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Otter, Apple, CrimeFighter: celebrities should save stupid baby names for their sons

Baby girls seem to bear the brunt of the crazy celebrity name tradition. As if, as women, they won't have enough trouble being taken seriously in life.

Set against the rich history of bullshit whimsical celebrity baby names – Pilot Inspektor Lee, Moxie CrimeFighter Jillette, Apple Martin – Elsie Otter is actually quite sensi-

No. Hang on. It seems I’ve been brainwashed into thinking Elsie Otter is an acceptable name. Which it definitely isn’t. At least, not for a girl. But I’ll get to that later.

In the least surprising move since my cat ate some cat food, self-appointed Queen of Quirkiness Zooey Deschanel and whoever her schmuck husband is have named their baby daughter after a literal woodland critter.  

I’ve resented Deschanel since around 2007, when she hijacked awkwardness. As someone genuinely uncomfortable in her own skin, I can be certain – in an age of uncertainty – of one thing: having enormous eyes and playing the ukulele doesn’t make you awkward.

As someone who was bullied at school for (among so many other things) being shit at sports, someone who dances like a reanimated cadaver and someone who has been told, on more than one occasion, to “shut up” during sex, I feel I’ve earned the authority to judge who/what can be considered dorky. And Deschanel is to genuine dorkiness what Starbucks is to coffee. That is to say, she’s ruined it with caramel.    

But, contrary to all of this, I think “Otter” is an absolutely brilliant name. For a boy.

When parents inflict a sickeningly cutesy name on a daughter they’re (unwittingly, I hope) defining her by her cuteness  something that a massive chunk of society was going to do even before they gave her a name that would look stupid on a Bichon Frisé. Either they’re blind to the fact that women have a hard enough time being taken seriously without being called Marshmallow Twinkletits, or they don’t plan on taking their daughter seriously themselves.

So, if idiot parents feel a biological imperative to name their children after “aDORKable” things, I think they should go for it. My one caveat is that they bestow these names on their sons rather than their daughters. Because naming a boy “Otter” may not be revolutionary, but it would definitely take one white, middle-class man down a notch.

For the most part, girls seem to bear the brunt of the stupid name tradition. Just look at the nowadays “consciously uncoupled” Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. Their son, Moses, is named after a Biblical badass who parted an entire sea and led thousands of slaves to freedom. Their daughter is named after some fruit.

When naming my siblings and me, my parents’ one rule was that, on the off chance any of us wanted to be prime minister or something, our names wouldn’t hold us back. And, aged 26 and still living with them, boy have I made the most of my apparently PM-worthy name.

But yeah, had I been named Kitten Banana Froot Loop the Fourth, I’m pretty certain I’d be living in a cardboard box and eating ants.

I’m all for freedom of choice though, and if, say, a Gertrude reaches 18 and decides she’d rather be called Princess Butter, then all power to her. Had someone chosen the name “Princess Butter” for her, when she was too busy working out how to keep her head up to grapple with concepts like sexism, things may have turned out badly. And by “badly”, I mean she resents her butter-obsessed parents throughout her teens, then pulls a Zowie Bowie and changes her name to Duncan. Then becomes an accountant just to piss off her delightfully whimsically-minded parents who were banking on her becoming a fire eater or something butter-related. Come to think of it, things turned out OK for this particular fictional absurdly-named woman.

Meanwhile, her brother – a Clive, probably  becomes the billionaire CEO of a multinational corporation that makes baby oil by literally pressing babies. Maybe he should’ve been named Princess Butter.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June.

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge