World War One and Jeremy Paxton’s existential dread

March 31, 2014


In the projection of his professional persona, Jeremy Paxton conceals and reveals his personal anxieties

Jeremy Paxton is one of England’s best-known media celebrities. He has became the inquisitorial voice of the BBC’s Newsnight programme [1989- present] and with little shift of style, the inquisitional voice of University Challenge. Building on these achievements, he has produced literary works often with grand themes of British achievements. He is currently fronting one of the BBC’s series to mark the events of The Great War of 1914-1918.

The other Jeremy

His style is combative and ironic. Some years ago, in 2009, listening to a radio interview,I mistook him for another celebrity Jeremy. Only at the end of the interview did I discover I had been listening to the equally combative and ironic Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear. Clarkson is arguably the greater financial asset to the BBC, and equally assiduous in cultivating a controversial and discomforting personal style. In the earlier post, I made tentative analyses of the behavioural styles of each.

I return to this topic as Newsnight Jeremy is making an acclaimed contribution to the Nation’s commemorations of WW1.

The mask of control and the mask of command

Leadership studies sometimes refer to the mask of command. Both Paxton and Clarkson show the mask of control, beneath which lurks the existential fear of losing control. The leader inspires confidence by concealing the natural human feelings of despair and weakness. For Paxton, the TV interview, and the quiz with answers to all the questions provided to the interrogative quiz master provide ideal situations to act out his concealed anxieties.

On the dark side

I make no claims for the validity of these observations. They may be rooted in my mistaken reading of Jungian psychology. They just make sense to me. They confirm my belief in the nature of the concealed dark side of the persona of some of the leaders and celebrities who gain cultural acceptance.


Sherlock Holmes series on BBC TV illustrates charismatic infatuation

January 26, 2014

The recent Sherlock Holmes series on BBC Television was launched in a sustained and skillful blaze of publicity. Its impact suggests an explanation of charismatic influence

The advertising hype created a teaser over the apparent death of Sherlock at the end of the first series two years earlier. The character in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories survived a fall. The viewers were now invited to explain the survival of the Sherlock as played by Benedict Cumberbatch

The Holmes Watson relationship

Two themes dominated the first of the three episodes. The first was How did Sherlock survive the fall from a high building? The second was the intense homoerotic nature of the Holmes Watson relationship.

The Marmite factor

The reaction of viewers to all episodes was intense. The reviews released a quite astonishing emotional outpouring of replies. Fans demonstrated the so called Marmite effect [you love it or loath it, with little cool or rational reactions displayed] Nearly a thousand comments appeared hours after the Guardian review.

For the first two episodes reviewers tended to be rather lukewarm towards the production, acknowledging outstanding elements of acting and plot but rather unsatisfactory coherence and more than a whiff of smug self-indulgence. The third was widely regarded as by far the most dramatic and compelling to watch.

The infatuation effect

As evidenced by the thousand comments [of the first two and more unsatisfactory episodes for the critics], a sizable proportion of fans were infatuated by the mega-star of the series, Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch. For this group, the overwhelming emotion was unconditional expressions of love, coupled with anger at those who expressed any signs of disappointment in the production.

Is this a clue to the nature of charismatic leadership?

Possibly. At least there is a suggestion of a line of research into followership and charisma. The vulnerability induced in followers by the charismatic leader could be studied through investigation of the concept of celebrity infatuation.


Sex, lies and a very British scapegoat: TV review

December 23, 2013

Fifty years ago, and the British establishment is rocked by a sleazy political story …

An ITV Documentary [22nd December, 2013] presented the so-called Profumo affair of the 1960s with interviews with remaining personalities. Its thrust was that the society osteopath Stephen Ward had been scapegoated by more significant establishment figures, on largely false immorality charges.

Wards’s suicide as his court case was reaching an end served as a convenient but temporary pause before the story built up to its place as a footnote to contemporary British history.

Fifty years on

Fifty years on, and the two young women at the heart of the case remain culturally potent. Christine Keeler lives in drab obscurity in sheltered accommodation in South London. A remarkably vibrant Mandy Rice-Davies is very much alive and in the public eye, and her recollections dominated the programme. As had her court appearance half a century ago, part a Pygmalion figure, part Becky Sharpe. Her cheerful absence of remorse or guilt was one of the few upbeat aspects of the bizarre tale neatly captured in the title Sex, lies and a very British scapegoat.

Andrew Lloyd Webber

It was fitting that its anchorman was none other than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. His musical about Stephen Ward is running to less than rave reviews in the West End at present. His marginal involvement with some of the main players at the time has turned the affair into a serious cause for him. He has raised the matter of Ward’s innocence in The House of Lords.

A bit of a turkey

The musical seems likely to be deemed a bit of a turkey. The ITV programme may have been an attempt to rescue it. In any event it offered an interesting revisiting of the sex and security scandal of the 1960s.


BBC SPOTY: Pretentious, sentimental, compulsive viewing

December 16, 2013

The BBC is extremely proud of its Sports Personality of the Year programme [SPOTY]. It combines much that is admirable and more than a little that is embarrassing and self indulgent

You know when a program has achieved cult status when the BBC gives it a cozy acronym or an abbreviated pet name. ‘Strictly’ [Come Dancing] and MOTD [Match of the day] are examples. SPOTY is another.

SPOTY bigged up

Each autumn, SPOTY is tirelessly and shamelessly bigged up by the BBC for several months. It has grown lengthier and more pretentious, decade by decade, for sixty years. It is tempting to have a rant about wasted money of license payers who are also hard working tax payers.By way of contrast MOTD at least remains cozy and relatively low budget and rather unchanged despite the intrusion of new technology, and countless replays of controversial refereeing decisions.

No vote fixing this year

So, SPOTY for 2013 came and went [December 15th, 2013]. One theme this year was avoiding any scandal of vote fixing. The concern was palpable and great effort went into the changes. This partly because of the rise of the mighty on-line betting industry, partly because the BBC is nearly paranoid about SOTY [scandal of the year]. Evidence abounded of potential SOTY bloopers. For example, the extra care to acknowledge disabled sporting figures, since the time they forgot to make suitable arrangements for athletes in wheelchairs, a few years ago.

Don’t forget the gals

Two women were added to the ten finalists after a twitch in the direction of a SOTY story earlier in the year. In a nice touch, John Inverdale, an appropriately cozy and lovey commentator, was banished from the show after inappropriate remarks he made last July about Wimbledon ladies winner Marion Bartoli. And all was made fine by having Marion announce one of the prizes, and having Marina Navratilova hand over the big one to Andy Murray, who, you may remember, won the gentleman’s singles at that same tennis tournament.

And the winner is …Andy Murray

The bookies had made Andy Murray overwhelming favourite. This could have also been the stuff of SOTY because Andy wasn’t present. In the build up to the SPOTY, there was some quite anxious discussion about whether Andy should be banned from receiving any award, because he had chosen to remain in Miami training and recovering from surgery.

PAOTY

Which brings me to PAOTY, the newly installed patronizing award of the year. The winning award was to a nice couple of ‘unsung heroes’ from Wilmslow, who had done much needed work to promote basketball in that neck of the woods. The interview seemed to have had the virtue of being completely unprompted and unrehearsed. A true contender for PAOTY.

Why didn’t I switch off?

OK. So the programme was pretentious, sentimental, and bling-heavy. Why didn’t I switch off? Why was the trusty remote not put to use? I don’t think it was only because of the promise of material for LWD. Truth is, SPOTY, despite all its other features, makes compelling watching. Like a cozy horror movie.


The Escape Artist with David Tennant is brilliantly acted but has a bin liner of a plot

November 13, 2013

TV Review

The Escape Artist [BBC I, Oct-Nov 2013] had an ingenious central idea, lots of brutality and blood, and good acting by a superb cast. Unfortunately its dramatic impact was frequently stalled by a bin liner of a plot

In each of its three episodes, the watchers in our household uttered cries of frustration at clunky plotting rather than of horror at the almost obligatory scenes of blood and violence meted out by almost obligatory psychopath. Wife victim returns to lonely cottage where she has seen creepy said psychopath; Slick Barrister Tennant seeks revenge v cunningly with implausible plot line [another ‘Oh no it’s not that one’ moment].

They used to say Naomi Chambers could model a plastic bin-liner and make it look good. David Tennant almost pulled off the bin-liner trick, but even his acting couldn’t sustain the dramatic thrust of this bin-liner of a production, written by David Wolstencroft (creator of Spooks).

