TV/Film/Theatre

Theatre review: Mamma Mia Still As Good As Ever

12 Apr 2014 at 14:49

I don’t get to go to the theatre much nowadays due to the fact that my radio show finishes at 8, and I am rarely in London at the weekend. So because I was presenting the LBC Breakfast Show last week, I decided to go totally overboard and on Thursday I went to not just one show, but two!

My goddaughter Zoe was nine in March and I couldn’t decide what to get her, so I did what all useless uncles do and asked her mother, my sister Sheena. “Well,” she said. “I really want to take her to see Mamma Mia, but I can’t believe the price of the tickets.” “OK, deal I said,” and booked tickets for the matinee on Thursday afternoon. What I hadn’t bargained for was for the Nigel Evans verdict to be announced shortly before I got to the theatre. My mobile phone rang. It was Matt, my LBC Drivetime producer. “This is going to be a bit bizarre, but will you come on Drive and talk about Nigel Evans?” So he was asking me to go on my own show and be interviewed by another presenter called Ian, (Payne). Weird. Anyway, back to Mamma Mia.

I waited a good few years to see Mamma Mia. Being a bit of an Abba purist, I thought I’d hate it, but so many friends reassured me that I’d love it so back in about 2007 I went to see it with Nadine Dorries. We ended up dancing in the aisles at the end of it. Luckily no pictures survive. As we took I our seats I was rather horrified at the number of young children in the audience. Some can’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old. Why would anyone take a three year old child to see a musical, especially when the tickets cost upwards of £90? Madness.

Anyway, it was a brilliant show. The actress who played the lead part of Donna was particularly impressive. She was the spitting image of LBC’s Petrie Hosken so I kept imagining Petrie blasting out DANCING QUEEN and SLIPPING THROUGH MY FINGERS. Another of the lead characters, one of Donna’s two close friends, was a cross between Julia Hartley-Brewer and Susan Bookbinder. Sorry, but you had to be there.

The appeal of Mamma Mia endures and I suspect this is one musical that will run and run for many years to come. Having seen the film a couple of times too, the one thing I took away from this performances was the genius of fitting the songs into the storyline. Ye, the storyline may be somewhat weak and formulaic, but the lyrics of the songs were rarely inappropriate. There were the usual moments of high campery from the often half naked friends of Skye. My sister managed not to leave her tongue hanging out during one or two of their moments of stardom, as did I, of course.

The only weak performances were by the three men who Sophie suspected of being her father. They were each worse singers than Colin Firth in the film version, and that’s some achievement. Former Coronation Street star (and former Tory candidate!) James Gaddas looked stiff and uncomfortable most of the time and was totally miscast. But that shouldn’t hide the fact that it was a thoroughly enjoyable show which got a standing ovation from much of the audience. Quite some feat for a show which has been going for years.

Stars: * * * * *
COMING TOMORROW: My review of HANDBAGGED.

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Books

Attitude Column: The Problem With 'Gay' Books (And My 3 Favourites)

12 Apr 2014 at 10:03

Someone asked me the other day what my favourite ‘gay book’ was. What on earth does that mean, was my first thought. Do they mean that just because I am gay I only read books by gay authors or with a gay theme? I suppose if being gay is the main thing that defines you, then you might very well spend much of your time reading gay related literature, but even then I’d think it was a slightly odd thing to do. Why? Because unless you are someone who spends their entire life immersed in a gay sub-culture, you’re probably very much like the rest of the population. You have the same issues, problems, dilemmas, life-concerns and pastimes.

But it set me thinking. How many gay-related books have I actually read? Am I letting the side down? I think the answer has to be yes, considering the last three gay books I have read are ones my company ended up publishing. I’d like to think I’d have read them anyway, even if I hadn’t published them.

Bearing in mind most of the books I read are about politics or football, and I don’t read a lot of fiction there’s not a lot of room for gay authors to elbow their way into my reading time, especially those who write gay themed novels. Yes, I feel a complete philistine, but I suspect I am not alone.

Let me recommend three gay-related tomes with which you might like to idle away the odd hour or two.

Unless you come from Ireland you may not have heard of Senator David Norris. He is an independent minded politician and about the nearest the Irish have to their own version of Peter Tatchell, except that he has never tried to arrest Robert Mugabe. But he has probably done more for gay rights in Ireland than anyone else.

His life story, ‘A KICK AGAINST THE PRICKS’, is fascinating, and the fact that a gay man came within a whisker of the presidency says a lot for the way the country has become a little more liberal in recent times. But it was his relationship with a former lover in Israel which proved to be his downfall. This man was put on trial in Israel for a relationship with an underage boy, and Norris wrote to the court providing a character witness. The letter was exposed in the Irish press and bang went Norris’s presidential campaign.

His story is one of the most gripping I have read for many a year and when I finished the book I felt a profound sense of sadness that a political career was laid waste all because David Norris had the temerity to support a friend.

Another gay role model who has a fascinating story to tell is ex-soldier James Wharton. His story of life as an ‘out’ gay soldier, ‘OUT IN THE ARMY’ is emotional, funny and riveting. Indeed, there are times when you laugh out loud and other times when the reader is moved to tears. Wharton ‘s courageous decision to come out has made it easier for other people in the three armed services to do so, and as an epitaph it’s not a bad one.

My favourite gay-themed novel remains Allan Hollinghurst ‘LINE OF BEAUTY’ . Set in the excess-fuelled Thatcher era (the Iron Lady even puts in an appearance) it remains a classic, and was so good it was eventually made into a TV drama. Centering around the character of Nick Guest, who rents a room from a Tory MP, it’s a hedonistic romp full of beautiful people and drugs. Having been a Commons researcher for a Tory MP at that time, I have to say I never encountered any of these kinds of excesses. Perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right places.

Gay related publishing is becoming increasingly difficult, not just in this country but also in the United States. The demise of physical bookstores, or indeed the virtual disappearance of specialist gay-related bookstores, has meant that fewer and fewer mainstream gay-related books ever see the light of day. The gay porn inspired fantasy fiction genre will always have its right-handed place, but if you are an author with a gay related book to publish, it’s increasingly difficult to find someone to publish it. All this means that such authors end up self-publishing their books as eBooks on the Kindle. So if you have a Kindle, search for gay novels and gay non-fiction and you might uncover a few gems. And usually for 99p!

This article first appeared in the February edition of Attitude Magazine

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UK Politics

Next Time It Won't Be Nigel Evans - It Will Be Joe Bloggs

11 Apr 2014 at 15:56

Nigel Evans, speaking outside Preston Crown Court, declared that his “life will never be the same again”. He showed no sign of euphoria after being found not guilty of all the preposterous charges laid against him by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. One reporter told me that in all her years of covering court cases she had never seen a weaker prosecution case. The fact of the matter is that most of us in the Westminster Village know the identity of the person who accused Nigel Evans of raping him. Yet this person continues his life knowing that for reasons best known to himself he has put Nigel through eleven months of hell. I think he dug himself so deep that he began to believe his own lies. He needs to ask himself some very searching questions. So does Sarah Wollaston MP. She no doubt felt she was exercising a duty of care towards the man who cried rape. She clearly believed his story, but today she must also be asking herself if she acted properly throughout this sorry saga.

But the two institutions who emerge from this will real stains on their reputations are the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. From their public statements they seem to think they did nothing wrong. I and others will not rest until they are made to come to terms with their poisonous agenda, wicked actions and duplicity. How on earth could they bring charges on behalf of four people who didn’t want them brought, didn’t consider themselves victims, and all of whom praised Nigel Evans. One even texted him good luck.

Many parts of our criminal justice system are broken. If their failures in this case are swept under the carpet the same thing will happen to someone else. But we won’t ever hear about it. Because that person won’t be called Nigel Evans. He will be Joe Bloggs.

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Diary

ConservativeHome Diary: The Nadine Vendetta, A 'Ladyshambles & Why Joe Bloggs Must Fear the CPS

11 Apr 2014 at 14:21

It’s a pity that the Telegraph has seemingly renewed its vendetta against Nadine Dorries. It had commissioned columnist Cristina Odone to interview Nadine Dorries about her debut novel THE FOUR STREETS. Odone duly read the book and could hardly contain her enthusiasm for it, tweeting at 6.09pm on Monday: “Just read The Four Streets – Fab first novel by Nadine Dorries. Catholic Liverpool, irish immigrants & black secrets behind net curtains.” Fourteen minutes later she reinforced the point, tweeting: “Well done @NadineDorriesMP on your debut novel The Four Streets – a funny and sometimes shocking saga set in Catholic Liverpool.” How very strange then that the following morning instead of publishing Odone’s no doubt very positive interview, they published a damning review by their Head of Stuffiness, Christopher Howse. You just need to look at his photo to know the kind of review he would write of a novel by a female politician. And then you need to take into account Howse used to be a member of Opus Dei. I doubt he took kindly to the storyline of the Catholic Priest abusing a young girl. True to form he gave it a one star review and called it the worst novel he’d read in ten years. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?
Clearly he’d been given a brief, and the reason? I’m told it was because Nadine had the temerity to give two interviews – on GMTV and my LBC show on Tuesday morning – in which she uttered views on MPs’ expenses which weren’t to the Telegraph’s liking. Readers may remember her criticism of the Telegraph, and the Barclay Brothers, over the original MPs’ expenses scandal. Nadine then upped the ante and withdrew an invitation to the Telegraph’s ‘Head of Bitchery’, Tim Walker (who writes their Mandrake diary column, as well as being an excellent theatre critic), to her booklaunch that evening. He responded in kind with a series of tweets which sought to denigrate both Nadine and her beleaguered publicist. Yesterday morning he went even further in a vitriolic attack on her. To be honest he showed himself up. Nadine wasn’t taking any of it and accused him of lying. When he was caught out denying Cristina Odone had ever been commissioned to write any piece for the Telegraph Nadine posted a tweet from Odone confirming she had indeed been asked to do just that. “Telegraph asked to interview Nadine – I read the book, couldn’t put it down and told her so.” At that point Walker retired in a huff, tweeting: “Speaking purely for myself, I am bored to tears of this particular honourable member.” I am sure the feeling was mutual.
*
On Tuesday evening I trotted off to the InterContinental Hotel which seems to have become THE place to hold booklaunches in Westminster, where Nadine was hosting the launch of her book. Well, she was supposed to be. I’ve never been at a booklaunch where the author didn’t turn up until nearly an hour after it started and then made a speech which can’t have been more than about 14 words long. The shortest in recent political memory, I’d have thought. But then again, Nadine does like to do things differently. And that’s why many of us love her.
*

I was looking forward to interviewing the winner of the IEA BREXIT prize on Wednesday morning, as I have been covering the LBC Breakfast Show all this week. He would be receiving 100,000 euros for a 10,000 word essay on how the UK could exit the EU. So when I received an email from the IEA on Tuesday night informing me that he wouldn’t do an interview I admit I blew several gaskets. It turns out he is a Foreign Office Diplomat, and “our man” in Manilla. They banned him from talking to the media about it as his views are not exactly government policy. I wonder if they would have the same if he had written a 10,000 word essay on the advantages for Britain of joining the euro. I think we all know the answer to that one. As they used to say, the Ministry of Agriculture represents the interests of farmers and the Foreign Office represents the interests of foreigners. Little has changed. I imagine the IEA was as furious as I was.
*
Two stories this week illustrate why fairly moderate people are losing all patience with the EU. New laws are coming into force which could threaten the viability of many thriving small food producing businesses in this country. In February last year the European Commission proposed that public bodies should be allowed to make a charge every time an official visited food premises to check hygiene practices. It could mean unexpected bills of at least £500 for small artisan food producers and farm shops every time they receive a random inspection. After a concerted lobbying effort the European Commission’s public health directorate agreed an exemption for businesses with fewer than 10 employees or annual sales below €2 million. However, this exemption was quietly deleted from the proposed rules by MEPs on the ENVI environmental, public health and food safety committee last week. With the European Parliament due to vote on the issue next Monday, April 14th, the move effectively leaves no time for further consultation. That’s how the EU works, folks. Or doesn’t.

And then we learn that the EU is about to abolish UK numberplates in favour of a pan-european system. As if we are not capable of running our own number plate system. Cue Liberal Democrats who will no doubt tell us how it will help us fight crime, or some other ludicrous argument.

I am a Eurosceptic, but I have never been wholly convinced by the argument that we would necessarily be better off out. But it’s stories like this (both of which are apparently 100% true) which might tip me to vote that way when the time comes.
*
Like most political commentators I’ve never been brilliant at predictions, but I did predict the timing of Maria Miller’s resignation and also that Nicky Morgan would be promoted. Well, I got that one half right. She was indeed promoted but not quite to the position I had tipped! But it was yet another Number 10 shambles. I agreed with every word of Peter Oborne’s excellent analysis of the Number 10 machine and its appalling lack of strategic vision or attention to detail. Was Nicky Morgan in the Cabinet, just attending Cabinet or neither? Over a period of a few hours it was all three. Ladyshambles. The moment I knew Maria Miller was doomed was when I realised that she had few allies who were willing to publicly defend her. Her trouble was that she made so few friends and allies on the way up who were willing to defend her in her time of need. Speaking to Andrew Pierce and Peter Oborne, it turned out the three of us had never, ever spoken to her or interviewed her. And from my discussions with various Tory MPs over the last few days, they had a similar experience. On a personal level I felt for Maria as she nearly broke down during her post resignation interviews with the BBC and Sky. Unfortunately, I see no way back for her, whatever David Cameron may have said in their exchange of letters. The general public may have been unfair to her, but I am afraid that her very name has become toxic. And let’s dismiss any talk of a media witch hunt. It was nothing of the sort.
*

Nigel Evans, speaking outside Preston Crown Court, declared that his “life will never be the same again”. He showed no sign of euphoria after being found not guilty of all the preposterous charges laid against him by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. One reporter told me that in all her years of covering court cases she had never seen a weaker prosecution case. The fact of the matter is that most of us in the Westminster Village know the identity of the person who accused Nigel Evans of raping him. Yet this person continues his life knowing that for reasons best known to himself he has put Nigel through eleven months of hell. I think he dug himself so deep that he began to believe his own lies. He needs to ask himself some very searching questions. So does Sarah Wollaston MP. She no doubt felt she was exercising a duty of care towards the man who cried rape. She clearly believed his story, but today she must also be asking herself if she acted properly throughout this sorry saga.

But the two institutions who emerge from this will real stains on their reputations are the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. From their public statements they seem to think they did nothing wrong. I and others will not rest until they are made to come to terms with their poisonous agenda, wicked actions and duplicity. How on earth could they bring charges on behalf of four people who didn’t want them brought, didn’t consider themselves victims, and all of whom praised Nigel Evans. One even texted him good luck.
Many parts of our criminal justice system are broken. If their failures in this case are swept under the carpet the same thing will happen to someone else. But we won’t ever hear about it. Because that person won’t be called Nigel Evans. He will be Joe Bloggs.

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Books

Book Review: Saving Susie-Belle by Janetta Harvey

6 Apr 2014 at 19:28

I can’t say I have read a lot of books about dogs, especially ones which have made me cry. But after reading SAVING SUSIE-BELLERESCUED FROM A PUPPY FARM: ONE DOG’S UPLIFTING TRUE STORY I suspect I may start to make a habit of it. Let me explain how I came to read it.

All my life I have lived in a home with Jack Russells. Our Jack Russell, Gio, died in July 2011 at the age of twelve. We were both bereft and couldn’t quite imagine how we could ever get another dog. It seemed as though we would be betraying Gio’s memory. If you don’t own a dog, or are not a doggy person you will think I’ve lost leave of my senses, but his loss hit us just as hard as the death of a human member of our family would have. In the weeks that followed the house seemed so empty. Then one day John and I both decided that we would indeed get another dog. I tentatively suggested we get two dogs so they could be company for each other. Much to my surprise John said he had been having the same thoughts. The only question was would we get one Jack Russell or two. In the end we got a Jack Russell called Dude and a Miniature Schnauzer called Bubba. He came from a breeder in Romford. We tried to get puppies from Battersea, where Gio had come from, but they didn’t have any of either breed. John also went to what turned out to be a puppy farm in Hastings to look at a Jack Russell, but was so horrified by what he saw he came back empty handed, despite wanting to scoop up every poor puppy wo lived there and bring the whole lot home.

