Mike Leigh films 'S are known for their formidable female characters. We get some of his favorite actresses, from veterans Alison Steadman and Brenda Blethyn to star a year to discuss the special magic of creating a character with Lee - and talk to the man himself
When Mike Leigh has anything to do with a party, it tends to be dangerous: everything, in his films, starts to unravel. But at this get-together of women who regularly act in them, all is well. They are opening the champagne, getting ready to smile for the camera, and someone â" I think it is Alison Steadman â" shouts: "To Mike!". Everyone â" Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Marion Bailey, Karina Fernandez â" lifts their glasses. There is much laughter and noisy conversation. I know how many of his regulars regret not being here because I have been talking to some of them â" Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Sally Hawkins â" in Northampton, Los Angeles and New York. I know, too â" because she is remembered so often â" how everyone wishes Katrin Cartlidge, who died eight years ago at 41, were alive and able to join in.
Living the role
Leigh is said to keep mum about his working methods. But the actors are more forthcoming: improvisations, they explain, take months. Each character's history begins in one-to-one discussions (like therapy) with the director. There is, according to Manville, a "huge amount of interrogation". The words "epic" and "organic" keep coming up â" and several of the women describe the process as like creating a novel. Each actor initially knows nothing about what other characters are up to, or rather, as Blethyn explains: "Everything is on a need-to-know basis â¦ Leigh says he has nothing at the back of his head but may be conducting an experiment â¦ putting two chemicals together." Improvisations might involve hours doing nothing more than watching the box â" or, sometimes, study: Jean-Baptiste researched optometry, Fernandez did occupational therapy and flamenco. "Working with Leigh is an act of faith," Jean-Baptiste says, "I have never worked on anything since with such depth."
Improvisation is a way of living the role â" hours of experience that may never make it into the film. And all the actors express a special sense of "ownership" about their Mike Leigh characters. "The possession is total," Staunton says; Sheen: "You go into such depth. You create them. They are yours." Blethyn imagines her character from Secrets and Lies must still be out there somewhere: "You want to ring her and say: 'Hello, Cynthia, how you doing?'" Hawkins sums it up: "You invest a lot emotionally. It is very demanding. It takes over your life. You know your character so well â" what her dreams were, what she got for Christmas in 1987, every stage of her life. She becomes like part of you from a former life." Steadman describes Leigh as "the third eye, the monitor, setting the character up". Bailey used to refer jokingly to his interventions as "acts of God".
I decide God will need to be put on the spot â" but later. The women must have their say first. For convenience, Leigh's women can be divided into two groups: happy and unhappy. His films, especially the latest, raise questions about what makes women happy.
Ruth Sheen is the happiness supremo. As Gerri, she is serene, almost queenly. She was wonderful, too, in High Hopes Another year ," says Sheen, "is a family that is the heart. Around them are the lonely and the sad and those detached from their emotions â" where alcohol is in place of relationships." To develop Gerri "took months and months". Sheen can supply all the details of her early life â" hopeful child, positive young woman, first in her family to get to university (Manchester). She is "a thinker, a listener".
Lesley Manville has played in seven Leigh films. "Until I met Mike in my 20s, I played myself all the time. Now, thanks to him, I never get typecast. No one says: 'Lesley only does depressed â¦ or working-class â¦ or posh.'" As her roles show, Leigh is interested not so much in showing Everywoman as any woman â" no one too humble. And, it is true, Manville can do anything â" but she excels at unhappiness.
She starred in All or nothing (2002) as the distraught, anaemic-looking mother of a fat son with heart failure. She and Leigh see that film as "the one that got away". Her performance as Penny was superb but it cannot trump her Mary in Another Year. Mary is in the autumn of her life. She sees in Gerri a contentment she wishes she had. Manville â" a single parent herself â" knows "a lot of women who are single and childless by choice". Mary is not one of them: "She wants love and care and attention. Her friend is the bottle, unfortunately." Manville volunteers: "I've witnessed women in their 50s in a manic state of pain and loneliness." She felt Sheen's character could have been more tolerant: "I used to go to Mike and say: 'Mary feels Gerri should be a bit kinder.' He wouldn't comment."
In Careless (2008), Sally Hawkins plays Poppy (self-evidently in the happy camp), a primary school teacher who was born cheerful.Whatever happens (deranged driving instructors included) she bounces back. "She has a talent for happiness," says Hawkins, "she doesn't take things personally. She is not on the defensive. She doesn't judge." And here is the key to Leigh: everything is character driven â" and he doesn't judge. Women are happy because of who they are more than because of what happens to them.
The one exception to this is Imelda Staunton's Vera Drake, a tender-hearted abortionist with a happy family life. When her circumstances change and the cops arrest her, the change in her seems absolute, her face a picture of despair. Staunton describes working on the role as "exhilarating". It was only later that "the fall-out happened. Vera Drake made a dent in my head that, at the time, I was not aware of at all. Three or four years later, I was thinking about it all the time. I'd lost that family, lost that woman. Vera made a huge impact on me."
Staunton has a cameo role in Another Year. And the extraordinary thing is that as middle-class, unhappily married Janet, she seems more of a casualty even than Vera Drake. Leigh is known for his films about working-class life but does not make the case for happiness having much to do with money. Staunton's performance is amazing: her misery, as Janet, formidable. She excites tremendous, never-to-be-satisfied, curiosity in the audience.
We agree that Leigh has no agenda. Staunton says: "He has no axe to grind about women â¦ but they have as strong a role to play as men." If there is a generalisation, it is that maternity is the great event â" disaster, disrupter or blessing â" in a woman's life. It is not a subject he ever neglects. There is a painful divide â" as sometimes in life â" between the haves and the have-nots. There are women who cannot conceive (like Monica in Secrets and Lies or Barbara in Meantime). There are unplanned pregnancies (in Vera Drake ; Secrets & Lies ; All or nothing ). And there is never finding the right man or leaving it too late (Mary in Another Year). In High Hopes, it is Shirley's precarious achievement patiently to persuade her partner they should try for a baby. But there is no point to prove. This is film mirroring life.
Beverly, in Abigail's Party
Steadman mildly replies that such extremes exist in real life: "Sitting on the bus, you'll see Mike Leigh characters getting on left, right and centre. There are extremes â" people go from normal to completely over the top." She adds: "Most comedy is like a magnifying glass. You enlarge reality slightly."
Steadman was married to Leigh when she made Abigail's Party (she also played gorgeously gormless Candice Marie, complete with prim speech impediment and bobble hat, in 1976's Nuts in May'). Was the work/home balance ever tricky? "No, it wasn't peculiar or difficult. Mike has a rule never to discuss work. You put your frock away in the rehearsal room, come home and have a normal life."
The director's take
When I ring Mike Leigh he wants, most of all, to celebrate Katrin Cartlidge (Career Girlsand Naked). Naked was a one-off â" the darkest, sexiest, most disturbing of Leigh's films. Cartlidge gave a sense in this â" and Career Girls â" of being a woman who wished she could live as a free spirit (not easy in practice). She was a brilliant mixture of independence, eccentricity and vulnerability. And she had such an odd beauty â" like a clever emu. "It is terribly sad you can't talk to her. If she'd lived, there is no question I would have done more with her," Leigh says. "She was very special. What one remembers is the compassionate emotional depth, wit and perception. She never said a bad word about anything. As an actor she was courageous â" and gorgeous."
He chuckles at the idea of a piece about his women: "I'm someone who has deservedly been a signal failure at relationships â¦ but I do have a good working relationship with actresses." Aside from talent, what qualities do they need? "Patience. A sense of humour. They have to be intelligent character actors, turned on by playing people in the street. Not prima donnas. There is a great deal of hanging around while other people get it together. But the work is harmonious â" a loving thing. It is also a laugh."
Much has been made of Leigh's tendency to use his "old-timers" again and again. But he wants to set the record straight: "I'm always up for working with new people, like the excellent Karina Fernandez." His promise to returning actors is: "We won't go to the same place." He sees Another Year as a "personal, reflective film â" I am 67 but can see emotional connections with my first film Cold Moments (1971)."
It is true â" both films describe loneliness. And what would he say of himself? Is he happier now than when he made Cold Moments nearly 40 years ago?
"Yes and no."
Manville is more upfront. "In the latter part of his career, he's made films about reality, his earlier films involved more satire. He is happier where he is now. He is at the peak of his profession as a film-maker."
- Mike Leigh
- Imelda Staunton
- Sally Hawkins
Excerpts from a secret DoSAC dossier belonging to The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker â" including confidential emails, Glenn's experiences with Twitter, and Malcolm's briefing on TV interviews
@PULSEFINGER: Glenn joins Twitter
From: Ollie [mailto:email@example.com]
To: Malcolm [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Subject: URGENT: New Glenn Stephen Fry
HAIKU OF THE DAY: Nicola Murray / Emptiness is shrouded in fear / Stupid fucking cow. [Thanks, Ben!]
Less than a minute ago via Web
PERSONAL: Senior political adviser to Cabinet member, GSOH, non-smoker, late 40s, rugged, fun, WLTM lady 25-40 for "who knows?". "DM" me!
5 minutes ago via web
Some insider smells: Prince of Wales (lavender and spearmint). Kay Burley (pear drops). Rod Liddle (rabbit hutch).
8 minutes ago via web
DM: John, I want to say that cocaine is an anecdote. Can you create Twitterfeed whatnot so it just goes to people who Don 'I know Susie? Cheers.
14 minutes ago via Web
Planning authorities: read small print in new White Paper if you don'twant a huge fucking detention centre on nearest bit of Green Belt.
16 minutes ago via web
FACT: a certain 30-something special adviser at DoSAC was NOT on a fact-finder to Belfast last week, he was getting his end away with a cert â¦
18 minutes ago via web
Seenleaving Portcullis House with a bag full of Tesco suspiciously "ringing" goods: certain PPS, which is always "just to be sociable"!
23 minutes ago via web
Ha ha we're all calling Treasury Frank's new boyfriend "Black Rod" NB this is not racist as he is black though NB his name is not Rod. [?]
25 minutes ago via web
Hey, "Twitterverse"! Anyone know of a good literary agent? I'm a senior political adviser to a Cabinet member and have a story to kiss/tell.
34 minutes ago via web
Politicians today aren't a fucking patch on those of yesteryear. I once had tea and Bourbons with Harold Wilson. True story. Happy days.
40 minutes ago via web
DM: John, how do I get rid of the messages I've sent that I don't want anyone to read? Also, can I actually email [Terri, say] from Twitter?
42 minutes ago via web
WhichSenior ranks of the opposition is now doubly incontinent and requires cortisone injections before each TV appearance? I know ...
About 1 hour ago via web
Pleaseignore my Teets today, am a senior advisor to a cabinet 2 bit jet lagged three randomly due to drunk drink / change time zone!
7:23 am on June 3 via the web
@TelegraphBlogsWd you interstd in regular dspatchs FM Coalface Wstmnstr? Am Senior advisr the Cabinet mmber & CD make theor "Whiggish".
7:21 AM Jun 3rd via web in reply to TelegraphBlogs
@BBCRadio4 â¦are "Now Libby Purves..." It is very difficult making a coherent argument for the Licence Fee, never mind Jenni Fucking Murray.
7:08 am on June 3 on the web in reply to BBCRadio4
@BBCRadio4 I write as a senior political adviser to a Cabinet member, to tell you that the most depressing three words in the fucking world
7:06AM Jun 3rd via web in reply to BBCRadio4
@IsraelMFA I am a senior political adviser to a member of the Cabinet of the British Government, and I have to say you have fucked up.
6:49 AM Jun 3rd via web in reply to IsraelMFA
As a senior political adviser to a member of Cabinet I can tell you the mood in Westminster this morning is fucking sombre. More later.
6:06 AM Jun 3rd via web
Testing... Testing. Will anyone be able to see this message, John?
5:56 PM May 20th via web
From: Malcolm [mailto:email@example.com]
To: Ollie [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
How to do TV interviews by Malcolm Tucker
Sooner or later you will do a live TV interview. You will arrive at the studio where a girl who looks about 15 wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard will rush you down some corridors, saying "We're travelling" into a walkie-talkie. You will be made up by a chatty woman who'll tell you indiscreet gossip about Robson Green and then you'll be there, suddenly, in the studio, in the chair, the hot lights burning you, millions watching you, the questions flying. This is how you handle it.
He is still my dad. You can 't beat it. When a cocky young sometimes he tried to pop them, steals their wallet, fucks his wife and buys a new refrigerator with their Mastercard.
Seems reasonable. People breathe a sigh of relief when they know it's going to be Nice Smiley Gavin and not Death Mask Of Shergar Paxman. Don't be fooled. He fucked George Galloway so hard his wee two-tone beard fell off and he had to sell his shares in fucking Halliburton and NestlÃ© to get a transplant. Tread carefully.
She's cleverer than you are, OK? Do not forget this or she will make you look like a dribbling chimp with a 2:2 from Loughborough wanking in a tyre to the theme tune from Mr Benn. You're a professional politician, right? You just know about politics. That's all you've ever thought about or cared about because if it wasn't you wouldn't be doing this job, you abnormal fucking freak of nature. Kirsty though, she knows about politics, sure she does, but she also knows about fucking opera and fucking art and fucking Japanese Noh Theatre and films and books and all of that shit that other people get passionate about, but which just makes you reach for the fucking Hansard and a Tunnock's wafer.
Being interviewed by Kay is, as we all know, like being interviewed by a backward child. That's obviously great most of the time. But occasionally she will throw you a curveball like a child might â" "Why is there war?" "What is Europe?" â" and if you can't answer it's you who ends up looking like the thick-as-pigshit chancer.
I know you want to laugh, but don't. Really. It just reflects badly on you. Try to pretend he doesn't look like a male Sandi Toksvig with a glandular complaint. (Oh, and you know I sometimes say that you should imagine an interviewer naked in order not to be intimidated? For the love of Christ don't do this with Adam.)
Look attentive and engaged. No crossed legs. No touching the face. No touching the cock. Don't fold arms. Don't look away when thinking of an answer. Breathe normally. Don't shit yourself. Answer immediately. Don't cough. No stuttering. Don't sniff. Blink between five and seven times a minute â" no more or less. Maintain eye contact at all times. Make sure you consciously do or don't do all of the above but YOU MUST MAKE SURE you don't look like you're consciously doing or not doing them. And above all be relaxed.
Yes and No
In answer to a question that blatantly requires an affirmative or negative response, you may be tempted by the old-school "start talking reasonably without saying yes or no" gambit. For example:
Interviewer: "Will you cut the money available to hospices?
You: "We have been working closely, and will continue to work closely, with the hospice movement, and Sir Peter Dudderidge himself has said that in real terms the funding â¦"
You're a cunt, right there. You may as well stop speaking now, everyone hates you. Your mum's watching, she's thinking "What a fuckwad, wish I'd taken Karen's advice, got rid of him at 24 weeks and taken that job doing PR at House Of Fraser."
DO NOT LOOK LIKE MICHAEL FUCKING HOWARD.
The Nicola Murray emails
From: Malcolm Tucker
To: Nicola Murray
Oh my god!!! I just read your interview in the Observer!!!!
From: Nicola Murray
To: Malcolm Tucker
Subject: Re : Press
Cool! Did you like it?
From: Malcolm Tucker
To: Nicola Murray
Subject: Re : Re : Press
From: Nicola Murray
To: Malcolm Tucker
Subject : Re : Re : Re : Press
I thought it made me sound like a human being?
From: Malcolm Tucker
To: Nicola Murray
Subject : Re : Re : Re : Re : Press
From: Nicola Murray
To: Malcolm Tucker
Subject : Re : Re : Re : Re : Re : Press
OK! Constructive criticism! Thanks!!!
From: Malcolm Tucker
To : Nicola Murray
Subject : Re : Re : Re : Re : Re : Re : Press
Oh! Ironic use of exclamation marks! Very fucking funny! I bet you wish you'd been born Spanish so you could use twice as many of the fuckers. I'll be popping in for a chat about this debacle soon. In the mean time, I would like to reiterate FOR THE FOURTH TIME that I think you should get therapy. Granted, I was joking to begin with. BUT I'm not joking any more!!!!! Or am I?
No, I M "FUCKING NOT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!
â¢ The Thick Of It: The Missing DoSAC Files, out 4 Nov (Faber & Faber)
- Armando Iannucci
The Palestinian president is too weak and compromised to accept any final settlement with which Netanyahu can live
Since its inception in OsloAlmost two decades ago, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to a standstill on the dysfunctional political systems of both sides. Can not be held hostage to the coalition and the settler movement freelance fanatics, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 'S leadership is seriously compromised. His Palestinian colleagues hardly in a better position.
Today, clicks, which surrounds the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, represents a bitter deception, that the peace process is for the Palestinians. In addition, the Palestinian authority has come not represent the majority of Palestinians, nor the rules of a democratic way.
Abbas's presidential term has expired, and elections are constantly being postponed. The PA's prime minister, Salam Fayyad, like his Hamas counterparts in Gaza, rules by decree, keeps parliament inactive, and silences the opposition. With no institutionalised democratic legitimacy, the PA is bound to rely on its security forces and on those of the occupier, Israel, to enforce its will.
Of course, throughout history, national liberation movements have had to marginalise their own radicals and fanatics in order to reach the Promised Land. This was true of Zionism, of the Italian Risorgimento, and most recently of the Catholics in Northern Ireland. But never did the outcast faction actually represent the democratically elected majority. A peace process conceived as a means to weaken and isolate the winners of an election â" Hamas â" is unlikely to gain much traction.
Like George W Bush, President Barack Obama confines his diplomatic engagement largely to friends rather than adversaries. This, more than anything else, explains the growing disconnection between Arab public opinion and the Obama administration.
The Palestinian negotiators' dangerous lack of legitimacy â" and, indeed, the disorientation of the entire Palestinian national movement â" is reflected in the return of the PLO to its pre-Arafat days, when it was the tool of Arab regimes instead of an autonomous movement. The green light was given to the current negotiators by the Arab League, not by the elected representatives of the Palestinian people.
Obama's endorsement of Netanyahu's claim that if Israel is recognised as a Jewish state and its security needs accepted, "I will surprise, and the sky is the limit," has made the current process possible. But maximal security â" for example, an insufferably long timetable for withdrawal, unreasonable territorial demands wrapped up as security needs, an Israeli presence in the Jordan valley, and full control of Palestinian airspace and the electromagnetic spectrum â" would inevitably clash with Palestinians' view of what sovereignty entails.
For Netanyahu, the creation of a Palestinian state means the end of conflict and the finality of claims. By reopening Israel's demand to be recognised as the state of the Jewish people, he is forcing the Palestinians to insist even more on the constituent issues of the conflict, first and foremost on the so-called "right of return" of Palestinians who fled or were driven out after Israeli independence in 1948.
Abbas is too weak and compromised to accept any final settlement with which Netanyahu can live. Arafat set the standard as to what is acceptable and what is not, and Abbas cannot allow himself the luxury of deviating from it. As he admitted in a recent interview with the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds, if pressured to concede on sacred Palestinian principles such as refugees, Jerusalem and borders, he would "pack his suitcase and go away".
It is not impossible that with Hamas in the picture, an agreement could end the occupation, if not the conflict. In other words, such a process would deal with the issues of 1967 â" defining a border (including Jerusalem), withdrawing and dismantling settlements, putting in place security arrangements, and the Palestinians' assumption of full governance responsibility â" while shelving for the future those of 1948.
Hamas is a far more convenient partner for such a settlement than the PLO. Oddly, Hamas and Israel might have more common ground than Israel and the PLO. Israel wants an end to the conflict but is incapable of paying the price, whereas Hamas can better reconcile its ideology with a peace agreement with Israel if it is not defined as final.
Whatever route is taken, the great question today concerns the enigma that is Bibi Netanyahu, a would-be Churchill who believes that his mission is to thwart the designs of Iran's evil new Shia empire, something that requires the goodwill of the international community, and particularly of the Obama administration. It is not entirely far-fetched to assume that Netanyahu finally calculated that if he wants more room to manoeuvre to deal with Iran, he must participate in the peace process with the Palestinians.
But, in that case, Iranian quiescence, not peaceful relations with an independent Palestine, might be Bibi's true objective.
â¢ Copyright Project Syndicate, 2010
â¢ Comments on this article are set to remain open for 24 hours from the time of publication but may be closed overnight
- US foreign policy
- Middle East peace talks
- Middle East
- Palestinian Territories
- Barack Obama
- United States
Hilarious, frank and scalpel sharp, the hospital comedy Getting On is back. Tim Lusher has a checkup with its writer-stars
When the hospital comedy Getting On slipped on to BBC4 last year, there were no wailing sirens or flashing lights to herald that a major drama was about to unfold. Just three hilarious, incisive episodes later, it was all over â" quietly discharged from the schedules, leaving an almost perceptible stench of soiled sheets, rising bile and ulcerating despair.
Unlike ER and House, Getting On did not trade on medicine's heroic glamour, or lean on its melodramatic aspect, as Casualty or Holby City do. Set on a drab ward somewhere on England's south coast, it instead drew unexpected howls of laughter from the drudgery, frustrations and indignities of life for patients and staff in a typical world-of-beige NHS hospital. One episode revolved around finding out who had pooed on a chair and who was going to clean it up. Not since Jed Mercurio's BodiesTV drama was poked in the dirty business of health with such startling candor.
Lauded by fans and critics, and nominated for writingand acting awards , Getting On is back for a second, longer run of six episodes. Overworked nurse Kim Wilde, played with unblinking stoicism by Jo Brand, is still mired in pus and bureaucracy â" her first task in the new series is dealing with a tramp's burst perianal abscess. Sister Den Flixter (Joanna Scanlan) is struggling to find beds, meet performance targets and defeat her loneliness through a romance with confused male matron Hilary. Humourless, imperious doctor Pippa Moore's riveting work to expand the Bristol Stool Chart to "an exhaustive 31 types of patient faeces" is less to the fore because she is fighting for her job. Vicki Pepperdine, who plays Moore, sounds suitably relieved. "We didn't want to bang on about poo. We felt we'd done quite a lot of poo jokes."
But there's no change of tone: Getting On remains real, raw and human, scalpel-sharp on the interplay between character and hierarchy. Brand, who writes the series with Scanlan and Pepperdine, said that they are intended as a 'Holby City antidote, where everyone has so much makeup, and they do care for about 20 seconds, and then go and romance with the surgeon ". Familiar and nurses, and she went to the rack, mark snorts at the comparison of its character and Edie Falco 'S Nurse Jackie â" also lauded as a gritty portrayal of a medical frontliner. "The difference was she had darts in her uniform to give her a glamorous waist."
Medical professionals seem to like drama 'S pessimistic tone . "I get the sense that people are relieved you've sort of shown it how it is," says Brand. "The thing I hear the most is nurses saying, 'It's so like my job.'" Singer Kim Wilde, meanwhile, was apparently delighted when Brand told her about her namesake â" and may do a cameo if the show gets a third series. "She said, 'Can I come and be in a bed?' We've got in mind to slot her in, in a Hitchcockian way, and not even mention it. She'll be singing Kids in America then we'll tranquilise her."
The three writer-stars are neighbours in south London and have the rapport you'd expect. Scanlan worked on an Annie Griffin comedy, Coming Soon, with Pepperdine, who lives next door to Brand's best friend. They plan plots and rehearse in Scanlan's house ("because it's tidy"), then divvy up the scriptwriting â" although they improvise during filming. Like magpies, the trio shamelessly collect anecdotes to adapt. Brand recalls: "At a friend's wedding, a very elderly woman came up to me and said, 'I was in hospital next to an old bloke and he just wanked all day long. Can you put that in?'"
Pepperdine's parents both worked in the NHS, her mother as an occupational therapist and father as an administrator. Scanlan has been typecast since a 1997 role as a midwife in Peak Practice. "As a fat actress I have played 15 nurses. I was thinking, 'What is it about the fat that equals nurse?' and it's that it reads as unthreatening and warm." While they insist Getting On's characters could have worked in a different setting (Scanlan cites the HBO buddy show Entourage
Choosing a female-dominated workplace also allowed them to circumvent the odd, irritating scrutiny that falls on "women doing comedy", says Scanlan. "It was that or elderly prostitutes really, wasn't it?" says Brand.
Their trump card in pitching the humour just right, however, may be the influence of director Peter Capaldi, who develops the scripts with producer Geoff Atkinson. Scanlan worked with Capaldi on The Thick of It (she played useless press officer Terri Coverley) and raves about his "classy" approach. ("Roman Polanski wasn't available," drawls Brand.) The two programmes share a deadpan visual and comedic tone. Capaldi, who won a directing Oscar for his 1993 short film, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life, brings a distinctive aesthetic to Getting On: a faded, mournful palette of grey, green and brown, caught by jumpy handheld cameras that give the feel of reality TV.
But there the shows' similarities end. "The Thick of It is quite cold," says Scanlan. "If there's a feeling they're dealing with, it's mainly anger." "Emotionally, it's got a different colour," agrees Brand. "It's blue and we're red."
Although it has heart, and the topic of funding cuts looms in the storyline, Getting On is not overtly political or campaigning. There's a weary, dogged pride in the world it portrays. "Yes we moan about the NHS but its existence is such a wonderful thing," says Brand. "We feel like it's ours so we can say what we like about it." She regrets how nursing has changed since she left in 1988. "All nurses now have to get degrees and in my humble opinion that removes them slightly from patient care. They want to be practitioners â" they don't just want to be wiping bums. To me, that's a bad move. The health service has been incredibly bureaucratised as well, so you have to fill in forms all the time rather than just sitting by someone's bed and trying to cheer them up."
Ah, who wouldn't love a hospital visit from Jo Brand? She can reel off terrible things she saw as a nurse â" the man who came into an emergency clinic at Christmas with all his fingers nailed to a breadboard; trying to hold up a 30st incontinent woman while she was "pebbledashing the room with shit". Yet her humour is intact despite it all â" probably even boosted. "Ambulance service people, police, all those people who work in highly stressed situations develop really cruel senses of humour," she says.
