Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2005

The Edinburgh Fringe and Book Festivals

reviewed by Tony Challis

As ever, there’s been a tremendous amount of entertainment and stimulation here.

Among the many delights have been Topping and Butch, who this year have varied their act as well as keeping favourite features. Their well-known, “Never Mind, Never Mind, Never Mind” was put to topical use, but they also did a section as chavs. Despite the fact that their outfits included very glossy Burberry caps, and the pair looked quite mature and middle-class, when they appeared at the Spiegel Gardens venue in this outfit they were refused entry. Maybe they’ll do a sketch about the Chav Liberation Front.

From time to time, they do radio and TV slots, including appearances on Ned Sherrin’s Radio 4 show, Loose Ends. They are very well worth catching.

Craig Hill again has a very dynamic and fun show. This year it’s called Craig Hill’s Got the Ballroom. There is a little pun here. He has the biggest room in the Assembly Rooms, and he has the benefits of wearing a kilt in the traditional way. Many of his jokes, however, I recall hearing last year, and, powerful comic though he is, he needs to remember, as Topping and Butch clearly do, the need to mix the engagingly familiar with the fresh and surprising.

Political events have made themselves felt more than usual this year, not surprisingly. One performer who has been unable to avoid this pressure is Stewart Lee. His involvement with Jerry Springer – The Opera has brought him into conflict with extremist religious groups. Christian Voice threatened to picket venues where the show was performed and to use the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Because they feared the consequences of being used in a try-out of the new law (although it is not on the statute book yet), 30 per cent of venues dropped out, and the tour collapsed. Memories of Section 28 here, and a law having serious effects without being tested in court.

Lee was also threatened with being tried for blasphemy, thanks to the Evangelical Alliance, but fortunately this was thrown out of court in June. He has also received death threats.

His Edinburgh show is relatively quiet and gentle, compared with those of many comics, as he takes the audience into his confidence with personal medical matters, quite hilariously. He then builds up to the Jesus section, which is quite amazing. He has been in London at the Soho Theatre during September and is set to tour later. More can be found out via his website.

Britain, of course, is not alone in having problems with reactionary politicians and preachers. Petrograd by Van Badham is at the Pleasance Courtyard (Prospekt Theatre Company). Van Badham is a leading young Australian playwright, who, in conversation after the play, described the racist and repressive nature of the Australian government, together with scandals and negative attitudes, including a politician’s likening of lesbians to witches.

Petrograd is about a woman who’s trying to write a play about the Russian Revolution and beyond. She is challenged about her relevant knowledge by a lecturer, and progress on the play is affected by her relationship with the director. The play could be seen as having a theme of gestation – the attempted gestation of a new society, of a play and of a relationship. Like all of Van Badham’s work, it is gripping and thought-provoking.

Van Badham is next planning something lighter. Having mostly, she says, been inspired by anger and the desire for change, she is working on a musical about soviet rock with many fifties pop songs. The musical is about a Soviet rock idol who killed himself when the Berlin wall fell.

In Product at the Traverse Theatre, Mark Ravenhill plays the part he has written for himself of a film script “pusher” (or director?) who is trying to persuade a star(let?) to commit to a trashy film story about a woman who falls for a jihadi, commits to terrorism, despite the fact that her man Troy has died in the Towers (and, yes, we have the fall of Troy played for laughs).

The “director” is effective, camp and self-admiring. No reasons for the conversion are given, but then we are talking trash cinema. It is customary to see people behaving appallingly in Ravenhill’s work, but, however ironic the presentation, this show left a very nasty taste in the mouth.

Some Explicit Polaroids, also by Ravenhill, was at the Underbelly (Growling Monkey Theatre Group). This was very well acted in a cave, which seemed to create an appropriate atmosphere. But there were too many stock characters and political dilemmas were just touched on. So, where do we go from here? Ravenhill seems to take serious subjects and play with them, doing just the easy bit and avoiding any analysis. Rather like Tony Kushner lite. I’m sure his success will continue.

A celebration of a seminal group of writers came with Birth of the Cool (Gilded Balloon Teviot). This takes us back to the fifties, to the beginning of rebellious counterculture and to the Beats. To Paul Cutlan’s evocative music, with references to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, a past world is conjured up, of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Huncke, Kerouac and friends. John Turnbull gives a stunning performance as the voice of the Beats. It’s difficult now to comprehend how bravely this group stood against the mainstream, and the courage of someone like Ginsberg in being openly gay at the time of McCarthyism.