Dude and Bubba have both been a joy and are devoted to each other, which is a relief. They are the sweetest, most loving dogs anyone could wish for. Gio could be a bit nippy. He didn’t like children or people on bikes. He even bit me once, which I found profoundly upsetting! These two wouldn’t know the meaning of the word ‘bite’ let alone know what to do.

Several months ago I was flicking through the Daily Mail and came across a double page spread about how a woman called Janetta Harvey had rescued a Miniature Schnauzer from a puppy farm. She described the horrors experienced by dogs who are kept purely to breed and the horrendous conditions they live in. It turned out she had written a book about her own experience, so I decided to buy it.

The subtitle of the book uses the word ‘uplifting’ and it really is. It’s also very upsetting if you are someone like me and cannot comprehend how anyone can treat dogs badly. The story is all about Susie-Belle, a Miniature Schnauzer who was used an abused by a puppy farm, but now lives with Janetta and her chef-husband Michel. It tells how she was rescued from the puppy farm, and slowly but surely overcame her nervousness and fear of human beings. She turns out to be a real character but it took a very long time for the Harvey family to bring her out of her shell. The poor dog had been traumatised and had no understanding of the basics of dog-human interaction. But slowly but surely, over a long period of time a bond of trust started to build between Susie-Belle and Janetta, and her other Miniature Schnauzer, who became her step-sister. There are some incredibly touching moments, and this is a book you shouldn’t read without a tissue by your side. I read it over several train journeys and I often wondered what my fellow passengers made of the fact that they were sitting opposite a 51 year old man with tears running down his face. I may be a silly old Hector, but this book is THAT good.

It is also a book which makes dog owners examine their own motives for owning dogs and how they treat them. Several times I got some really good ideas for how to improve the lives of our two dogs, although there were also one or two occasions when I took issue with Janetta’s approach to dogs, especially over their diets. I think dogs like routine, and they also like routine in their diets. That’s not to say they can’t have treats, but I don’t think rich diets do dogs any good. I certainly don’t think dogs needs the kind of variety in their diets, or the amount of fresh food which Janetta’s dogs no doubt enjoy very much!

Anyway, if you own a dog, or ever have done, you will absolutely love this book. It’s a gripping read and when it finishes you wish it hadn’t. I can’t give a higher recommendation that that.

SAVING SUSIE-BELLERESCUED FROM A PUPPY FARM: ONE DOG’S UPLIFTING TRUE STORY is published by John Blake Publishing in hardback at £12.99

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Diary

ConservativeHome Diary: The Vince Enigma, Two Funerals & Two Debates

4 Apr 2014 at 17:34

I remember interviewing Vince Cable for Total Politics before the last election. I spent ninety minutes with him trying to elicit some sort of interesting line from him. I found him to be the coldest, most unemotional politician I had ever interviewed. We didn’t ‘click’ at all. I found his answers on economic policy to be deeply unconvincing and I left the interview wondering about his reputation as an economic ‘sage’. And frankly on that point I am still wondering. Many broadcast interviews later, I have found him to be slightly more congenial, even on the odd occasion displaying a well-developed sense of humour, but in four years as Business Secretary, what has he actually achieved? This week he has come under fire for losing the taxpayer up to £2.3 billion in the Royal Mail privatisation and refused to apologise for it. I understand why. Imagine if he had ignored the advice of his merchant bank advisers and gone for a higher initial share price and the offering had then bombed? Even so, my sympathy is somewhat limited by his failure to ensure that some of the institutional shareholders who were given preference actually held onto their shares as a long term investment.