Other views

Other reviews have been cautiously ambivalent, with mentions of great acting mingling with references to the ludicrous plot and the violence. As Grace Dent of the Independent put it with irony

[I]f I’m going to sit through another “And you’ll never guess what? He cut her vagina off! And then he shoved it in her mouth!” sort of drama, then I’ll choose one with Tennant, Okonedo and Kebbell. And let’s be fair here, the victim did return to a deserted cottage where she’d seen the killer previously. A good defence lawyer would say that she was asking for it.


Boris Johnson, Feel-Good politician

November 10, 2013

TV Review

Unedited Notes on watching a repeat [Nov 9, 2013] of the BBC documentary of Boris Johnson

He tends to ignore ‘Network of social obligations’. Quote from His House master at Eton

The Darius Guppy affair. Friend who called to ask Boris for an address to help Guppy beat up a journalist

On challenged, sometimes presents his bumbling but endearing style in public rather than denying wrong-doing

Became editor of Spectator and broke his word not to stand for parliament in 2001.

Sacked for lying to Tory leader Michael Howard about an affair

Stood for London mayor backed by Prime Minister and school friend Cameron

Can show discipline when needed, but very chaotic otherwise.

Rivalry with Cameron intensifies after Cameron becomes PM

Another affair…”he’s our Berlusconi, only funnier” [Private Eye editor Ian Hislop]

London riots may have put his re-election as Mayor of London at risk

Said to be the only ‘feel good’ politician in land

Implies he is a serious contender for PM. Prospect offered with less than ringing endorsements

Missing: did I miss any mention of his unpopularity on Merseyside after ill-judged remarks over Hillsborough in a Spectator editorial?

What did we learn about Boris?

What did we learn about Boris? Not a lot that was not already in the public domain. Will he become Prime Minister? Probably not, but the public mood of disillusion of conventional politicians remains high.

The Boris publicity wave rolls on

In the days after posting the above, Boris continues to make media headlines. Click here for a video clip of his claim to be pro-immigation. [Warning: it may come with irritating plug ins]


Trust Me I’m a Doctor reminds me of Tomorrow’s World

October 28, 2013

A new BBC series promises to debunk popular medical myths. Its approach reminds me of an earlier popular science approach, Tomorrow’s World

Another of the series, Trust Me I’m a Doctor [TMID] had its showing this week [October 24th 2014].

TMID is presented as helping the lay person to gain insights into medical advances. Tomorrow’s world [1965 -2003] attempted to do a similar educational service for scientific and technological discoveries.

There is much to admire in the intentions of the original scientific programme, and in this new ‘medicine for the masses’ effort. I had some serious concerns about the original, with its remorseless enthusiasm for the new and quirky. I have rather similar concerns over TMID.

The worship of the wow

Tomorrow’s World sought to popularize by bringing out the wow factor in scientific discoveries. TMIF has that familiar worship of the wow on medical matters. The slight hint of irony in the title may be significant.

The approach of TMID

The approach of TMID is to challenge conventional wisdom to reveal another hidden possibility. The BBC blurb put is like this

Going behind the headlines to give you the definitive answers to your health questions. Can you be fat and fit? Could you improve your health by staying in bed longer? Should we all be taking an Aspirin pill to help us live longer? Michael Mosley is joined by a team of doctors who use their expertise to get to the bottom all those health claims.

My concern with the approach

My concern with the approach is that it is too easy to start with a loosely framed generalization and arrive at a conclusion which itself is as dodgy as the conventional wisdom it challenges, backed up with ‘clinical evidence’. The definitive answers are not as definitive as might be hoped for. In the episode, the framing went as follows:

One is made of fruit. The other is caffeinated. So a smoothie is a healthier option than a coffee, right? Don’t be so sure, says Michael Mosley, as he weighs the evidence.
Which is healthier – coffee or smoothies? It seems obvious that the answer must be a smoothie. After all, drinking coffee is a necessary evil, while having a smoothie, made from fruit, is part of your five-a-day. But when you look into the scientific studies they reveal something much more surprising.

The dangers of the either-or

I suggest that something conceptually dodgy is going on when a complex issue is reduced to an either-or. Despite the ‘evidence’ from clinical trials, I was left unconvinced. If the original question is “what is healthier for me, as an individual, drinking coffee or smoothies?” I find no satisfactory answer. The clinical trials provided statistical evidence of factors associated with medical benefits and disbenefits [if that’s the right word] of smoothies and of coffees. I won’t be watching the unfolding series.

