For how much longer must all men be judged against Colin Firth?

A lot of questions arise from The King's Speech, the recent film in which - spoiler alert - a king can't speak very well, but then manages to, thanks to an Australian. Among these questions: for how many decades must the rest of us men be judged by the impossible standards of sexiness set by Colin Firth? Did Edward VIII really want to marry the seemingly irritating Wallis Simpson, or did he just want to get out of being king, since it's clearly no fun? And in the script, d . . . d . . . did the screenwriters have to write out every stammer l . . . l . . . like this, or was it covered by the stage directions?

But there's one question that arises from the tense final scene, in which our hero rises to the challenge of delivering a long and rousing speech to his subjects. Could they not have recorded him doing it and played it half an hour later, removing the possibility that the King's erratic voice would fail live on air and thus deal a blow to Britain's spirit on the brink of war?

Earlier in the film, we see that the technology existed to record His Majesty's efforts, because his Australian guru does just that. Even if editing in 1939 was less a matter of going into a Soho suite with a couple of Macs and more a case of someone taking a hacksaw to a piece of vinyl, surely it would have been possible to spare the King the ordeal? It wouldn't have been quite so dramatic a climax to the film - "right, Your Majesty, a couple of little slip-ups there, but we'll snip those out" - but it would have been a lot less stressful for all concerned, at a time when Hitler was causing quite enough stress for most people.

The answer to this riddle, it seems, has less to do with technological shortcomings and more to do with a faith in the idea of live broadcasting. The BBC in its infancy broadcast everything live, not purely because of logistics, but because that was the only way it could enjoy the trust of its listeners. If its material could be recorded, edited and fiddled with, how were we meant to rely on BBC radio for all the things for which we have usually relied on it: news, national morale and very slow-moving farming dramas?

A fascinating book by Denis Norden called Coming to You Live! recounts some of the problems the BBC faced in the 1940s and 1950s as a result of this dedication to live broadcasting. There's one anecdote about a drama that involved what was then the longest tracking shot in history, the camera making its way down an endless line of violinists; but they could only afford four violinists, so the actors had to keep running down the line and appearing again and again. There's another one about a play that was all ready to go when someone realised the BBC hadn't paid for the rights and wouldn't be allowed to broadcast it. When they turned up that morning, the actors were told they'd have to learn a new play from scratch.

All this makes you wonder whether live broadcasting is worth the misery - and yet idiots will keep trying it. And by idiots, I mean myself. On 28 February, I'm doing a special edition of my Radio 4 show absolutely live. This might sound like a plug, but it's not: I'm not even going to tell you what time it's on. The amount that can go wrong is terrifying.

The prospect of saying something obscene by accident - like James Naughtie giving an extra "C" to Jeremy Hunt - looms large, as does the even worse idea of being swept away by that I-might-jump-off-the-top-of-this-building impulse and sabotaging the whole show by shouting nothing but the word "duck" over and over again, just because I can. Then there's the worry that I might completely blank and leave minute after minute of silence on the air. Producers would have to hope listeners would mistake it for a particularly stodgy episode of The Archers.

The King and I

But these dangers are precisely the reason everyone still loves listening to live shows. They're pretty similar to the reasons poor old King George had to brave the microphone all those years ago. We like listening to the tremor in someone's voice, knowing that the anticipation in their guts at the sound of the opening credits is exactly the same as ours.

Above all, we like feeling that we're experiencing exactly the same thing as the person on the other end of the wire. Which is all very well for you, but awful for the King, and - in a rather less high-stakes way - scary for me, too. I don't even have the benefit of a dauntless Aussie to see me through by making me sing. We'll just have to hope that I can channel some of whatever magical BBC energy helped the King. Anyway, I have to make a phone call. I'm trying to get hold of 79 violinists.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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