John Simpson at Devizes Arts Festival

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John Simpson at the Corn Exchange, Friday 31st May

One would expect a reporter of John Simpson’s standing and experience to be very careful and specific with his choice of words.

Simpson has been with the BBC for 52 years and has reported on 47 wars.  He is a man whose words are to be listened to, and on Friday night a packed house at the Corn Exchange were curious and enthusiastic to hear what he had to say and ask him questions about his long career and the state of the world as we know it today.

The man is all bon homie and old school decency, and one suspects that his affability and fair manner have got him out of many a sticky situation.  He starts off light, laughing about being punched on his first day on the job and being mistaken for David Attenborough, and chatting about family.  He has a book to promote but avoids saying much about that at all.

He talks about the BBC, saying that these days there is opposition from all sides towards the organisation and that he’s never been told to tone it down in all the years he has worked for them.  He talks about Trump, his ‘habit of tweeting insanities’ and strategy of giving away positions and key elements before presenting final agreements as amazing victories.  He’s disappointed that the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests will be overshadowed by Trump’s visit to the UK. He says that Gaddafi was off his head, that Saddam Hussein scared him, and that al-Bashir was weak and wanted to be liked.  He liked Thatcher, although ‘When she was good she was very very good and when she was bad she was something else’. He says that Mandela treated people as the best version of themselves and waxes lyrical about his admiration for Václav Havel. He acknowledges that China is to be taken very seriously indeed and thinks that the best strategy is to keep it in play.  China is, says Simpson, surprisingly open and anxious to be part of the international community.

He saves his most emotive words for how he feels about Britain today. ‘The line of confrontation’ he says, ‘is very disturbing indeed’. He compares the UK to France in the 50s, which was, he says ‘extraordinarily violent’.  He says that there is a ‘vicious divide which stirs up the weakest intellects’.  He talks about the ‘disgraceful’ messages that his colleague Laura Kuenssberg gets on social media and says that he holds social media responsible for the current ‘nastiness and violence’, for which he gets a round of applause.  He refers to ‘disturbing threats to freedom’ and says that he feels more able to talk freely about other countries than our own these days.  He’s dismayed to see our reputation plummet in the eyes of the world.  ‘It’s painful to find that Britain has become an international joke’ and ‘It’s important to realise the way we’ve damaged our country’.

He wonders if Brexit was ‘the tinder that started the whole performance’ but stops short of apportioning blame to any particular entity. ‘This Brexit business is going to change things’ he says sadly, wishing that we could be ‘back the way we were before all this started’.

There are points where Simpson catches himself just before he falls into an abyss of pessimism and says something about hope.  He does, after all, have a young son to be optimistic for.  Terrorism is 7 or 8% of what it was in the seventies, he says, and a billion have been lifted out of poverty in the past 13 years.  But when it comes to Britain he struggles to find any positives at all, and this from a man like Simpson is disturbing.  ‘We need to try and be less divisive ourselves and more accepting of other points of view’, he says, wishing for the best but sounding as if he is whistling in the wind.

He sticks rigidly to his three-quarter hour talk and fifteen-minute Q&A plan, but then he didn’t get where he is today by faffing about.  Those who wanted endless war stories are disappointed, but those who wanted his views on current situations are not.  He signs books afterwards and is very approachable.

I ask people what they thought of the great man. ‘His description of Mandela – it revealed that what we all hoped to be true of him actually was’ says one audience member.  ‘Honest’, ‘Genuine’, ‘Empowering’, and ‘Awe-inspiring’, say others.  ‘I was sitting there thinking what have I done with my life’ says my friend. The general feeling is that it has been a privilege to hear John Simpson speak, and that people have been delighted by his wit.

And then off he goes, with shrapnel in his side and a shard of hope in his heart, to his next adventure.

In the Market Place I take a picture of him smiling.

© Gail Foster 3rd June 2019

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Dirty Dusting at Devizes Arts Festival

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Dirty Dusting, a tale of three elderly cleaners threatened with redundancy who start up a sex chat line, hit the stage at the Corn Exchange on Wednesday night.  The play premiered in South Shields in 2003, and is currently performed by Crissy Rock, of Benidorm fame, Leah Bell, Dolores Porretta, and Andrew Green.

