In the pool with Steve

Sondheim's admirers talk among themselves.

Sondheim at 80
Radio 3

“And of course," Stephen Sondheim was saying when I flicked over to Radio 3's transmission of the Sondheim at 80 Prom (31 July, 7.30pm), "we ended up with Mandy up there and Bernie down here . . . and in the case of Angela you just can't tell . . ." From the audience, appreciative laughter as they drank all the first names in. "I just wanted to get the great British Sondheimians together," cooed SS's interlocutor. "Janet and Maria?" "Maria, of course!" "Simon?" "Yes!"

(I should stress that this conversation was happening in front of a live audience of hundreds - and not at Joe Allen at the tail end of the evening when you realise the tears you've been shedding for half an hour are just chemical condensations and you're smiling at strangers horribly in that "my people will contact your people" way.)

“Y'know, most of the shows I've written have very strong librettos," admitted SS - at first modestly, and then, what the hell, putting his full weight behind the statement. "They are shows that last. Young performers and actors today would rather perform my shows than be connected with Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is very popular, but not as rewarding for the performers. Mine are characters with substance. I'm a playwright manqué! Songs are little plays, basically. Which is something I learned from Oscar, of course."

Throughout this monologue, which was delivered unconvincingly, guiltily almost, as though the speaker knew he was metaphorically skimming money while buying the drinks, SS's interviewer took a well-earned break. "What makes you so remarkable, Stephen," he interrupted after a while, "is - as the critic from the Times points out here - you're 'a revolutionary in a reciting form'."

The audience, like a congregation woozy from fasting, murmured their comprehensive assent. One could even picture several of them raising their fists in salute. "It's true," agreed SS, "I'm like Ronald - writing madly off in all directions . . ."

(Which critic from the Times? I hate critics. Or, more specifically, I long for the days when the only critic that mattered was Barry Norman, with his hair the colour of an industrial disaster and his collapsed face, looking permanently as if he were about 30 minutes into a film and knew he was in for another hour of rubbish.)

Next, a montage of soundbites from actors in tonight's show. In the background, the noise of an orchestra tuning up and technicians consulting each other. I imagined the scene: sound desks flashing like Geiger counters detecting bodily activity. The Sondheimians, tubed scores in hand, raising a harassed eyebrow to a passing assistant. "Musically it's very challenging," confirmed one. "But even more challenging are the demands Stephen makes on you to be emotionally honest."

The background noise was subtly dimmed - a system Radio 3 uses to bestow extreme status on the next speaker. By now your reviewer was cringing in anticipation at the completely inevitable contribution from Dame Judi. Or Judi, rather. "I actually met Stephen in Majorca a long time ago. We arrived and he was in the pool and they said to Michael and Finty and me, 'Oh, that's Steve," and - I say this with not a degree of exaggeration - we've got Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, the music of Beethoven. And we have Stephen Sondheim."

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 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture