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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.