So how does she feel now about elderly suffering, having made this tender, funny, heartbreaking series? "It makes me think I want someone to put a pillow over my face before I get to that stage. I think in years to come we'll see a relaxing of the rules. At the moment, you've got to go to Switzerland. By the time I get near it, I would much rather you were able to do it over here. I can just see a little Dignitas in Penge."
Getting On starts on BBC4 on October 26.
- Television industry
- Healthcare industry
had made the news. Who knows what effect that has had?
We crossed the road to the cafe of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood and the clamour of visiting school children. This made it fitting that my first question was about education, specifically academies. The new government wants more of them, everywhere. In Hackney, just up the road, there are several, including the most successful in the country. Abbas's Conservative opponent Neil King is eager to bring them to Tower Hamlets. It presently has none. Abbas wants to keep things that way.
"Academies lack accountability," he said. "I cannot see why we should hand over major assets to private sector companies in return for a small contribution. We want the private sector to play a part [in education], and as a result of that we have private sector representatives on our governing bodies, we have private sector people mentoring our headteachers and we are open to sharing best practices. But I worry about the admission policies some academies may introduce. We want to raise standards across the board not in a small number of selective institutions."
A former lead member on education, he spoke proudly of the Council's record of investing in schools and attracting good teachers. A while ago banners hung from the borough's lamp posts proclaiming improvements in exam results. "We have exceeded, year on year, national average in our key stage two and some of our exam results are better than several other local authorities,' he said. "And this has happened because of the investment and our strong commitment in empowering our young people to acquire the basic skills they need in life to move on and the best tools to move out of poverty."
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What will he do about that black hole? Abbas explained that after becoming leader again in May (displacing Rahman), he set up a budget working party of officers and Councillors, "looking at how we can do things differently, how we can do things partnership-wise, how we can make better use of our IT facilities, how can we perhaps introduce new procurement strategies and asking how can we change working patterns of people and a whole range of ways that we an make ourselves an even more lean and efficient borough without having to touch some of the core services."
To some, I pointed out, this might read like a euphemism for making cuts.
"The cuts are going to be imposed by the Coalition government," he said.
I mentioned the interest of Liberal Democrat candidate John Griffiths in possible Coalition plans to give local authorities more powers, perhaps including the ability to raise money from local business rates. Abbas responded by reminding me about the problems caused by the radical decentralisations of past Liberal Democrat administrations in Tower Hamlets. That said, he is keen to devolve in his own way: "We have been piloting how local people can have a greater say in the way we spend funding. We want to look at how we can extend that to offer real money, real decision-making power to local people to decide about where and how much to spend on priorities that they identify."
Housing is huge issue in Tower Hamlets, with many households living in overcrowded conditions and many on the Council's waiting list. Problems that exist all over London are especially acute in this borough. "We have a number of large families in Tower Hamlets and we have always had that tradition, whether they are the Irish, Bangladeshis or newly-arrive Somali communities," Abbas said. "We respect that. Tower Hamlets Council will not dictate the size and type of families! We will work with people to make sure we have balanced housing development which caters for large families as well as for young, single people."
This sounds a little like the idea for a "Mayor's mortgage" put forward by the former local MP Oona King during her campaign against Ken Livingstone to become Labour's London mayoral candidate. But I was more struck by similarities between Abbas's policies and those of Rahman. From their own words there seems little to separate them on core Council issues such as housing, Council Tax and education. Abbas, though, was clear about the key difference between them.
"I think Lutfur Rahman is running a personalised, egoistic campaign," he said. "I stand on the platform of an established political party which has very clear social justice policies which support ordinary people of whatever background or race. We represent a wide section of Tower Hamlets - people of different interest groups, different age groups, different faith groups. My campaign is not about Abbas, it's about the Labour Party, whereas the independent candidate's campaign is about him."
Rahman had told me he's to the left of Abbas politically.
"It's not about left or right," Abbas responded. "It's about being able to provide the quality of services people of Tower Hamlets deserve. I have a much stronger track record in being able to turn round local schools, turning round a failing local authority to become one of the most successful in the country, being able to raise the status of Tower Hamlets as a borough. That only happens when you have accountability and transparency, where you have an established political party [in control] and to hold you to account.
I put it to Abbas that his campaign has been damaged by way in which his selection as Labour's candidate came about. Rahman, to recap, won a ballot of Tower Hamlets party members by a large margin having fought his exclusion from two shortlists by legal means (an odd irony is that Abbas himself failed to make the first shortlist and would not be the candidate now had Rahman not forced Labour to draw up a second one). At the time, Labour's regional party officers and others present were confident that the vote had been conducted properly. Yet in a statement from Abbas to Labour's National Executive committee he alleged, among other things, that there had been many irregularities. Rightly or wrongly, the suspicion of a stitch up appears to have helped Rahman's campaign.
\\ "It 'S was a difficult process", Abbas said, diplomatically, "I think all of us. Having said that, NEC is the ultimate body. They chose me based on my past experience. I was in the As a successful leader earlier. I 'M is now in my fifth year at all as a leader. "
But many have questioned why local London assembly member and a former Tower Hamlets Council leader John Biggs wasn't imposed in Rahman's place. He had come second in the ballot to Abbas's third. Who could be blamed for suspecting that Abbas had been preferred because it was believed that a white candidate can't win in a borough where the Bangladeshi community, though comprising only around a third of all residents, is highly politicised and has a huge bearing on election results?
"I don't think the issue was about race," Abbas said. "I've got a great deal of respect for John who is a good friend of mine.'
But what might have been in the minds of the NEC members?
"The Labour Party decided to exclude Lutfur Rahman because of the number of allegations against him and how he used his authority during the period he was leader. They looked at the six people on the list [of those who'd finished behind Rahman], they looked at their competence and their track record and I have a far stronger track record than the others of being able to preside over a one billion pound local authority and gain the respect of residents of Tower Hamlets and Whitehall departments.
"Lutfur had the opportunity to challenge those allegations. He should have stayed in the Labour Party. If you've got a grievance, you see it through. He did not have the patience. He chose to stand against the Labour Party and as a result has been rightfully expelled."
In his statement to the NEC, Abbas made the dramatic claim that Rahman had been "brainwashed" by the Islamic Forum of Europe, a local Islamic community and social action organisation. Did he stand by that claim?
"He has been influenced by external factors which I have identified in my statement," Abbas said. "Some of his decisions [showed] he had very strong links with people other than Councillors. In my opinion it was inappropriate that there are people who have infiltrated the leadership he ran, infiltrated the Labour Party and infiltrated some of the Council membership. As a result of that the Labour group was not operating as a Labour group, without interference."
I wanted Abbas to define exactly what he considers sinister about the IFE. Even if it is has been as effective as he says in bringing an influence to bear, what precisely was wrong with that? After all, the organisation makes no secret of encouraging community activism. All kinds of community organisations influence all kinds of politicians. Abbas answered me as follows:
"We seek partnership with faith-based groups across the board. When I became leader of Tower Hamlets Council I set up the interfaith forum, I initiated the Council of Mosques because we believe that faith groups have a strong role to play. We value that, we bring them on board, and we want to work with them. What I object to is when organisations join the Labour Party with other motives than the core principles of the Labour Party. They [the IFE] were trying to over-influence it, trying to assert their own agenda. Not only myself but people like [the local MP]. Jim Fitzpatrick have objected that our party, the Labour Party, has been infiltrated and hijacked by people who were trying to piggy back on the Labour Party to achieve their own goals, and that's wrong."
What is IFE 'S goals that are incompatible with the Labour Party?
"I think looking after the interests of a specific group, one faith group at the expense of other groups. As the leader of Tower Hamlets Council I have a moral and a legal obligation to look after the interest of all our residents regardless of their faith or cultural background."
So was that the nub of it? That the IFE serves the interest of only one faith community?
"They were serving the interest of one faith group at the cost of others. I think that would be wrong for the Labour Party. For any party. What I want to do is look at how we unite the East End. How do we reach out to more people? How do we build a strong and fair Tower Hamlets for all?"
Would he have any truck with the IFE if he became Mayor?
\\ "I want to appeal to all religious groups, and if the IFE, or any other organization that meets our requirements, then I welcome it. I will not be left with the intention of excluding anyone."
I mentioned that on Sunday the Telegraph had described the East London Mosque, which has been alleged to be practically indistinguishable from the IFE, as "hardline" (the IFE rents office space in the adjoining London Muslim Centre). The mosque is also described by critics as a Jamaat mosque, saying that its takes its ideology from Jamaat e Islami, a fundamentalist political party. I'm certain that the mosque itself would object to such descriptions. Does Abbas consider the East London Mosque to be Jamaat or "hardline"?
"My role as a Councillor is that I will work with all faith groups if they subscribe to the terms of reference of partnership," he replied. "And if the East London Mosque - which has been a partner the Council has worked with in the past - subscribes to the terms of reference that I will set out when, hopefully, I am elected, then we will be very happy to work with them."
Could he say more about those "terms of reference"?
"I think we want organisations to contribute to schemes and projects for all our communities. I will not be party to organisations that may want to exclude others and promote single issues."
I wondered if there might be a contradiction there. Local authorities work with faith groups, or any kind of "third sector" body, if they believe they can do socially productive work with a particular section of society. In the case of faith groups, that will often be people who subscribe to the same faith.
"If their work contributes to the community cohesion of Tower Hamlets then we will welcome them," said Abbas. "But as a local authority we cannot fund faith-based activities. What can fund work that complements the Council's programme. And if they do that, whether it's a mosque or a church or a synagogue, we welcome that. We will expect all our partners to sign a code of conduct. And if the East London Mosque or a Roman Catholic church or whoever can subscribe to that we will welcome their contribution, because I think everyone has a contribution to make."
The IFE has issued a statement, which I wrote about yesterday, taking issue with its characterisation by Abbas in his NEC statement and claiming to have been courted by him during the selection process. Abbas denied this: "I have not had any contacts during this election with IFE or with East London Mosque. If anything, they [the IFE] have been ringing me and wanting to meet me and I have refused to meet them. That's for the record.
"Secondly, in my time as a leader, yes I have worked with East London Mosque but not with IFE, which is not a public organisation. It does not have a constitution and does not have a published record. They do not formally exist. You cannot find a copy of their annual report, annual accounts, a list of their members. What we had is a strong partnership with the East London Mosque in the past and, as I said, if they subscribe to the Council's partnership principles we would welcome that to continue. There are a number of projects currently operating in the East London Mosque and the [adjoining] London Muslin Centre, funded by Tower Hamlets Council."
Abbas returned to his theme of fighting social division, emphasising his pedigree and personal history. He recalled the days when the National Front were active in the area and when Derek Beackon became the nation's first British National Party first elected represented in 1993: "As a local person, a local lad from the Bangledeshi community who grew up locally, and has been through those difficult times, I naturally became politicised about rights, about equality, about equal opportunities for all, and therefore I think naturally had a very strong grasp of how to work with different sections of the community and how not to allow a dominant group to take over and exclude others.
"And as someone who went through local schools, with children who attended both local primary and secondary schools, I wanted my family to grow up among people of different nationalities and backgrounds, and that's what actually makes Tower Hamlets such a rich borough. I have that experience. And I think I'm well-placed to unite the division that Galloway and Respect and the independent candidate have created for Tower Hamlets."
I put it to him that a lot of the controversy around Tower Hamlets is an aspect of a wider debate about multiculturalism and what it means, or ought to mean. "It is about being able to treat people with respect," said Abbas. "It is about appreciating difference. But it is also about being able to work with people to create opportunities. For example, I used to be on the board of Tower Hamlets Community Housing run by a young, white director who grew up in Tower Hamlets, of about my age. Now, he celebrates every single religious celebration in his organisation. On some occasions I've seen more non-Muslims celebrating the Eid festival, because he created those kinds of environment.
"A local authority is an enabler. It can help people learn about each other much more so they build up relationships. If you come to my house for a cup of tea I'm more likely to go to your house for a cup of tea and if I see you in the street I'm more likely to talk to you. A local authority needs to create those opportunities. Our local authority needs to be transparent in the way we spend our funding, the way we allocate our housing, the way we run our schooling. We need to win the trust of people so that they do not have a perception of one group being favoured over another.
"That's not easy,' He concluded. "It's not risk free. But it needs to be done. I have done it, and I think I can do it again."
- London politics
- Respect Party
- Local Government
- Local politics
For all their bright colours and cladding, the new urban regeneration schemes of the last property boom represent a new kind of bleak. By Owen Hatherley
A man-made stretch of water â" a dock or an industrial canal, is traversed by a steel bridge painted white, forming a distinctive, thin arch. A small but heavily landscaped piazza sits between some vaguely symbolic public art and some new, but already worn-looking buildings. One of them is a museum of some description, clad in shiny metal; but what really dominates the view is the apartment blocks. They're dressed in various materials â" glass, often green, a pale red brick, with efflorescence dripping from the mortar, anodised aluminium, brightly coloured render, pink stone, and most of all, various clipped-on pieces of wood and steel. Next to them, similar new towers are emerging, their bare concrete frames strikingly minimal compared with the bet-hedging display around.
A few other people are sitting near me, sipping coffee in the branch of Costa Coffee next to the gift shop. It makes little difference where I am â" at Clarence Dock in Leeds, or Liverpool One, or Salford Quays, Cardiff Bay, the Tyne Quayside, Glasgow Harbour, Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, Greenwich Millennium Village in London. But why am I here?
The short explanation is that I have become intrigued by the fate of "urban regeneration" in the light of the financial crisis; what the speculative redevelopments of inner cities look like after the debts have been called in. They have become the new ruins of Great Britain. These places have ruination in abundance: partly because of the way they were invariably surrounded by the derelict and un-regenerated, whether rotting industrial remnants or the giant retail and entertainment sheds of the 80s and 90s; partly because they were often so badly built, with pieces of render and wood frequently flaking off within less than a year of completion; but partly because they were so often empty, in every sense. Empty of architectural inspiration, empty of social hope or idealism, and often empty of people, Clarence Dock and Glasgow Harbour had a hard time filling their minimalist microflats with either buyers or buy-to-let investors.
The Cardiff Bays and Clarence Docks weren't postmodernist, not in the old sense of jokey historical references and Las Vegas borrowings, and they weren't suburban, low-rise and car-centred like the developments that proliferated after Nicholas Ridley tore up the urban planning laws. This was modernism, of a sort.
But while the modernism of council estates, comprehensive schools, "plate glass universities", co-operatives and libraries was driven to a large degree by socialist commitments and egalitarian politics, these entertainment centres, luxury flats, city academies and idea stores were driven by exclusivity, tourism and the politics of "aspiration".
In stylistic terms, the differences were even more marked. The blocks of flats clad themselves so as not to look like the repetitive concrete-framed tower blocks they actually were; the office blocks did the same via the "barcode faÃ§ade", a ubiquitous method of making a glass box look vaguely irregular. Meanwhile, the "showpiece" buildings, such as Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North, Michael Wilford's Lowry, Capita Percy Thomas's Cardiff Millennium Centre, Norman Foster's Sage Gateshead or Hamilton Architects' atrocious Liverpool Pier Head Terminal, appear to have been designed from the outside in, shapes and logos waiting around for appropriate functions to be conjured out of them. If form once claimed to follow function, then here form was the function â" to be eyecatching, to attract tourists, to get the cameras snapping. If Modernism was about revealing structure, showing the workings, and attempting to transcend the divide between architect and engineer, now the architect draws a shape and asks the engineer to make it stand up.
It's possible to argue over the appropriate terminology for this stuff. Some have floated Iconism, Neo-Modernism, Bilbaoism. I prefer to call it Pseudomodernism, a modernism of concealment, a stylistic shell left after all the original social and moral ideas have been stripped out. The most droll prospective term came from Rory Olcayto of the Architects Journal, who calls it Cabeism, after the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the aesthetics quango that was, appropriately enough, headed at its inception by a property developer, Stuart Lipton. Cabe's stock recommendations for mixed use, mixed materials and mixed heights may have created a whole new architectural aesthetic by itself (Olcayto meant it as a compliment, but it could just as easily have been a denunciation). What was especially striking was how quickly these places changed, once you left the icons and looked around a little â" in short, how little of them ever actually featured in the pictures published in architecture magazines. For instance, photographs of Gateshead's Baltic, a generous and well-designed arts centre, almost invariably crop out the Baltic Quays flats, designed in a vague approximation of the Baltic's colour scheme.
There is little point in patronising these places. Over the last 15 years there have been countless articles in which London-based architecture critics descend on some benighted northern city and crow with triumph that "culture" has been brought to the proles via amorphous centres for this and that. As much as these new spaces were a means of ensuring that unproductive spaces â" empty docks, industrial sites, former cotton mills â" could be put back into profitable service, this was also a serious attempt to claw back some sort of civic pride after the disastrous results of Thatcherism across the inner cities of urban Britain. Great cities such as Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow were keen to proclaim their greatness once again, after decades during which they had been deliberately depopulated, with even their inner cities suburbanised â" by both left and rightwing local and central governments.
The lack of confidence behind this apparent resurgence becomes obvious when you look at the results. The European equivalents of these schemes â" the CÃ©ramique in Maastricht, say, or HafenCity in Hamburg â" serve the same pecuniary interests and display a similar pseudomodernist aesthetic, but are scrupulously put together, expensively detailed, with a great deal of money and thought put into the design of the public space.
