Joan Bakewell. Photo: Getty
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Joan Bakewell’s Diary: Talking to centenarians about death

The broadcaster on George Orwell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and making the theatre accessible.

I have been talking about death a good deal lately. People don’t do it enough. Social taboo and superstition still inhibit our willingness to discuss what is, after all, one of life’s great rights of passage. In a recent BBC Panorama I engaged with a number of people who are 100 years old and more. They have no such unwillingness. Indeed some are positively looking forward to it, either in the expectation of being reunited with family who have gone before, or simply because they have had enough: “I wake each morning disappointed that I am still here.”

So what is the point of our obsession  with super-health, diets, exercise… if only to live ever longer towards years where we no longer care?

I discover the NHS will always stand by us as we age. We filmed a woman in her mid-90s having a hip operation – only to die some weeks later. When I asked about the financial priorities of such treatment I was told by the surgeon: “If you come into this hospital in serious pain, we will give you the appropriate treatment, whatever your age.” Well done, the University Hospital of North Tees.

Mersey beats

Who wouldn’t want to see a film with Liverpool in the title? I’ve had the chance of an advance viewing of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, released on 17 November – always a treat to get a glimpse before the critics move in. It’s the story of 1950s Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), the “girl who cain’t say no” in Oklahoma!.

But now Gloria has fallen on hard times. With four marriages behind her, she arrives in England to prop up a dwindling career. She meets jobbing actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), who is 29 years younger than her. Increasingly frail, she moves into his modest home, where his parents offer a cosy Liverpudlian welcome. Their love affair is touching, unsentimental and finally tragic. It is moving without being sugary, authentic without being crass. Take tissues.

Art in the heart

Pokuaa Osei has a had a good week too. My good friend (and successor as chair of the National Campaign for the Arts), Samuel West, presented Pokuaa with a “Hearts for the Arts” award, which rewards local councils, council officers and councillors who overcome funding problems to keep the arts flourishing. Pokuaa works for the London Borough of Haringey and her involvement with Family First Nights has won her the award. The scheme provides chances for deprived families with two children between the ages of three and 17 to get special deals to go to West End Shows.

Over five weeks this summer, 550 such families have seen shows as varied as Billy Liar and Les Misérables. Some had never been to central London before, let alone visited a theatre. Everyone gains: young people can be inspired by seeing such grand shows; families coming together on a night out does them all good. Why aren’t more councils encouraging such initiatives?

Birkbeck’s promise

By the time you read this, I will have been on my feet for four hours each day for three consecutive days. It’s graduation time and as president of Birkbeck I stand alongside the college’s master congratulating our new graduates. Birkbeck, part of the University of London, is an amazing place; it offers full degrees to people who are also earning a living. Around 6 o’clock each evening the students flock through the doors, straight from their day jobs, to study under outstanding academics. We were founded almost 200 years ago by George Birkbeck, a philanthropist who thought working people should have as good a chance to learn as the better off. It was among the first Mechanics’ Institutes – which I remember from my childhood as places where anyone, regardless of class or income, could go to learn.

This week the range of our student recruitment has broadened with the launch of the Compass Project, which will offer 20 asylum seekers each year a fully funded place on any undergraduate or postgraduate course. George would be delighted that we are fulfilling his mission, though perhaps surprised at the direction it is taking.

Ministry of Truth

George Orwell is in the wrong place. Ever since I challenged the last director general with the idea that the BBC should celebrate Orwell and his journalistic values – and was told he was “too left wing” – I have known the BBC is fearful of its political masters…the ones who hold the purse strings.

Thus the corporation’s new Orwell statue lurks under an oppressive building overhang at the BBC’s headquarters instead of out in open sight. Perhaps they thought that the political bigwigs arriving by limousine at the building’s second entrance would miss the challenge of his values. Ideally the statue, by Martin Jennings, should stand in the glorious horseshoe approach at New Broadcasting House in Portland Place, the inspiration of architect Richard MacCormac. There it would be seen by the hordes who rush in daily to man the desks and programmes. It might even inspire them to seek the truth in what they do.

Joan Bakewell is a broadcaster and author of “Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind” (Virago)

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

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