Eat yourself fitter

The Great Food Gamble

John Humphrys <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 306pp, 12.99</em>

ISBN 0340770457

The Great Food Gamble ends with a set-piece interview between John Humphrys, enemy of modern cant, and . . . er, John Humphrys, enemy of modern intensive farming. You can picture the scene: Humphrys No 1 is at home - perhaps after a long, hard morning jousting with politicians - a tape recorder and bowl of organic cornflakes in front of him, a mirror opposite. And what does he see in the mirror? Why, he sees good old craggy, white-haired Humphrys No 2, the very image of avuncular wisdom, with his homely good sense and forehead as crinkled as an accordion. The conversation that follows, as recorded in this book, has all the spontaneity of canned laughter, with No 1 subjecting No 2 to a Today-style interrogation, punctuated by the occasional waggish aside. Oh, what fun!

Now, the dialogue is part of a long and noble tradition in western thought. It is a philosophical form, at once digressive, flexible and, crucially, self-revelatory. For Plato, the dialogue was the ideal medium through which to animate the genius of Socrates and grapple with epistemological uncertainties. For the poet Andrew Marvell, writing before the Cartesian turn in philosophy, the dialogue afforded a stylised representation of the duality and conflicts of the self, as in his famous poem "A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body", in which a soul and a body are locked in antagonistic combat. This poetic dialogue, to adapt Schlegel on Shakespeare's sonnets, has the power to acquaint one with the passions of man. For Humphrys, however, the dialogue serves as nothing more than an engine of self-congratulation, acquainting one not so much with the passions as the passionlessness of BBC Man.

Reading The Great Food Gamble, you lose count of the times that Humphrys reminds you of his role at the BBC, posturing before the ephemeral microphone - as if we could ever forget, John, as if we could ever forget. Which is a shame, because at its best, his book has a strong polemical purpose. It is both a warning (of the dangers of industrialised farming) and a plea (for a return to more balanced, sustainable agricultural practices). It is driven by conviction and by a certain pastoral fatalism - it can be read as the latest contribution to the thriving sub-genre of eco-cultural criticism, the leading practitioner of which is Jonathan Bate (whose The Song of the Earth was published last year).

Humphrys is a hard pessimist. Distrust is the defining characteristic of his work, as an author and broadcaster. He boasts here of trusting no one, least of all scientists, and he specialises in a curious form of ad hominem attack - those academics writing against organic farming are invariably caricatured as having been funded by vested interests.

More worryingly, Humphrys emerges as an archetype of the modern confrontational journalist. He is the model of the public pontificator who builds an entire career on magisterial distrust. But what must this relentless distrust, the daily desire to expose and humiliate those in public office, do to the soul? After all, the politicians may change - they are, as Robin Day once said during a celebrated interview with John Nott, nothing but transient figures, "here today, gone tomorrow" - but our leading commentators and broadcasters remain ever the same: the thick-haired Dimblebys, the small but perfectly formed Simon Jenkins, the bouffant Paxman, the omnipotent Hugo Young, the sage Humphrys. Here are journalists in thrall to their own instant opinions, endlessly seeking to entrap and condemn. The result is a degraded and infantile culture, in which the slightest equivocation is seized upon as a sign of weakness, in which doubt has no place and the government must be immediately and absolutely certain on each and every issue of the day. Small wonder, then, that our politicians increasingly cower like cardinals in their cathedrals of lies. (Listening to Humphrys on the Today programme, you can't help thinking that he would be happiest if an interviewee simply said: "OK, John, I agree: Tony Blair is a wanker and I'm a complete fraud.")

Humphrys was motivated to write this book, he says, by the BSE catastrophe, which prompted the need for a "proper national debate which addressed the most fundamental questions [sic]. Sadly it took another great farming crisis to bring that debate about." Well, yes and no. The likes of Colin Tudge and Peter Singer, and even Prince Charles, had warned of the barbarity of industrialised farming long before BSE became an acronym even more dreaded in this country than Aids. Yet Humphrys is correct to call for a national debate, and he is sincere in his passionate irritation, even if, in his position of contented affluence, he fails fully to empathise with those who must daily feed large families while living on less than the basic minimum wage - those who have perhaps benefited most from the availability of mass-produced, and thus cheap, food.

No, what disturbs most about the book is its under-lying self-congratulatory tone and its wrong-headed conception of science. How can anyone trust scientists, he writes, "when they disagree with each other all the time and when each new generation of scientists disproves half the conclusions reached by the previous one?"

Here, alas, is yet another example of Humphrys's immoderate demand for certainty, which so undermines his journalism. For science is nothing if not progressive, open to endless improvement and refinement. While Aristotle's ethics and aesthetics remain compellingly contemporary, his science is now read merely for historical interest. In agriculture - as in medicine, defence electronics and so many other aspects of our lives - science has enjoyed spectacular success; and it has done so because we have learnt from the experience and failures of those who have gone before. Error is fundamental to the progressive nature of scientific knowledge. If we have a problem with our method of food production, science, not a reactionary retreat into the past, provides by far the best hope of solving it.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.