It’s not just Vince Cable who has some serious questions to answer, it is some of the institutions who took advantage of their privileged position to make a fast buck. But therein lies the quandary for supporters of the Business Secretary. He has talked a lot about the evils of bankers over the last few years, rather ignoring the fact that he is responsible for banking regulation and could easily have done something about it. Instead he has just talked. And talked. And talked some more. Rather than ‘action this day’ he has been the very personification of ‘delay, delay, delay’. And with only a year to go before the LibDems are turfed out of office, hopefully for a very long time, he finds himself running out of time. Cable has been the worst Business Secretary since Stephen Byers. Can any non Liberal Democrat seriously disagree with that?
*
I’ve attended two funerals in the last week. This sort of thing happens when you get to my age. In your twenties, thirties and forties you attend weddings. Once you get to your fifties the weddings become rarer and the funerals become more frequent. On Thursday it was Tony Benn’s funeral at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster and a day later it was the turn of my friend Corinne de Souza to have her send-off in Brighton. Both were unique events but in their own ways both turned out to be very what I have come to term ‘happy-sad’ occasions. Tony’s was a very public event, made intimate by the wonderful tributes paid by three of his children, whose funny and at times very emotional eulogies made many of us shed a tear, as well as laugh heartily. Laughing at a funeral seems very wrong and always makes me feel as if I am misbehaving. As you would expect, it was a gathering of the left-wing clans, although I was very happy to see the number of Conservative politicians in attendance – Peter Bottomley, Bernard Jenkin and Michael Heseltine were among them. I arrived quite early and sat right at the back. I was delighted to be joined by (Lord) Peter Hennessy, Helena Kennedy and Robert Peston, who had thankfully ditched the red shoes I saw him wearing on budget day. I have to admit I left a few minutes before the end. I had spotted that the final act in the service was for us to sing The Red Flag. I’m afraid I draw the line at that. I heard later they sang it twice. In a church!
*

I write a monthly column for the gay lifestyle magazine ‘Attitude’. Yes, UKIP supporters, how very shocking. I do keep my clothes on though. It’s a sort of GQ for gay men, in case you’ve never read a copy. On Saturday I went to their 20th anniversary party at the Grosvenor House. I fell into conversation with a chap who works for Channel 4. “I couldn’t believe you had stood as a Tory candidate when someone told me,” he said. “You always sound so left wing on the radio.” This is becoming a trend. I don’t feel I have changed my political views that much, but so many people keep telling me I’m becoming a bit of a leftie, I have tried to analyse how my views have changed. And the truth is that by and large they haven’t. I am still dry as dust on economic issues, but I have always been a bit of a liberal on social issues. I suppose hosting a four hour phone-in each day has brought this part of my political make-up to the fore. I am less of a shock jock, more of an agony uncle. I can empathise with people’s human misery. Just because I agree that the government is right to reform welfare, that doesn’t mean I can’t empathise with a disabled person who has been treated appallingly by ATOS. Just because I agree that prisoners need to be punished, doesn’t mean that I can’t articulate why I think rehabilitation is just as important as denying someone their freedom. And part of that rehabilitation is the freedom to read books, isn’t it Lord Chancellor? So yes, I signed the Howard League letter complaining about the fact that prisoners are no longer able to receive books from friends and family. Mr Grayling was displeased with me. But if they’re cooped up for 23 hours a day, surely it’s good for prisoners to have something to occupy them. Yes, prisons have libraries, but libraries often don’t have the range of books most people would want. And surely the freedom to enjoy literature is something which should be open to everyone, not just those of us who aren’t in prison?
*
I felt very sorry for the BBC on Wednesday night. Yes, you read that right. How on earth could they follow the original LBC Clegg/Farage debate? I’d have hated to be the producer of their second debate. Sure enough, it was very much after the Lord Mayor’s show. But both Clegg and Farage achieved what they wanted to from the two debates, and it was a clever move from Clegg to propose them. I wonder what his next surprise will be. Whatever it is, it doesn’t change a self- evident truth. He and his party are f
ed.
*
*
I don’t know Mark Menzies very well, but on a basic human level you have to feel sorry for him. He may have been the architect of his own political downfall, but how would any of us cope psychologically with having our careers turned upside down by a tabloid expose? I have to say that as a proponent of legalising prostitution I don’t see anything wrong with two consenting adults agreeing a sexually related financial transaction. Mark’s problem is the drugs allegations and he needs to explain or refute. And quickly.
*
One of the proudest moments of my life came last July when I was named Radio presenter of the Year. I’d also been nominated for a Sony. In any field, achieving the recognition of your peers has to be a satisfying moment. Not for a moment did I think it would be repeated this year, but on Wednesday the Radio Academy put me on the shortlist for Radio Interview of the Year for my interview with James, an eyewitness to the Woolwich murders. LBC got an astonishing 10 nominations, with 5 Live only picking up a couple for their news and current affairs output. It shows how far as a station we have come. Sony don’t sponsor the awards any longer, but everyone still calls them the ‘Sonys’. I just wish my Mum was still alive. Like most sons, all I ever wanted was for her to be proud of me.

