about oral sex and a song that involved instructions on how to use your "fanny muscle" (whatever that may be).

The repeated references to the 1950s (who now remembers Eddie Fisher or the Gabor sisters ?) went completely over the head of the teenage girl sitting next to me whose mobile phone I could happily shoved down her throat as she texted all evening.

Why was it only me and a few dozen other gay men who laughed when the lovely Ben said he “knew what Rock Hudson felt like “if only…………..

A show that has serious things to say about 50s America, segregation, racism and equality issues ended in a feelgood mush of sentimentality. I was not surprised that on the way out boyfriends had clearly not enjoyed the show as much as their young ladies, if you are straight and male my advice is stay away.

If West End Theatre owners think they can persuade this elected politician to intervene in the world of theatrical production and start imposing surcharges on the poor theatre-going public (and the hard up families in particular) then they have got to do better than a few cans of Hairspray!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.