Reviewed: Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo

Anyone for cricket?

Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto
Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio
Chiarelettere, 208pp, €13.90

Italy has been a land of political vanguardism. It was in the 15th and 16th centuries, as republican city states achieved a precarious but briefly vigorous existence. One of these, Florence, produced the founding genius of political science, Niccolò Machiavelli, who sought to make rulers realise that the state was not their possession but a public trust.

It was again in the vanguard in the 20th century: Benito Mussolini spun fascism out of radical socialism in the early 1920s. At about the same time, Christian democracy was first essayed in the form of the Italian People’s Party, founded in 1919 with the reluctant blessing of the Vatican by the anti-fascist priest Don Luigi Sturzo; after the war, Alcide De Gasperi revived it in the form of the Christian Democratic Party. In the 1960s, the Italian Communist Party evolved a socialdemocratic- tending “Euro-communism” that strongly influenced Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union.

Today, Beppe Grillo has established a movement that is the first web-based political grouping to make a breakthrough in serious electoral politics. Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) – the Five Star Movement – won the highest number of votes in Italy for a single party in the February elections (coalitions of the right and left blocs produced higher tallies when counted together).

Grillo sees the internet as the medium through which the world is changing: “Thanks to the net, we have at our disposal a vast quantity of ideas and we can bring thousands of intellects to bear on one particular issue.” To which the playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo replies: “What is grander than a revolution?”

The exchange is part of a conversation, which also includes Grillo’s close associate and web genius Gianroberto Casaleggio, recently published in Italy as Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto (“The cricket always sings at dusk” – the title is a pun on Grillo’s name, which means “cricket” in Italian). One of a sudden splurge of books on Grillo, Il Grillo canta reveals most about a politics that has passed from the web to the streets and finally to parliament and that now holds Italian politics to a kind of ransom. To understand the Grillo phenomenon is – for all its many “onlyin- Italy” features – to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going.

Grillo, who is 64, has been one of Italy’s most popular comics for more than 30 years. From the early 1980s, he developed a line in satire that was increasingly critical of the Church, celebrities and, most of all, politicians. With the help of Casaleggio, a long-time web entrepreneur, he has melded together a stage act, a political critique, a blog and citizens’ activism into a movement that presents itself as the direction in which politics must go. There’s something in this of Marx’s idealistic view that, under communism, the state would wither away and citizens would govern themselves. This isn’t necessarily a preserve of the left: in the UK, the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has written: “The web . . . makes collective action and intelligence, free from any directing authority, possible on a size and scale that was previously impossible.”

Grillo, Casaleggio and Fo are explicit: remove governments, parties and, above all, leaders and the web will allow for self-government. “For the M5S,” Casaleggio claims, “‘leader’ is a word of the past, dirty, devious: ‘leader’ of what?” “In cities,” Grillo says, “we’re used to police and traffic lights, while there’s another way of moving about, which is not to have rules.” Grillo mentions New Delhi and Bombay, where, he says, traffic rules are worked out in the absence – or in the ignoring – of controls. Casaleggio invokes Periclean Athens, where: “Democracy was founded on the idea of community, common thought and shared values . . . Maybe the web can help to rediscover that inspiration which allows equality among intelligent beings. And for that, you don’t need a leader, a charismatic boss to whom you must turn.”

Yet, as many Italian commentators have noted, Grillo often acts like a boss. Fo encouraged his superstar status (and ego) by lauding the swim he made from the mainland to Sicily across the Strait of Messina (a little over three kilometres) in October last year to publicise the movement’s campaign in Sicily, saying that it showed “courage and determination . . . a new way of presenting yourself to people”. Grillo presents the new in old-fashioned celebrity clothes, trading on his fame and on that of those the media promote: when the movement recently chose who it wanted as its presidential candidate to replace Giorgio Napolitano, it voted for Milena Gabanelli, an investigative journalist who presents a sharp-edged programme on the state broadcaster Rai’s third channel.

As the M5S climbed in the opinion polls last year, Grillo issued stern prohibitions to its election candidates not to talk to the news media and in particular not to appear on the political talk shows that proliferate on Italian TV. Grillo writes: “We don’t want [the representatives of M5S] to appear on talk shows . . . We want talk shows to be abolished. Since I put out that fatwa, many people have begun to agree with us. The talk show is dead . . .”

Everything in politics must change or be destroyed – the personnel, the parties, even the language. Casaleggio mentions a talk he had with Romano Prodi, twice head of a centre- left governing coalition, who told him, referring to Grillo, “Comedy is comedy and politics is politics.” No, replied Casaleggio: people don’t see politics that way – they mix it all together and increasingly see politicians through the lens of satire and ridicule.

For the past two months, Grillo and Casaleggio have, through the exertion of strong control over their elected deputies and senators, all newcomers to national politics, refused to make a deal with the left coalition that narrowly won the plurality of votes. Its former leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, who announced his resignation on 20 April, sought desperately to get some sort of agreement that would have allowed him the necessary dominance of upper and lower houses. Grillo’s refusal to negotiate has often been couched in the most contemptuous terms: Bersani, buffeted by critics and competition in his party, was made to look weak. Grillo’s obstructionism has now forced the left to form a “grand coalition” with the right bloc, which includes Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party. This will allow the M5S leader to argue that the old parties have closed ranks against the future.

Grillo is a ranter, a tyrannical leader who denies leadership, one who lumps the good, the bad and the utterly corrupt in Italian public life into one nightmarish mass that must be abolished – as if societies were morality plays in which victory over the devil issues in the Kingdom of God. Yet he works a thick seam of disenchantment. There is disenchantment across Europe now. Soon, crickets will be singing everywhere.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor of the Financial Times

Beppe Grillo in Rome in April. Credit: Eyevine/Contrasto.
Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.