Is TMID good for your understanding of up-to-date medical knowledge?

Now there’s an interesting question… we are asking two doctors whom we trust to comment for a future post.


We banned TV shows with kids in beauty contests. What about Mensa’s brain contests?

June 12, 2013

TV review of Child Genius Channel four

“This will split the critics” I thought, watching Channel Four’s first episode of Child Genius yesterday evening.

A bunch of very bright per-teenagers were competing in the programme to find Britain’s top child genius. The producers had no trouble sticking to the guidelines from countless quiz and celebrity shows. Mensa , the high IQ society, provided dubious cover for the methodology.

Was the show watchable? Enough to keep our domestic group from voting with the remote. Compelling? In a guilty voyeuristic way for me. Convincing? Only if you believed genius can be measured and ranked. It’s about as convincing as The Apprentice is in identifying business genius.

Hero villains

The parents were set up as hero villains and could have also been ranked on a tiger mother scale. Some were up there in the near crazed obsessional league. One or two looked more bemused than bullying.

Chess and genius

I watched because of the news that Josh, a per-teen chess prodigy , ould take part. My interest in these rare creatures began when I had the fortune to be utterly outclassed in a competitive chess game by English prodigy Nigel Short, who was thirteen at the time. Many years earlier, I had had more success as a schoolboy playing against Brian Josephson, who was already considered the brightest kid ever to have come out of the Welsh valleys, and who later won a Nobel Prize in theoretical Physics.

Chess is a field that reinforced the view of the need for ten thousand hours of study for a child to develop into a grand-master. Josh’s mother is a born again ten-thousand hours acolyte. As often happens, a dominant idea resists scientific evidence that challenges it. So I won’t try, although the notion at very least it could benefit from a Richard Dawkins to provide a contrary explanation of giftedness.

Then there’s Einstein, Newton and Mozart

A thought experiment. The young Einstein, Newton, and Mozart are brought together to compete in the international all-time child genius TV show. What’s that? Mensa flunked them Einstein and Newton before they got into the televised bit, as slow, possibly of low IQ. That’s what their school teachers thought. But, hey, their teachers didn’t have the help of Mensa to identify their potential genius. Mozart, by the way, had been wowing them musically since the age of four, and was given special dispensation to appear.


Ann Widdecombe’s ‘Are you having a laugh?’

March 28, 2013

Ann WiddecombeTV Review: BBC1 Wednesday March 27 2013

Last night I watched a rather sad late-night programme fronted by Ann Widdecombe. Her focus was the hurt caused to Christians by assorted humorous treatments of religious themes. The humorists she interviewed argued they were mocking not Christianity but attitudes of Christians

Background

Ann Widdecombe has celebrity status in the UK, for her uncompromising views on matters political, social, and religious. Following a career in politics she moved into the world of media and journalism. Her visibility is enhanced in a culture which delights in unself-conscious eccentricity. Her views are mostly of a socially conservative kind which she is prepared to back up by taking a moral position, at one stage refusing higher office during her time as a junior Government minister which would have required her to work against her beliefs.

A regiment of mockers

In the programme ‘Are you having a laugh: Humour and Christianity’ She offered an unshakable position, setting out to confirm it under the guise of rational discourse. Anger at the mockery naturally led her to name, shame, and confront a regiment of mockers ranging from the Monty Python team, Ricky Gervase, stand-up comedians as a tribe, and a few producers of other assorted media programmes.

Feel my pain

Her pain, induced by what she sees as the mocking of her beliefs, seemed genuine enough for some of her interviewees to show empathy, not a quality particularly manifest by the interviewer. I found my own sympathy diminishing she moved from the [in]famous crucifixion scene ending of the Life of Brian film to other less cogent examples of blasphemy through mockery.

Dangerous Territory

There was one point made about fundamentalist evangelical Christians in America, which fitted in with the general narrative, and yet was different. For once, Widdecombe’s views were not expressed with clarity. She seemed to be sensing dangerous territory to be skirted. Or maybe she felt that however egregious were the actions of these leaders, the basic point did not really fit into the theme of blasphemous mockery.