Here in the UK, with a tiny handful of exceptions, we've been keen to parcel off these spaces to the cheapest available firms, and to let the property developers lead the way on what was, for the most part, publicly owned land, out of the fear that they and their money might disappear if they were in any way challenged. In Leeds, especially, the result is astoundingly cheap-looking architecture, with the developers assuming we wouldn't notice the meanness and cheapness if they put a wavy roof on top and plenty of contrasting materials on the faÃ§ade; the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found that in many cases the "luxury flats" in these "stunning developments" were well below the Parker Morris minimum standards established for council housing in the early 60s.
The architects hired veered from local developers' favourites â" Benoy, Carey Jones, Capita, Aedas and a variety of other faceless megafirms â" to the occasional famous name hired from outside, usually Norman Foster.
The city architects who could once have stemmed the tide of dross have long been sacked. The last major city architect was, ironically, employed by Leeds, whose new towers, such as the 37-storey halls of residence Sky Plaza, designed by Carey Jones, are perhaps the tackiest of them all. The municipal architect John Thorp retires this month, and the council does not plan to replace him. What we've lost is clear. Leslie Morrison, president of the Society of Chief Architects of Local Authorities, puts it pithily: "Things get approved for political reasons if you don't have a design architect at the top to say 'That's rubbish; go back to the drawing board.'" Since few of the architects have much local knowledge, each "unique", "visionary" and "stunning" scheme appears strangely similar. This homogeneity, ignoring the particularities of these very different cities, is reflected even in the modishly chic one-word names â" there are several Pinnacles, a fair few Icons, even a couple of towers called Strata â" one in Cardiff, the other in the Elephant & Castle.
There is a windswept bleakness about many of the new enclaves, but it's a curious new kind of bleak. While the ruins of the postwar settlement's architecture â" the under-maintained estates, the yawningly wide plazas, the vertiginous new spaces of towers and walkways â" elicited aesthetic responses in post-punk and electronic music that matched the starkness, power and modernity of their setting, how do you respond critically to something that is trying so desperately not to offend?
One feature I noticed almost everywhere was the fences. Around the sites of Sheffield's "New Retail Quarter", the "Heart of East Greenwich" and practically the entirety of central Bradford, we found brightly coloured fences covering up uncompleted schemes, the wasteland behind carefully screened off; various means were employed to distract attention from the collapse. In Greenwich, a regeneration hole was hidden by subsidised graffiti, dramatising the area's putative transformation from chemical works to the home of the Millennium Dome.
The hole in Bradford concealed the foundations of a shopping mall, part of a Will Alsop masterplan that intended to flood a city centre lacking in picturesque water features. The fence was emblazoned with all the propaganda of regeneration â" "CafÃ© Culture", "Urban Energy". When I was there, somebody had scrawled the message "BEST AMONG RUINS". The planned shopping district has been indefinitely shelved, turned into a municipal park, albeit a temporary and slightly shabby one. It would be very tempting to claim this as a small victory, an example of failure transformed into something worthwhile. Yet its first appearance in the national press occurred when the English Defence League staged a "static demonstration" there in August â" a first sign of the horrible weeds that might be growing out of the ruins.
In Pakistan, young boys are being recruited as suicide bombers by the Taliban. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy visit a new school that offers these brainwashed children a different future
The boy comes into view on the CCTV footage for just a few seconds, long enough to see that he is very young and wearing something bulky under his shalwar kameez. He walks purposefully through a crowd of worshippers gathering at Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore, and then the screen is filled with a flash, followed by a juddering cloud of smoke. The blast settles to reveal a soundless world of body parts, shoes and clothes. The teenage suicide bomber killed himself and 45 others, and maimed 175 more, in this blast on 2 July 2010 â" a good result for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that trained him, and another tragedy for Pakistan.
Abida Begum, a mother of six, living hundreds of miles away in the Swat Valley
Many boys went voluntarily, lured by the swagger of the long-haired Islamic fighters. Others were taken by force in the night, when heavily armed figures slunk into villages, demanding money and recruits. Some were even sold by their parents for 25,000 rupees (Â£180), the going rate paid by the TTP for a healthy teenager.
The families of the missing boys always feared the worst. News filtered back that most were destined to become human bombs. Rumours spread that if the army caught them, they were summarily executed, a story that gained credibility last month when a mobile phone clip emerged in Swat showing soldiers killing six young blindfolded men by firing squad. The army claimed the footage was faked by the TTP, but the human cost of the teen recruits was undeniable. For three years, a legion of these "dumb bombs", as the locals called them, had terrorised the country, claiming 3,500 lives in 200 attacks.
The night of the Lahore blast, Abida went to bed imagining Attaullah, a knockabout kid who had loved his English classes best, coerced into a nylon jacket packed with explosives and flesh-ripping ball bearings. Days later, she heard an extraordinary story from a neighbour â" this woman's son had vanished, too, but after more than a year he had, miraculously, come home.
Recruited by the TTP, the boy confirmed he had been locked into a programme to produce martyrs. However, before he could be utilised, the army had busted his training camp. Rather than killing everyone in it, the soldiers had taken several boys to their base at Malakand Pass, 30 miles south-east of Kabal, putting them in a kind of reform school along with dozens more young, would-be suicide bombers. They were fed, clothed, taught English and allowed to play volleyball and cricket. Respected religious scholars patiently explained how killing civilians was wrong according to the Qur'an. Psychologists counselled them. Some were eventually allowed back home.
The neighbour's son said many other boys from local villages were still at the school. Abida made the dusty bus journey to Malakand Fort, at the southern end of the Swat Valley. Once a British-era military outpost, it was now the headquarters of Pakistan's 19th Infantry Battalion and the centre of a bold deradicalisation project.
Down a lane winding between apricot trees, three whitewashed compounds rise up against the stunning backdrop of Malakand Pass. The road to the Sabaoon school is blocked with steel barricades and razor wire, the entrance gate protected by blast walls and dugouts. Weapons are trained on visitors from the windows, roof, gatehouse and guard-posts that rise up at each corner.
Sabaoon means "the first light of dawn" in Pashto. Besides the soldiers are well thumbed books in English and Urdu dictionaries. Boys dressed in green and white striped shirt, pants cream and white plimsolls huddle in shady corners.
For most of them, Sabaoon is the first proper school they have attended. Only a few weeks ago, some were living under rough blankets in a dark corner of a TTP training camp. Others were tramping the unforgiving terrain between Pakistan's tribal areas and neighbouring Afghanistan, acting as lookouts: spotting an army convoy to attack or a girls' school to bomb. Some were scouring the villages where they had once lived, in search of more young recruits. The one thing they all had in common was a belief in the righteousness of killing. All of them expected to die before reaching adulthood.
Abida finds Attaullah sitting with the school director in a counselling room with a two-way mirror. He has just been sprung from a TTP camp. The boy who died in Lahore on 2 July was someone else's son. Abida sobs into her son's neck. "Stop it, Mum," he whispers, embarrassed. "I'm OK." A would-be killer, he is suddenly transformed into an awkward kid. Abida's relief turns to anger as she learns from the school director that they suspect him of scouting for targets and recruits. She slaps him round the face. "Why did you go with them?" she cries. "You stupid boy!"
Before becoming director of Sabaoon, Dr Feriha Peracha had a lucrative career as one of Pakistan's most respected psychologists. Her practice in Defence Colony, a well-heeled suburb of Lahore, had a roster of clients from Pakistan's wealthy elite. In the shade of the school's volleyball court, her head covered with a silk YSL scarf, she recalls her journey here: "I needed to take responsibility," she says. "Things are now desperate for Pakistan. I want every child in here to see that they should not give in to life after death as the only option."
The second compound takes the teenagers who may have straddled this world and that of the jihadi fighter. The third houses the high-risk, all of whom have received advanced weapons training and been subject to the most intensive indoctrination. As we walk around, we can feel snatched glances from teenagers hiding behind curtains and in doorways. "You are the first foreigners they have ever seen," Peracha says. She takes us into the art room. The work is a carnival of gore: paintings of limbless bodies, severed heads, rocket-propelled grenades.
Dr Peracha explains how Pakistan's normally conservative army devised this initiative. "In July 2009, they approached me to assess a group they had recovered from Taliban camps. They wanted to know if I thought they could be rehabilitated."
She drove up to Swat at the height of the army offensive known by its code name Rah-i-Rast, the Straight Path. "I was so afraid when I first arrived," she says. "Every building had a soldier on the roof, all the shops were shuttered, there wasn't a woman in sight." The army escorted Peracha to the court building in Mingora, Swat's capital, where she found herself confronted with a dozen dirty teenagers. "The first one had such a look of contempt when I tried to speak with him. I spent hours with him. Eventually, he bragged that he could take apart a Kalashnikov, and the story of his militancy spilled out."
A month later, Peracha was summoned to Malakand Fort to meet some more boys. "The skies swarmed with helicopters. I knew a bigwig was coming." In strode the chief of the army, staff general Ashfaq Kayani. "He was very curious about these boys," she says. "Many of them were compromised intellectually and had psychological problems. He asked me, 'Would a school help?' I replied, 'Yes' and then he said, 'This is the site. You will be the director.'"
Colonel Aamer Najam, fort commander at Malakand, enters the room. He has been fighting the TTP in Swat since August 2008. "Many were against the school," he says. "They said, 'Why bother, why waste the money? These boys are finished already.'"
The colonel has two children of his own, currently living in Glasgow with his Scottish wife. "Children are very soft," he says, pulling on a cigarette. "They break down very easily. They have no idea what is right or wrong, and they are just as much victims as those killed in the blasts."
Right now, his greatest fear is maintaining security for the project. "We are tampering with the terrorists' investments. They have spent money on these boys, recruiting and training them. One day, they will come after us."
"These kids are completely brainwashed," says Dr Farooq Khan, a religious scholar and vice chancellor of Swat University, who was brought in to correct the boys' religious misconceptions. "In the camps, the TTP told them that Pakistan is run by foreign infidels, so it is imperative to wage jihad. They told them, 'Join with us to wage holy war and you will go straight to heaven.' At Sabaoon, we have to start again, right from the beginning, to explain true Islam and the Qur'an." Does he worry for his own safety? "The time of life and death is already given," he says.
A student knocks and enters. He has a counselling session with Peracha. Everyone is particularly jittery today. The day before, a teenage bomber devastated Mingora bus station, killing himself and five others, and maiming 50.
Eleven months on, he still denies any involvement with the TTP, even though he was caught trying to attack an army convoy in a suicidal assault. His parents have filled in large parts of his story, claiming they lost control after sending him to a madrassa at the age of 11. The offer of free board, lodging and education proved irresistible, despite rumours about the seminary's extremist connections. Soon after, Saddam disappeared. "When he came home again, his father says he was completely changed," Peracha says. He was aggressive, obsessed with guns and had unexplained shrapnel wounds to his leg. "We still have a long way to go with him."
She dismisses Saddam and calls in some others.Brothers Mohammed, 16, and Amjad, 14, sit on their hands like naughty kids summoned to the head teacher. "You would think that butter wouldn't melt in their mouths," Peracha says, "but Mohammed was a handler, scouting the target and dropping the bomber off on his mission. We think his other job was to recruit young boys to wear the jackets. There are lots of Talibans in their family, so there is a lot of peer pressure."
Like these two, the vast majority of boys come from around the Mamdheri, Tal and Peochar settlements on the left bank of the Swat river. While the right flank of the valley once boasted tourist ski resorts, few outsiders ever made it to the left bank, where the roads and even the electricity fizzle out. Communities here became cut off altogether after Maulana Fazullah, the popular leader of the Swat Taliban, began building a complex of madrassas and training camps in 2007. Fazullah, a one-time ski trolley operator who found support among the poor and marginalised through nightly broadcasts on a pirate radio station, graduated into the real business of jihad after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation in July 2007, where police and armed forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad that had become a militant redoubt. Scores of religious students died and religious conservatives across the country vowed revenge.
Signing an alliance with Baitulluh Mehsud, then the overall leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a newly armed and funded Fazullah had, by 2008, established a parallel government in Swat, his followers setting about the slaughter of anyone connected to the state. By June 2009, there were only 30 serving police officers left in the valley, with more than 2,000 having fled or been killed. By the time Mohammed and Amjad disappeared from their village in late 2009, the army had destroyed Fazullah's bases and silenced his radio show, although Fazullah himself had vanished. He is said to be in hiding on the Afghan border.
There are new arrivals at Sabaoon. Peracha rushes over to Compound Three. On the way, she tells us how difficult it has been to recruit staff. The stigma of working with suicide bombers is enormous. Joining us is "Rafi", a psychologist from Peshawar, who has not even told his family of his work here. "When I came, I was so frightened. I arrived in the dark to face all these suicide bombers, expecting them to be wild-haired and crazy, but they were just kids," he says. Rafi has become a father figure to many of the children here, who call out for him at night when the nightmares begin. "In the day they are boastful," he says, "but by night they dream of the people they have seen shot and mutilated." Many dwell on friends who were taken off one day and never returned. The camp commander would choose his boy, take him off for a haircut, measure him up for new clothes, always a size too large to accommodate the explosive waistcoat. The chosen ones were treated as if they were about to be married, fed meat and given milk or Pepsi. Then a handler took them away to board a bus to Peshawar, Islamabad or Lahore. Some would be given drugs to pump them up or calm their nerves. "A few days later, the remaining boys would hear that their friend had reached paradise," Rafi says.
He has traced some of these teenagers to their villages. "Slowly we are putting together a profile of the communities. How many militants live there? Does the family have any TTP connections? Can they afford to look after their son? Is there any local schooling? We cannot keep them here for ever." Boys who go home are kept on parole for two years, monitored by the school and army. Families have to sign an agreement that if the boy goes missing again, a family member will surrender to army detention until the child is recovered.
A boy with bad acne and a startling grin enters the room. Fifteen-year-old Sajad's father had two wives and nine children, and the family lived in a kutcha (temporary shack) near Nowergali, at the heart of Fazullah's former power base. Sajad's mother died when he was seven and he became the family's main breadwinner, bringing home 8,000 rupees (Â£60) a month as a labourer. At the age of 11, two friends took him to a TTP training camp. There was food, weapons and militants who talked of a better life by winning a respectable death. To Sajad, it seemed a far better option than rising at 5am to dig fields by hand. He underwent basic arms training in Orakzai Agency, a tribal area dominated by the TTP. One day, he was strapped into a suicide jacket. He and his TTP handler tried to cross into Afghanistan, but an alert Pakistan border guard spotted them and Sajad was captured. "I was very sad," he says, his fingers tensing and flexing. "I wanted to die." Peracha asks him if he would have blown her up if they had met at the border. "Why, yes," he replies. "And these foreigners, too, if they had been there?" His smile returns. "Of course," he says.
After the previous day's blast at Mingora, a calming excursion has been planned: tonight, some of the boys from Compound One are to be taken to a local riverside beauty spot where they will draw. A dozen of them pile excitedly into a minivan with an armed guard, while Colonel Aamer, Peracha and a visiting lecturer from the National College of Arts squeeze into an army pick-up. The threat of ambush is constant. Scanning the faces along the roadside, it is impossible to ignore their undisguised contempt for the military. Almost immediately, we have to stop for the soldiers to check out an abandoned car. By the time we reach the beauty spot, crowds have gathered, making the place too difficult to secure. The colonel aborts the trip and we head back towards Malakand.
Still, Peracha refuses to give in. She diverts the convoy again, to a ridge outside the colonel's fort, a place that offers breathtaking views over Swat and a safe vantage point for the army. The art teacher hands out drawing pads and pencils. Soldiers stand guard at a distance. The colonel blows smoke rings.
"Sometimes I come here to pray," Peracha says. "If I start thinking about all that needs to be done, I frighten myself, but we have to save Swat. The terrorists are not far off. They are never far off."
It begins to rain, a slow patter on Swat's scorched earth. The drops pick up pace, until rivulets form. Within a day of our departure, the entire valley is flooding. Within a week, it is cut off from the rest of the world. Within two, bridges are down across Pakistan, leaving 12m people stranded and starving, many of their homes and livelihoods destroyed. Cholera sets in. The army, fighting a war on so many fronts, cannot cope with a disaster on this scale. Nor can the government.
Soon, skimming across the muddy tide, come wooden skiffs heaped full of privately funded aid and medicines, paddled by the very people the Pakistan state has fought so hard to keep out. Here are the jihadists and insurgents, their charities and front organisations laden with gifts for the sick and the suffering. Floating by is Lashkar-e-Taiba, accused of plotting the Mumbai hotel attacks of November 2008And TTP, indicating the threat to the government: "Do not take western aid '. Rumors are rumors that the TTP is planning to kill foreign aid workers.
Soon, the bombings begin again, too, with more than 150 killed in the first nine days of September: Lahore, Quetta, Lakki Marwat and the tribal areas of Kurram and Kohat. On 2 October, the TTP gets Dr Farooq Khan, too, assassinating him while he's having lunch with an assistant, sending a chill through everyone who works at Sabaoon. On 7 October, two teenage bombers blow themselves up at a sufi shrine in Karachi, killing nine and injuring more than 60.
But the school survives. Even in the flood, Colonel Aamer's men have made sure the pupils are fed and classes continue. Established as a beacon of hope, the school is now an island.
All names of boys and their families have been changed to protect their identities.
Knockabout clown in the music hall tradition who found enormous success in the cinema
Engulfed by helpless, gurgling mirth, Norman Wisdom would subside to the ground as if suddenly rendered boneless: it needed someone only to look at him to make him fall down. Often, the person looking at him â" and sternly, at that â" was Jerry Desmonde, doyen of variety straight men, who represented the figure of authority in many of Wisdom's hugely successful film farces of the 1950s and 1960s.
