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The NS Interview: Mike Figgis, director

“Pride is such a dangerous thing for a film-maker”

Do you remember your childhood in Kenya?
I lived there until I was eight. Coming to a council house in Carlisle was a culture shock. One week, I was in Nairobi; the next, I was in a snowstorm.

What were your early years in Hollywood like?
At first, I sailed through. The first film I made there [Internal Affairs, 1990] was a success, so I went, "What's the problem? This seems easy." But the second was a disaster and I started to get cornered. It was the cliché of the British film-maker who gets caught, like in the Martin Amis novel Money.

Would you describe your work as political?
No, not with a big P. I think you try to reflect some reality about the time that you live in.

What has been your proudest moment?
The corny answer would be, "When I was at the Oscars and Nicolas Cage won . . ." and so on. But I was thinking, "Wow, this is insane." With a complete lack of respect, they rammed Christopher Reeve off the set in his wheelchair while some supermodel licked a man's beard. Pride is such a dangerous thing for a film-maker.

Do you think of yourself as experimental?
I don't do things for the sake of experimentation - it's more for the joy of freshening things up. Film is very repetitive and very conformist. I wouldn't say anyone is pushing the boundaries of film right now.

Are you dissatisfied with the film industry?
Totally. I'm bored and frustrated. If you go into something like the Hollywood system and you have artistic pretensions but, at the same time, you want to make a film that's commercially successful, you realise it's a complete shambles, like British Rail.

What's the problem?
No one communicates and money is wasted. And they change studio heads like we change governments - we don't reform the government, we just change the scapegoats. And they are the same.

Why doesn't anyone shake it up?
They don't want to blow the whistle because they're making a lot of money out of this, and that's the truth.

Do you enjoy exposing the industry?
I love economics. I love going to a film studio and asking: "What's the weekly wage bill? Oh, is that why Tom Cruise costs so much? Are
the economics of film-making in such a mess because we're paying for things we don't need to pay for any more?" Film could be cheap. You're paying for executives, you're not paying for Tom Cruise.

You've directed Lucrezia Borgia for English National Opera. What made you want to do it?
I wanted to do a very traditional opera, with all the corny elements - the high drama, the tragedy, the death.

How did it compare to working in film?
Opera has its advantages - you work for a concentrated period, then you have a performance where the audience boos, claps, whatever. There is a pay-off. I had forgotten it was so terrifying.

Do you read reviews?
I don't. Roman Polanski once said that if you believe the good ones, you are duty-bound to believe the bad ones, too.

Has British film-making got a future?
It has the convenience of a common language with America. As Ricky Gervais said [at the 2010 Golden Globes]: "Now Best Foreign-Language Film - a category that no one cares about." He was absolutely right. If it's got subtitles, forget it.

You shot Kate Moss in a series of commercials for Agent Provocateur. Why?
I had done a lot of commercials. I knew that if you wanted to sell a pair of knickers, someone famous had to wear them. It became a defining moment in the fashion industry. There's a lot of bullshit about art in advertising. It's obsessed with perfection, a fake perfection, designed to make people buy things that they don't want.

Do you think the proposed cuts to arts bodies will damage British art?
I feel sorry for the smaller organisations that need funding; I wouldn't make light of the dam­age the cuts will cause them. But I have a strong belief that artists will come through and find a new language.

Do you vote?
I didn't vote last time, as I wasn't here. Like a lot of people, I felt dissatisfied with the choices.

Is there a plan?
Yes. Your challenge is to work it out.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
No. I love memory, good and bad.

Are we all doomed?
Absolutely, but in a good way - it's good for everybody to be reminded of the idea that we are not permanent.

Defining Moments

1948 Born in Carlisle. Moves to Nairobi
1964 Plays keyboard in the R'n'B band Gas Board along with a young Bryan Ferry
1980 Founds the Mike Figgis Group fringe theatre company after being rejected by the National Film School
1988 Directs his first film, Stormy Monday
1995 Receives an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Leaving Las Vegas
2011 Directs English National Opera's new production of Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia opened at ENO on 31 January 2011. Tickets at www.eno.org or call 0871 911 0200. Lucrezia Borgia is on Sky 3D, Sky Arts 1HD, Sky Arts 2 HD at 7.30pm on Wednesday 23 February, and live in 3D in cinemas nationwide. See sky.com/arts

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City