At La Clique in the Spiegel Gardens were an amazing array of performers, including the beautiful Caesar Twins, who do breathtaking things together. They also had their own show at the Assembly Rooms this year.

Minor Irritations at the Pleasance Dome by Sam Peter Jackson is an extremely entertaining comedy about Ben, an aspiring actor, his friends in London and his ex in New York. Ben is very good at avoiding opportunities (including the sexual) that are thrown at him. Here the gay life is acted in a very natural and unforced manner. I look forward to Jackson’s next project.

Of course, there was a production of Beautiful Thing at a venue called The Zoo. Very enjoyable it was, with two lovely young straight lads in the leads, though it was a restrained production, lacking in pace. And, delightful though this play is, perhaps it is time new gay writing was found, so that it can be given a rest.

This has been the merest taster. And there will be artistic delights post-Fringe somewhere near you. Happy living.

It was a refreshing week at the Book Festival, as I spent time in a crowded marquee with six or seven hundred people who all were enjoying some extremely stimulating and enlightening speakers.

Anthony Grayling spoke at the humanist event on 18 August. He is that rarity among philosophers, someone who can make his subject seem a delight. He is a person of much charm and warmth, who began by saying that middle age was a time when a broad mind and a narrow waist were said to change places, and he was hoping to avoid such a fate.

His new book of short essays is called The Heart of Things (Weidenfeld and Nicholson). Religious reviewers had criticised the book for not approaching the heart of things, as it did not approach metaphysical matters. Grayling said that his message was that everyday experiences lie at the heart of things – our social lives, our relationships and loves, our exploration of the arts and of the world about us. On the principle that “a nod is as good as a wink to the wise”, his short essays were meant to suggest lines of thought rather than be detailed expositions. Grayling said that he felt that to call himself an atheist was to give too much to the theists by the reference to a deity. He preferred to call himself a rational person who judged by his experiences, and then explained why he did not believe in fairies in his garden.

Richard Dawkins spoke the following evening about his book, The Ancestor’s Tale (reviewed in G&LH, Winter 2004), and was introduced with great enthusiasm by Muriel Gray, who led him into a discussion of extended phenotypes, which he explained with his usual illustrative clarity. Gray wondered why, given the power of Dawkins’s writing, there were so many creationists in the States. Dawkins replied that, in all modesty, he could not expect everyone to have read his books.

Questioned about the persistence of religion, Dawkins likened it to a virus, and said that figures like Wesley and Billy Graham were major transmitters. He felt that research suggesting religious people had happier lives had to be balanced with studies showing the reverse, and also felt that a person who sustained through life a childhood imaginary friend might be happier for that. Hmm. I feel that, if rationalism is to progress, we need to give thought to the social and psychological benefits of organised religion.

Dawkins is working on a new book, provisionally called The God Delusion. This silenced those who suggested he seemed to have stopped taking on religion. We shall have to wait till next year to read this.

On a lighter note, Sandi Toksvig provided more belly laughs in one hour for me than any comedian on the Fringe, while having a number of serious points to make. She spoke about her book, Hitler’s Canary, the title coming from a derogatory term sometimes used about Denmark after the war. She spoke of the time when the Nazis decided that Danish Jews were to be transported, and how the great majority were then taken away in Danish boats to Sweden before this could happen, and of Toksvig’s grandmother’s heroic part in this.

She also spoke about Hans Christian Andersen, and, the more I learn about this man’s enthusiastic homosexuality and the way that he managed to live his life in other people’s houses, the more interesting he seems. It appears that he threw himself at many men across Europe, especially rich and/or titled ones. Toksvig did not talk about this aspect of him, but of how he rose from very humble origins to literary eminence.

There were many other speakers of real interest – Tony Benn at 80 regaling a packed audience with stories about his ancestors and pithy current comments; Carol Ann Duffy reading her fascinating poetry; the American writer Edmund White talking about his life; Julian Baggini (editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine) telling us how to live the good life; playwright Dario Fo enthralling us with his early life in a Babel-like Italian village, and the broadcaster Joan Bakewell inspiring the not so young.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-12-04 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :