Anthony Sher. Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
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From Falstaff to Loman: behind the scenes with Antony Sher

It seems that Sher is never not speaking on the radio or being spoken about. 

The Radio 2 Arts Show
BBC Radio 2

“We decided he was an alcoholic, because there are several sections in part one where he says he’s got to clean up his act and then, a few moments later, he’s doing exactly what he was doing before . . .”

Antony Sher was speaking to Claudia Winkleman (8 May, 10pm) about ­playing Falstaff for the RSC and somewhat automatic-pilotly covering the same areas that his just-published diary of the production covered, recently abridged for Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4. Pre-first-night dreams, coping with nerves . . .

The British have a fondness for this sort of memoir. It provides that comforting sense of the extended family – casts, crews, intense shared experiences in touring theatre or on movie sets – that actors seem to thrive in. Yet it can sometimes feel that the BBC has handed the airwaves over to certain people. What with Falstaff, a new production of Death of a Salesman (in which he plays Willy Loman) and the burial of ­Richard III, it seems that Sher is never not speaking on the radio or being spoken about. The Today programme’s coverage of that absurd funeral culminated with Sher reciting, “Now is the winter of our discontent . . .” introduced forelock-tuggingly, as though he were Olivier.

In truth the actor, now 65, can sound fairly tremulous. But even if Sher’s voice is not what it was, his Loman is something to behold. Thickening the meaning, he makes you believe that Arthur Miller’s play is actually all about charisma-envy. College educations and Studebakers, giant refrigerators and paid-up mortgages – they are nothing compared to being “rugged, well liked, all round”. That’s the American dream – to be liked! (Richard wanted to be liked, too. “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks . . .” he concedes, limping towards villainy.)

There was a nice, spontaneous bit in the interview with Winkleman in which Sher recalled finding one of the crutches he had used in his 1984 production of Richard III, so many years later, in the rehearsal room for Falstaff.

“It isn’t life and death,” shrugged Sher to Winkleman of all that effort and panic and memory, in a moment that sounded far more self-effacing than anything that had gone before. “It’s just a dusty prop.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Photo: Getty
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The Gupta scandal: how a British PR firm came unstuck in South Africa

Bell Pottinger was accused of exploiting racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles.

Thuli Madonsela, who helped write South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution and made her name as a fearless public protector, calls it a “reckless and dangerous dirty tricks campaign”. The journalist Max du Preez, who exposed apartheid’s death squads, describes a knife being thrust into an old wound. Jonathan Jansen, a respected voice on race relations, sees “despair and distress” cast on a fragile democracy still struggling with apartheid’s legacy.

Following reports of a campaign that allegedly exploited racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles, South Africa – a nation admired around the globe for its ability to forgive – is not in a magnanimous mood.

One source of the public anger is familiar: the Gupta family, which has accumulated vast wealth and influence and has close relations with President Jacob Zuma. The other was until recently unknown to most South Africans: the British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which was co-founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser Lord Bell (who left the company last year). On 6 July, Bell Pottinger announced that it had fired one of its partners and issued a rare apology for the work it did until April for the Guptas.

The story begins in early 2016, when the family signed a contract with Bell Pottinger, whose previous clients include the repressive governments of Egypt and Bahrain, the Pinochet Foundation and Trafigura, the commodity firm involved in a waste-dumping scandal in Côte d’Ivoire. Unverified correspondence leaked to the media suggests that President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, who is in business with the Guptas, was involved in brokering the Bell Pottinger deal, reportedly worth £100,000 a month, to help defend the family brand.

The brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta arrived in South Africa from India when apartheid ended in the early 1990s and started building a business empire. They operated inconspicuously until 2013, when stories about how their private wedding guests were allowed to land at an air force base revealed their deep political connections.

Since then, the scandals have multiplied, with the brothers accused of directing Zuma’s decisions for their own benefit. The family has always denied wrongdoing, but the evidence against it includes a claim by the former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Guptas offered him the top job in the ministry, which he declined. By last year, the family’s reputation was so stained that South Africa’s four major banks closed accounts connected to it. By the time the Guptas engaged Bell Pottinger to handle their public relations, they were under heavy media scrutiny.

A large email leak in May from inside the Gupta empire enabled the South African media to expose the nature of the family’s alleged efforts to distract attention from its businesses and dealings with the state, which, among other things, reportedly involved the targeting of journalists, rent-a-crowd protests and the “capturing” of political leaders. Twitter users, the emails suggest, were paid to troll journalists or spread propaganda; digital bots were used to amplify fake stories; Wikipedia pages were allegedly altered. The website WMC Leaks was set up and proceeded to smear some of South Africa’s top editors. (The allegations against Bell Pottinger are limited to its communications work.)

Meanwhile, journalists were also subjected to sexual slurs, or had their homes vandalised. “I have never in my life encountered a situation where I have clearly been surveilled and then accused of cheating on my wife by faceless people,” says Peter Bruce, a columnist and former editor of Business Day, a leading broadsheet.

Central to the campaign was the promotion of the idea of “white monopoly capital” – that white-owned business is the true enemy standing in the way of South Africa’s progress. The term was spread online and used in political speeches and in media outlets linked with the Guptas. Critics of the family and Zuma were accused of colluding with or being in the pocket of wealthy whites.

“Running a campaign that stokes racial tensions and the anger of the poor and others who feel the bite of poverty and inequality was bound to and did exacerbate racial polarisation,” says Madonsela.

Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, says that Bell Pottinger should donate the money it earned from the Guptas to civil society organisations in South Africa. He accuses the company of having “played the colluding role of the neo-colonial paymaster with a stunning lack of self-reflection”.

After the emails were leaked, South Africans sent thousands of tweets to Bell Pottinger, forcing the firm to make its Twitter account private. In April, the company finally parted ways with the Guptas, and this month the Bell Pottinger chief executive, James Henderson, felt compelled to issue an “unequivocal and absolute” apology to anyone impacted by the “economic emancipation” campaign on social media.

“Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true. But enough of it is to be of deep concern,” said Henderson.

Bell Pottinger has hired the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to investigate its work with the Guptas and says that it will publish the findings. Besides firing the lead partner on the Gupta project, Bell Pottinger also suspended three other employees. The UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association is conducting a separate investigation.

In his statement, Henderson admitted that the social media campaign was “inappropriate and offensive”. “For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope… is a matter of profound regret… These activities should never have been undertaken.”

This has not quelled the anger in South Africa, where there are growing calls for Bell Pottinger to appear before the country’s parliament and for criminal prosecutions.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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