Saturday, 12 June 2010


When I was a stage struck child writing musicals, making puppets and doing a song and dance act for them, my parents said I was good enough to be on Ralph Reader's Gang Show, a talent contest in which, if memory serves, Mr Reader dressed as a boy scout. Unfortunately during a brief career with 42 Parrs Wood Road Scouts I had water poured up my sleeve for swearing in camp. Fearing this might affect my prospects, I eshewed Mr Reader and his toggle and set my sights on Big Jim Campbell and his Cowboy talent show. A little later I might have tried Carrol Leavis Discoveries, or Hughie Green, or any one of a number of shrewd entertainers, themselves without a discernable talent, who toured the country with talent shows in which they were the only ones getting paid. When Butlins opened, entertainment was centred on talent shows. I cannot remember a time when there wasn't a child prodigy, an elderly baritone and whole companies of ventriloquists giving their miniscule all on a stage near you. So why, I wondered, has Simon Cowell been given a BAFTA award for his "innovative contribution to show business"?

What was innovative about his entertainments?

According to John Willis, chairman of the Bafta TV committee: "Over the past few years he has not only helped change the entertainment landscape but has re-invented Saturday night family entertainment. His shows enable exciting new talent to shine and are the most talked-about programmes on British television. He is quite simply one of the most brilliant entertainment producers of our time."

Cowell, I read, became a TV mogul after rising to prominence as a judge on Pop Idol, later creating The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which finished this weekend, as well as becoming a big name in the US with American Idol. He has helped to make Susan Boyle a neurotic worldwide success and the 'Got Talent' format is now screened in more than 40 countries. He has also acquired a stable of money-making entertainers which allows him to live like one of the Mogul Emperors. I would have thought an award for industry would be more appropriate.

Young TV viewers in my family are besotted by vampires. Channel 4's "True Blood" is the latest in a long line of sexually explicit, violent and vulgar programmes. It is a shocking tale of depravity, explicit sexuality (bordering on pornography) and vile language. Even before the opening credits in the first episode, we see a young woman pleasuring a young man while driving her car. The programme is full of characters with fantastical powers. A telepathic waitress, Sookie, and a ‘shapeshifter’; ‘Fang-bangers’ - humans who like having sex with vampires - and the drug dealers. There’s oral sex, overt discussion of genitalia, graphic sex scenes bordering on the deviant, and foul language. We see a man having sex with a woman while watching a video of the same woman having sex with a vampire. It’s animalistic, violent, corrupt and scary.

Surpringly, there is no move to ban it. That is reserved for the most innocent of entertainment: the Circus.

The self righteous "assassins" of this ancient art have the statuary long hair, lupine features and that air of deep, throbbing self-satisfaction that is the hallmark of the apostle of the single issue.
The kids in circus queues have eyes that dance with expectation and the animals who entertain them crackle with the joy animals always exhibit when they are about to show off to the humans who supply them with food and protect them from danger. The "assassins" seek to persuade Councils to deny a resting place to circuses which employ animals to entertain human beings.
I have been a circus fan all my life. I cannot think of one which employs cruelty to train animals because that never works. When I've been furious with my dogs they have ignored me. When I offer them treats they blindly obey my commands.

The love that circus keepers have for their animals nearly got me the sack from the Daily Mirror in the days when it was still a newspaper. For reasons which we need not got into here, I persuaded Billy Smart’s Circus to put on a show in the grounds of Southport Infirmary. Afterwards I marched down Lord Street at the head of a procession which included Whimsical Walker and his troupe of Clowns, a bevy of beauties on horseback and a small Arab on a camel. We stopped at a pub called The Bold and I bought a drink for all present to thank them for their services. I noticed the Arab, who had taken a small lemon juice, looked unhappy and asked Brian Cartney, Billy Smart’s PRO, why.

He said: “You haven’t bought a drink for his camel.” I said I thought camels only drank every three days and he said, “This is the third day.”

I bought the camel a bucket of water. The barmaid charged me half a crown, so I put on my expenses: “To bucket of water for camel: half a crown."

The accountants who were just beginning to rule newspapers thought I was making a joke at the expense of money, which was blasphemous, and demanded I be sacked.

In a world where the accountant is king, the long-haired assassin will no doubt get his way. In Africa kids are starving and animal cruelty is endemic. Harmful TV programmes abound and will contiue to flourish. The clown will be broken-hearted as the animals who aren't shot will spend their lives pacing mindlessly in zoo cages.


The mention of starving Africans inevitably summons the vision of thousands of empty-bellied, slum-dwelling South Africans trumpeting with joy at a series of tedious games that have cost them millions. Yet on every face the default gesture is a smile. They live in the Murder Capital of the World. What have they got to smile about?

We who live cosseted lives are sour-faced and glum because our leaders warn us that things are going to be tough. So what else is new?

The simple truth is that although life anywhere in Britain has not a lot going for you it is a lot better than it is in a Third Country. Forbye, even here it is not too good if you are poor - and even less if you are old and poor. I had an old friend who lived in Liverpool. Nothing would induce him to go out at night, his doctor treated him like scum and the police set up an observation post in his spare room to keep an eye on the pistol-toting gangsters who use the pub next door as a headquarters.

Life, he told me, was much more expensive for the poor. The rich pay cash and can do a deal for almost anything. The poor buy on hire purchase with an added interest charge. But they are in a minority. The rest of us have much to smile about.

My wife and I are lucky to be living in the Fens - and not just because we have a sub-tropical micro climate. We live in a market town in walking distance of two vets, two medical practices, three supermarkets, two dentists, an optician - and a pawn shop.

On Anglesey, where we last lived, our village shops closed down until the nearest shop to my home was two miles away. The bus service did not operate at night. Fine for me because I could jump in my car. Not so good for the older, non-car-owning ladies who lived next door. Not all that good for me, really, because petrol is more expensive in the countryside than it is in the cities. Car tax and insurance have gone up in a comic effort to relieve traffic - in inner cities. In my rural paradise we paid extra community tax to fund profligate city councils.

Rural post offices closed and the business transferred to banks and supermarkets, which killed local shops. The nearest bank to our village was four miles away. Local farmers lived on £5,000 a year and went bust in battalions.

Here too, the eyes of the schoolchildren sparkled, their young bodies galvanised with high spirits. See the same children as they sprawled listlessly on a bench a month after they left school. Their eyes were dead. The few jobs they were offered , the bus fares took up most of the wage.The future may be grim. For an awful lot of us the past wasn't all that to boast about but compared to the South Africans we are millionaires.