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New Statesman Diary: Two Funerals & an Invitation to Ed

3 Apr 2014 at 21:41

It was a privilege to attend Tony Benn’s funeral. Bearing in mind there were 750 people inside St Margaret’s, Westminster, it was still an intensely personal and intimate event. I was one of the first to arrive and decided to sit on my own, in the back row, off to the right-hand side of the church. From that vantage point I was amused to watch the various VIPs arrive and pretend they didn’t want to sit at the front. Much has been written about the wonderful tributes paid by three of Tony Benn’s children. I feel uncomfortable when people applaud in a church, even though I’m an agnostic, but on this occasion it was appropriate. I delivered the eulogy at my mother’s funeral two years ago and thought I had done her justice, but it was nothing compared to the tributes given by Stephen, Hilary and Melissa. They ensured that we all emulated their father’s famous tendency to become lachrymose.

At that moment I thought of Ruth Winstone, his dear friend and editor of all eight volumes of the Benn diaries. When I interviewed her on the day of Tony’s death, she ended the interview by telling me: “Tony really liked you, Iain. He thought you were a brilliant entrepreneur.” Like Tony, I’m a bit of a blubber, but I just about managed to compose myself and bid her farewell.


Tony would have enjoyed the Clegg v Farage EU debate hosted by LBC last week. Why? Because it really seemed to engage people in politics. I hosted the pre-match build-up and post-match commentary and we were deluged with people tweeting and texting message such as this one from Chris in Hastings: “These live debates are great. I’m a youngish voter and politics has always been stale in my eyes. However, the live debating really brings it into the limelight and gives it energy.”

Can there be any doubt that there will be TV debates before and during the next general election campaign? If Ukip tops the polls in the European election (as I expect it to) the case for excluding Nigel Farage from the 2015 debates will become ever weaker. The Conservatives say the participants should be those who could become prime minister. This is an argument that holds little water: we operate not a presidential, but a parliamentary democracy.

My preference would be for one debate during the campaign, between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, and another one featuring the leaders of any party standing candidates in 95 per cent of the seats throughout the United Kingdom. And, after the success of the second Clegg-Farage debate this week, I am sure that LBC would be delighted to host both events!


When you get to my ripe old age of 51, you start attending more funerals than weddings. Having been to Tony Benn’s on Thursday, I was in Brighton a day later to attend the funeral of a dear friend, Corinne de Souza. Streaming with a cold, I sat in the chapel contemplating the horrible unfairness of her being taken at the age of 58.

Every detail of her funeral was planned, Corinne having had six months to do so since being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She was a woman of decidedly left-of-centre views, which led to some vigorous debates between the two of us. As the coffin was carried out of the chapel to the strains of the Gipsy Kings singing “Volare”, I felt a profound sense of my own mortality.


The theory goes that we all get more right-wing as we get older. Not in my case, it seems. I was at Attitude magazine’s 20th-anniversary party on Saturday 29 March when I was told by someone I hadn’t met before: “I couldn’t believe it when I was told you had been a Tory candidate. You’re so left-wing on the radio!” My producer, Matt Harris, keeps telling me he thinks I am inexorably moving towards being a fellow Blairite. Well, all I can say is, it’s news to me. All I can think is it must be because I’m fairly liberal on most social issues.

On prison reform, for instance, I am as wet as a lettuce. I incurred Chris Grayling’s wrath for signing the Howard League for Penal Reform’s letter on books in prisons, for instance. Call me a raving lefty but I happen to believe that prison ought to be as much about rehabilitation as punishment. I have become critical of the police. Does that make me left-wing? I don’t think so. I think people should be allowed a spare room without being penalised financially: I must be a commie.

In fact, terms such as “left-wing” and “right-wing” have started to lose their meaning. Just as more and more people fail to identify with conventional political parties, they are also moving away from political labels.