The audience were vociferously amused from the outset, and by the end were overtaken with mirth.  After all, sex is funny, and we British do like our innuendo.  Think seaside postcards and Carry On.  Think Les Dawson and Mrs. Brown’s Boys.  Toss in a bit of slapstick and stick slapping and more references to coming than in the Festival publicity, and there have you have it.  Dirty Dusting.  A riotous smut fest.

Leah Bell as Glad (‘all over’) aka Madonna is the star of the show, and it is the late flowering of her sexuality and physical comedy that provides the most laughs.  Crissy Rock is the worldly wise and weary Elsie (Kylie), Dolores Porretta plays Olive (Marilyn), whose sexless marriage was once punctuated by an affair with a Scoutmaster called Arthur, and Andrew Green is the arrogant boss with a furtive secret.

It’s a whole new world (hole, even) for the Telephone Belles from the minute the phone rings.  There are misunderstandings about water sports, references to hand puppets, and revelations relating to crotchless panties.  It’s a steep learning curve.  Good times for Glad, as she and the previously disappointing (‘You could time an egg by him’) Billy reap the rewards of her re-energised libido, but bad times for the boss (domestic suction devices; don’t do this at home, kids) as his unusual fetish is exposed.  The story ends with the ladies emerging victorious and the whole cast appearing in comedy S&M gear.

I’ve never heard an audience laugh so much and so often in the Corn Exchange.   People absolutely loved it.  They spilled out of the Ceres Hall with happy smiles, saying things like ‘Brilliant, really clever’, ‘A laugh’, and ‘Best thing I’ve seen for a long time’.  To see that people enjoyed our Festival event so much was wonderful.

I laughed twice.  Something just didn’t sit right for me.  In the interval I talked to Lesley Mills, who voiced her concerns about the clichéd negative portrayal of older women and their sexuality in the show.  We both found a couple of the jokes a bit gross, particularly the one about things dangling out of the aforesaid crotchless thingies.  Which surprises me because neither of us are prudes, and I have a reputation for mildly vulgar poetry.  We also struggled to place the play in a particular time.  The characters seemed to come from the 70s, but even though the phones were old fashioned there were references to Google, credit card payments, and the odious Trump.

‘You realise it was written by men’ said a gentleman from the Festival committee, quietly.

Get over yourself, some might say.  It’s just a bit of fun.  There’s nothing serious about it.  Lighten up a bit, for goodness sake!  Fair enough, but this is 2018, and we are currently revising our view on what is and isn’t acceptable regarding what and how things are said about whom.  If this play had been written in, or firmly set in, the 70s, I would have understood it as being of its time and enjoyed it more.  But it wasn’t.  And it wasn’t ironic either.  Which left me feeling slightly uncomfortable and confused.

Sorry to be a party pooper, people.

But I never did like Mrs Brown’s Boys.

© Gail Foster 17th June 2018

Ann Widdecombe at the Corn Exchange, Devizes; a review

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Ann Widdecombe at the Devizes Arts Festival

On Thursday night, the Devizes Arts Festival kicked off with ‘An Audience with Ann Widdecombe.’

Ann is famous for her 23-year career in Parliament, her appearance in Strictly Come Dancing, and her right wing Victorian views.

In her rider she has asked for a glass of water and a sandwich.

She arrives on time, sporting a rather fashionable mustard coloured jumper.  It is immediately apparent that she is not up for wasting syllables on irrelevant chat.  She’s come to do the job, and flog some books, and entertain.  ‘She’s dead professional’ says one of the new boys at the Town Hall, as we watch her cracking on with the soundcheck.

The doors open to the public, and Ann appears, dressed as a Victorian opera singer.  The effect of the light catching her ash blonde hair and sequins is startling.

She’s up for signing books before and after the show, and in the interval.  She’s written seven; five fiction, including a self-published detective novel, one autobiography, and a religious book about penance.   She’s polite with the public.  She makes herself accessible.  She’s happy to have photos taken, happy to be in selfies, happy to nip upstairs for a random appearance on Fantasy Radio.  She’s a good sport when something goes wrong (don’t ask).  ‘Always see the funny side’ she says.  Phew.  But she’s not touchy feely at all (and why should she be?).  She’s brisk, and formal.  And there’s something of the…what about her?