Wisdom, who has died aged 95, was almost the last in a great tradition of knockabout, slapstick clowns, a performer who relied less on words than on an acrobatic physical dexterity to gain his laughs. He was usually derided or ignored by the serious critics, but in his day he was adored by the public, and because of its nature his craft travelled well â" he was immensely popular in many other countries, including Albania, where he was known as Pitkin, after the character he played in many of his films.
If he had a penchant for tearjerking ballads and crude pathos, this merely reinforces a feeling that his career was somehow spent out of its correct time. He properly belonged to the earlier era of the music halls, an appropriate setting for his combination of agile body-comedy and sometimes mawkish sentimentality.
He was born in Marylebone, London, in conditions of desperate poverty. As a boy he often had to walk to school barefoot, and when his mother left the family home he and his brother were disowned by their father. He was placed in a children's home, from which he ran away when he was 11, and he started work as an errand boy at a grocer's when he was 13.
When the second world war broke out, Wisdom joined the army and served in India. He made his first appearance as an entertainer with a comedy boxing routine at an army concert, and developed his musical skills when he joined the Royal Corps of Signals as a bandsman in 1943.
After the war his variety debut came at the old Collins Music Hall on Islington Green, north London, in 1945, and he started touring Britain in pantomime and summer shows. In 1948 he made his first West End appearance, on a variety bill at the London Casino, and became famous virtually overnight. "A star is born!" announced the Daily Mail, and the following week Wisdom went straight to the top of the bill at the Golders Green Hippodrome, north London.
His next date was a summer show with the magician David Nixon, and for this appearance he meticulously worked out the characterisation for which he became famous: variously known as Norman or The Gump or Pitkin â" an enthusiastic, puppyish little man with a too-tight tweed jacket and crooked cap. Attired as such, and complete with the later familiar jerky gait and propensity for sudden collapses, he played a volunteer who came out of the audience to help â" and, of course, reduce to a shambles â" Nixon's magic act.
A string of money-making films followed, including One Good Turn (1954), The Square Peg (1958) and The Bulldog Breed (1960). As well as his nemesis, the supercilious Desmonde, these films often featured another authority figure in Edward Chapman as his boss, the more down-to-earth Mr Grimsdale. As with those of George Formby and Old Mother Riley before him, his films were much more popular with the public than with the critics, whose comments generally ran along the lines of: "Norman Wisdom up to his usual predictable antics."
Less notable, in commercial terms, were his stage appearances. Where's Charley? at the Palace, London, in 1958 went down quite well, but The Roar of the Greasepaint â" the Smell of the Crowd was a tremendous flop that never reached London after a Manchester tryout in 1963.
Wisdom went to Broadway for the Tony-nominated musical comedy Walking Happy in 1966, and then to Hollywood. He brought depth to his portrayal of a vaudeville star in The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968), which also featured Jason Robards, Britt Ekland and Bert Lahr. "So easily does Wisdom dominate his many scenes, other cast members suffer by comparison," wrote Variety. It became apparent that Wisdom was valiantly trying to change his image.
He continued to tour his one-man stage show very successfully, and had one startling dramatic success in 1981 when he appeared in Going Gently on BBC2. In this harrowing play, set in the cancer ward of a London hospital, he portrayed a retired salesman unable to come to terms with terminal illness. For once the pathos was unforced, and Wisdom triumphed in a difficult role, winning a Bafta award.
He also tried television in a number of sitcoms, but the medium was not his forte. While he toured South Africa and Australia with some success, his appearances in Britain became more infrequent. Extremely wealthy, he spent much of the 1980s in seclusion on the Isle of Man, rather than do the usual round of TV game and chat shows, though he made something of a return to prominence in the 1990s, looking hale and trim. He appeared as Billy Ingleton in several episodes of Last of the Summer Wine between 1995 and 2004, and in 2004 again even turned up in Coronation Street as pensioner Ernie Crabb.
In 1992 he had played a retired burglar in a film thriller, Double X, which sank almost without trace, but, more tellingly, the following year he was the subject of a South Bank Show in which he explained the secrets of pratfalls, backward tumbles and stair-falls. Those of us who had always admired him felt privileged to see a master of his craft allowing a glimpse of the astonishing skill and body control that had gone into something that seemed so effortless and artless.
Two years later he went into residential care at a nursing home on the Isle of Man, and in early 2008 a poignant BBC television documentary portrayed a clown in extreme old age â" still chirpy, but obviously suffering from dementia. It was said that his memory loss was so severe that he no longer recognised himself in his own films.
He was divorced from his second wife, the former dancer Freda Simpson, in 1969, and is survived by their children, Nicholas and Jacqueline.
â¢ Norman Wisdom, comedian and actor, born 4 February 1915; died 4 October 2010
- Norman Wisdom
What 'S Brown and sticky?
Feels like there "only one story this week: speculation about Lord Browne 'S report on tuition fees for next week.
There was a curious interview on the Today programme yesterday with the National Union of Students president Aaron Porter (recently appointed to the Hefce board, by the way).
John Humphrys asks him at least three times what alternatives there are to an increase in tuition fees â" and Porter keeps resolutely schtum about a graduate tax. You'd have thought the NUS would be eager to big up their graduate tax plan; it's had an awful lot of support in high circles.
But all Porter will say is that tuition fees shouldn't be spent on staff salaries, and: "I dont see why students should have to pay more. I think universities need to concentrate on providing high quality education."
Isn't that a bit vague? asks Humphrys. A bit?
Meanwhile, we wait. Sutton Trust tells us Brown could price poor students straight out of the most high profile universities, while Will Hutton makes a statement for fairness.
And as we tap our fingers impatiently, Harriet Swain visits Kingston University and asks everyone from the vice-chancellor to the students what they'd like to see in his report.
Happy World Teachers' Day!
One tweeter on #wtd2010 says: "I'll celebrate by taking a holiday and complaining a lot." Another is less jaded: "Happy that I have given five years of this life to inspire, awaken and engage curious minds."
To mark the day, Unesco is calling for stories, photos and videos paying homage to heroic teachers involved in their country's recovery from natural disasters, conflict and other crises.
Any chance Michael Gove will have something for teachers to celebrate in his speech at the Tory conference today?
Ministers of misunderstanding Why is it that government officials fail to understand what further education colleges do? The immigration minister, Damian Green, seems to think they're simply there to generate bogus visa applications. Louise Tickle has more
Oui, je parle francais There's a primary school in a less than affluent area in south London where the children take French national tests for eight-year-olds and do just as well as the average child in France.
School building cuts Three councils are to take the government to court over the decision to scrap construction projects
Quote of the week
Victoria Coren did not take kindly to the news that 37% of British schools now offer cheerleading as a sport. She says she knows she's a feminist
"when I see teenage girls in boots and knickers, waving pompoms and being told they are 'doing sport'.
They aren't doing sport. They are waggling their arses near boys who are doing sport. The boys are motivated to compete harder and triumph in the subliminal (or not so subliminal) hope that they'll get first pick of these little minxes on the sidelines.
Even if you don't think it's sexual - and I do; I think these girls might as well be bent over a rock, waiting to be mounted by which ever caveman gets back first with a rabbit in his hand - at best, their job is to support the action rather than take part in it."
In the fields
Pedants are obsessed with them, most people ignore them, but philosophy prof Jonathan Wolff has fallen in love with footnotes.
"Here the writer stands before you, character revealed," he declares. And it is a homely offering from Karl Popper in 1957 that has stolen his heart. You be the judge. And if you have a favourite, we'd love to hear it.
What you said
In response to reports that the new free schools might not have to employ qualified teachers, Puffinlunde told us:
"This is exactly what happened in Swedish free-schools. Statistics show that free schools have a lower percentage of qualified staff; it makes them cheaper to run and gives bigger profits to the owners.
It is ironic that Sweden is adopting UK policy while the UK is going in the other direction. In Sweden legislation is underway to create a teacher registration agency and to restrict permanent teaching positions to qualified teachers for all schools that receive public funding, both state and free schools."
A new study makes it clear what London parents think of free schools. They reckon they will benefit the parents who set them up, rather than the children in the community.
More Guardian stories of the day
Lenny Henry When, as a young comedian, he hung out with the likes of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, he felt his lack of a university education. But he's been catching up â" and he's just embarking on a PhD.
Year 7 We're following a group of young people as they start secondary school in Kent, where the system is sharply divided between grammar schools and non-selective high schools.
Outstanding Why a head is eager for his school to become one of the first primary academies
Grow your own Meet the students who grow their own dinners
On the hop The unstoppable rise of the microbrewery
Stories from the Web
Gove scraps rule that doesn't exist, says blogger Teacher Talks
Teachers union calls for planned immigration cap to be scrapped
Seven of the 10 teachers want to quit because of bad behavior
Hey teachers, leave our lunch alone: pupils protest over timetable changes
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