Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Janan Ganesh, Philip Norman and Anne Applebaum.

George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor by Janan Ganesh

While George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor has an "inside feel" owing to the "generous access to the Chancellor’s inner circle" afforded to Janan Ganesh, it is ‘sometimes at the cost of independent judgment,’ writes Peter Oborne in the Telegraph. Perhaps a more pertinent criticism, given the implicit promise of the book’s title, is the omission of a substantial analysis of the Chancellor’s economic views and political manoeuvres: "This book lacks any serious exploration of Osborne’s economic ideas or his relationship with the Treasury." John Hanning, writing in the Independent, begins his review by advising those depressed by David Cameron to steer clear of his chancellor’s biography. After outlining their remarkably similar trajectories, Henning shows how the two differ: "Osborne's heritage – Notting Hill, St Paul's, a mother who works for Amnesty, a father with an ultra-fashionable shop in South Kensington – is much more that of the metropolitan sophisticate than Cameron's." Hanning reminds us on more than one occasion of the author’s relationship with his subject. Osborne is a "close political friend", and Ganesh a "long-standing admirer". Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the author deftly treads the path between "getting access to the subject and a willingness to criticise or chase uncomfortable truths". Read a review of George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor in the New Statesman later this week.

 

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman

Julie Burchill sees the publication of this Jagger biography as an opportunity to review the rock star himself, bypassing the book almost completely. "It's his attitude to money, I suppose, as much as his idiot-dancing which renders Jagger so unattractive to me; stinginess is the halitosis of the soul, and MJ reeked of it," she writes in the Guardian. It’s obvious where her affections do in fact lie: "Casting the biggest shadow of all, like some epic scarecrow, is Keith Richards, a man whose glamour and charisma increase at the same rate as the wrinkles on that beautiful Red Indian face. Ask yourself if any reigning film star would have dreamed of basing the hero of a hit film on Jagger – as Johnny Depp did on Richards in Pirates of the Caribbeanand you would have to say no." John Walsh, writing in the Independent, identifies the same negative traits that Burchill does (stinginess, misogyny, arrogance) but notes that Norman "radiates sympathy for the old devil". Perhaps this sympathy derives in part from the gentle debunking of aspects of the Jagger legend: "Rather than a randy, rebellious extrovert, [young Mick] was shy and slow to show affection," "he was thought too ugly to succeed," and "he wept over Chrissie Shrimpton". But while these more vulnerable sides of Jagger are revealed, so too is a cold, driving professionalism: "Mick’s robotic ability to go 'on with the show' just seems chilling," wrote Kate Mossman in last week’s New Statesman. ‘It’s hard to believe that, hours after Brian Jones was found dead, he went ahead with a Top of the Pops appearance and then attended a ball at the home of Prince Rupert Lowenstein.[...] This book re-examines the notion of what it takes to be a true 'rock star'."

 

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 56 by Anne Applebaum

In 1945, the Red Army was briefly welcomed when it marched into eastern Europe. "Yet goodwill towards the liberators soon gave way to horror at the looting, random violence — and worse," writes Peter Conradi in The Sunday Times. Making use of never-before-seen documents from recently opened archives, Anne Applebaum re-examines the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. "Iron Curtain is modern history writing at its very best; assiduously researched, it wears its author's considerable erudition lightly," writes Roger Moorehouse in the Independent. "Pending large-scale revelations from still-closed Soviet archives, it sets a new benchmark for the study of this vitally important subject." Moorehouse notes that, in Applebaum’s assessment, communism was always doomed to fail: "Communism contained within it the seeds of its own destruction, not only in its disastrous economic performance, but also in its relentless desire to control every aspect of human activity." "The chief problem was the failure of the Soviet economic model — which created a growing gap in living standards with the West," asserts Conradi. "In this exhaustive and entertainingly written account, Applebaum, a former Pulitzer prize winner, captures well the absurdities of communist life familiar to anyone who experienced the system first hand."

 

George Osborne holds up the Budget Box as he leaves No. 11. Photo: Getty Images.
Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.