Ann is, on stage, quite funny.  ‘Do blondes have more fun?  All I can say is that I noticed men were talking to me much-more-slowly’ she quips.  She kicks off with talking about her recent celebrity appearances, or ‘non-political television’, as she calls it.  She doesn’t do social media.  Television is, in her view, still a good way of reaching the masses.

When Ann left Parliament in 2010, she drew a line.  She was an ‘Admiralty child’.

‘The subconscious lesson of that childhood,’ she says, explaining how she moved from school to school, constantly having to make new friends, ‘was that when something’s gone, it’s gone.’

‘The day I left Parliament,’ she says, ‘I realised that I no longer owed anyone any duty of time and dignity.’

Friends warned her off Strictly, worried that if she did it she would lose her gravitas.

‘What would I want it for?’ says Ann.

Ann does panto these days and has worked with Basil Brush.  She disagrees with hunting, doesn’t agree with abortion, and is in favour of the death penalty.  She’s said Yes to Graham Norton, and No to Jonathan Ross.  She seems a bit thick with Anton from Strictly.  ‘The less time you spend with your feet on the floor the better’ – Anton.  People laugh a lot.

After the interval, a cheeky glass of water and some more book signing, Ann returns for a Q&A.  Questions are, in the main, unchallenging.  Would you pay £16 to heckle Ann Widdecombe?  Probably not.  This is the meat and bones of Ann’s talk for me, and probably for the lady outside who said ‘She’s brilliant, erudite, and feisty, but I don’t feel she’s giving her best, and I’m really not that interested in Big Brother.’

Ann answers all the questions.  Sort of.  She’s up for it, that’s for sure.  Assertive is the word.

She blames the closure of libraries on the internet.  Margaret Thatcher was, while Ann had huge respect for her, ‘a bit remote’.  She talks about her memories of Thatcher and Major walking through the lobbies, how the Red Sea parted for Thatcher whilst Major would stop and have a friendly chat.  She has a Ten Commandments story.  She thinks the quality of MPs in Parliament has gone down due to selection procedures, and that governments suffer from oppositions taking opposition habits into government, and governments taking government habits onto the opposition benches.  She voted for Brexit.  She says she said the ‘something of the night about him’ thing to a couple of people and it just caught on.  She really doesn’t agree with abortion and thinks that there is divisive political skullduggery going on in relation to the issue.  She has always been comfortable with herself.  50 Shades of Grey is ‘quite the dirtiest book I haven’t quite read’.  She had 800 people on her Christmas list when she was in Parliament.  Ann talks about changing demands on the NHS in relation to new scientific medical discoveries, and how Bevan’s original vision is out of odds with the current demand for services.

‘What would we want the NHS to look like if we started it from scratch?’ she asks.

A bit more book signing and ‘bon homie’, and Ann is ready for the off.  People have enjoyed her, and if they didn’t they kept their opinions to themselves.  She’s done everything she signed up for.  She didn’t eat the sandwiches.

‘Good luck with your Festival!’ she says, as she walks out the door.

Something of the…what about her?

Something of the Right, obviously.  But also something I can’t quite put my finger on.

Ann is working it, and good luck to her.  The woman has balls, even if her views are objectionable.  She answers to no-one.  She’s a good speaker.  She’s intelligent.  There are things to admire about her, for sure.  But she is a bit odd.  A bit chilly.  There’s a wall around her.  Maybe you have to build such walls when you are a child being moved from pillar to post, or when you are trying to hold your own as a woman in Parliament, or when you have your knickers showing in the celebrity spotlight.

Who can say.

© Gail Foster 1st June 2018

The Devizes Arts Festival Poetry Slam

The Devizes Arts Festival Poetry Slam

Tuesday 14th June 2016

So, you know how to weave a villanelle

You’re a master of blank verse and sonnet

You’ve a tale of mysterious mirth to tell

Get on it

For down deep, in the Merchants Suite

When the dancing girls have gone

You, on the stage, rhyming sorrow and rage

Bring it on

You’re a rhymer, a rapper, it burns in your soul

You say that you always knew it

So, bring it to town, camp it up, smack it down

Just do it

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© Gail Foster 2016

 

Free entry, apply online http://www.devizesartsfestival.org.uk