The arrogance of the mockers

The examples seemed to be located along a wide spectrum of any mock scale. Collectively they capture the libertarian component in British culture rather well. The perpetrators, one confessed to the confronting Widdecombe, are often prone to arrogance and a belief in the superiority of their views. Ms W, who presents herself as rather similar to another Conservative, Margaret Thatcher, in her grasp of irony, found only pleasure in the repentance of the wrong-doer.

So long as it doesn’t offend…

I detected an inauthentic note in her conclusion that ‘we’, (presumably Christians), should be more robust about such humour,’as long as it doesn’t mock ‘our’ beliefs.’ Quite so.

It was then I turned

I watched the programme feeling that I really should go to bed, or turn over to anything else that might provide me with less disappointing viewing. Eventually, I turned to my trusty non-religious tablet, and began writing…


Captain Scott’s story survives the potential hazards of a BBC documentary treatment

April 18, 2011

TV Review by Tudor Rickards

The epic and tragic story of Scott’s Antarctic expedition was retold in a BBC documentary a hundred years later. Unlike Scott, the story just about survived a potential disaster.

A classic adventure story was retold on BBC2 [The Secrets of Scott's Hut, April 17th 2011]. It concerned the ill-fated ‘race to the pole’ by Captain Scott. Or I might have been watching the story of a contemporary preservation project at Scott’s base hut which now involves a team of scientists retrieving the hut and its contents in a multi-million pound rescue mission.

In any case, the programme was conceived as a vehicle for a celebrity treatment which involved Ben Fogle on his own journey of discovery. The documentary started badly for me, perhaps because it assumed that I knew the story of Mr Fogle better than I knew the story of Captain Scott.

Remorseless cheerful Ben

Remorselessly cheerful Ben began by explaining how he was privileged to visit the preserved relics of Captain Scott’s famous expedition. It reminded me of those Blue Peter adventurers setting off to thrill their audience of schoolchildren by abseiling down Blackpool Tower or whatever.

Mashed up story lines

Despite its uncomfortable start and mashed-up story lines, the programme contained much of interest. The contemporary story of the renovation of thousands of articles of historic interest was itself worth documenting. The older story of Scott retains enormous emotional appeal. It interests students of leadership at various levels. The dilemmas under uncertainties: the logistics of getting to the South Pole; the reactions to news of Amundsen’s approach recognised as superior almost immediately; even (in today’s terms mission creep). The beginnings of fund-raising through brand placements, and Scott’s flair for managing history by taking along the brilliant photographer Herbert Ponting.

Leadership style

Scott’s leadership style offers insights, particularly through comparisons with the styles of two competitor celebrity explorers Shackleton and Amundsen. The Telegraph gives a brief account for those unacquainted with the story

“The main objective of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement,” he said, in an appeal for sponsorship. As every schoolchild knows, he failed in his bid to be first. Arriving at the Pole on January 17 1912, after hauling a sledge more than 800 miles, he was greeted by the Norwegian flag. Roald Amundsen had beaten him by a month.

Leadership students will be more familiar with an earlier expedition led by Shackleton who faced with dangers to his men abandoned his mission for the promise of getting his men home safely. Over time, Shackleton’s leadership has become more admired; Scott’s more disputed. Even bouncing Ben was struck by Scott’s attempts to preserve the necessary distance between officers and men, symbolically captured by the physical barrier in the so-called hut and the gentleman and players toilet arrangements outside.

The heroic leaders of a century ago have mostly had their original status reappraised. I was not surprised to learn that Scott had been given the hero to zero treatment. The BBC and The Telegraph revisited the biography by Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth. .

Huntford accuses Scott of being temperamentally unfit for command, an ambitious but insecure man who alienated those under him; a bungler who failed to learn the lessons of previous polar expeditions, lessons that might have saved his men. Amundsen, says Huntford, was more professional than his opponent, who personified all that was worst in the British cult of amateurism.

Leadership lessons

Fogle reflects on the leadership lessons that had occurred to him through the trip. Had Scott’s leadership style contributed to the disaster? This implicitly suggests that the apparently more modern, less autocratic style on an Amundsen or a Shackleton would have been less likely to have contributed to a glorious failure. Does the drama show the increasing interaction between technology, heroism, and celebrity? If so, can we see the time line stretching back as far as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, who also were acutely aware of the importance of managing history on behalf of posterity? And is the BBC now locked into ways of spelling out to an audience the sort of emotions they are expected to feel regarding a story, using Ben Foden or some other celebrity presenter?


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