Hosting a four-hour phone-in show every day inevitably makes you question some long-held views. I would defy anyone to sit in front of a microphone and not be affected by a stream of devastatingly emotional stories. This is why the phone-ins we do with politicians on LBC – Call Clegg, Phone Farage, Ask Boris, Balls Calls, Call Chuka, Tickle Pickles, Harangue Harriet (OK, we haven’t quite got the right names for the last two) – are so successful. They allow people to interact with politicians and to engage with them. Even when I do shows with relatively unknown junior ministers the lines are very busy. Clegg makes headlines with his phone-in with Nick Ferrari every week.

Perhaps it is time for Ed Miliband to take up the open invitation he’s had for the past year to do the same with me. He needs to show his human side to an electorate which, according to focus groups, views him as a bit “weird”. Those who know him know something rather different.

Come on, Ed. You know you want to. You never know, you might even persuade me to vote for you. But then again . . .

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Books

Keith Simpson's Easter Reading List

3 Apr 2014 at 09:23

Guest Post by Keith Simpson MP

Whilst FCO ministers will be spending the Easter Recess valiantly dealing with many “little local difficulties” abroad, many MPs of all parties will be going around the country, in the words of Willie Whitelaw, “stirring up apathy” for the Euro elections.

But for those who have some time for relaxation or wish to stretch their little grey cells, there is a good selection of mainly historical, political and conflict books published over the past few months.

There are a lot of myths surrounding UKIP, including its membership and electoral appeal. Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have written a “must read” analysis of UKIP based upon extensive polling and interviews with both leaders and activists. Unlike so many worthy and substantial academic books, it is well written and easy to read. In Revolt on the Right Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Routledge) the authors argue that UKIP’s support is largely working class heavily concentrated among older, blue-collar workers, with little education and few skills – groups who have been left behind and marginalised by the main political parties. UKIP appeals as a protest vote with the message no more immigration, no more EU, and no more cosmopolitan liberal elite condescension. And they have learnt “pavement politics” from the Lib Dems.

Roy Jenkins was a big beast of British politics in the last four decades of the twentieth century. A liberal reforming Home Secretary, a competent Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose career in the Labour Party foundered on his principled commitment to the EU. A founder member of the SDP he was effectively godfather to New Labour. A bon viveur, womaniser, writer and reviewer, his biography by John Campbell has been waited for with anticipation. Roy Jenkins A Well-Rounded Life (Jonathan Cape) is a substantial biography by an author who cut his teeth on F E Smith and Margaret Thatcher. Campbell even wrote a slim biography of Jenkins whilst he was still alive. An admirer of Jenkins, he has not, however, written a hagiography.

Joan Trumpington is today a caricature of a Tory politician of the old school. The daughter of an Indian army officer and an American heiress whose fortune disappeared in the Wall Street Crash. In Coming Up Trumps A Memoir (Macmillan) she describes leaving school without ever taking an exam and went to Paris to study art and French and German before returning to Britain on the outbreak of war to become a landgirl. Then she was recruited into naval intelligence at Bletchley Park. After the war she worked in New York in advertising then returned to Britain and became a headmaster’s wife. She was active in local politics as a Tory councillor in Cambridge, was made a life peer and served as a minister in the Thatcher government. Recently filmed in the Chamber of the House of Lords giving a Churchillian salute to Lord King of Bridgewater who had commented on her age. Forthright, witty and opinionated this is a wonderful memoir.

Somewhat in contrast is Jerry Hayes An Unexpected MP Confessions of a Political Gossip (Biteback). Jerry Hayes was a particularly unconventional Tory MP in the Thatcher years, and his book is not a standard biography, but rather a roller-coaster journey through parliament moving from one outrageous anecdote to another.

With the Scottish referendum in September and the possibility of a referendum on British membership of the EU in the next Parliament, constitutional matters have taken centre stage. Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and in The Politics of English Nationhood (Oxford University Press) he provides an interesting account of the idea of Englishness and how this relates to politics.

Linda Colley is a distinguished academic historian who has written extensively on “Britishness”. Acts of Union and Disunion What Has Held the UK Together – And What is Dividing It? (Profile) is a short book based on a series of programmes broadcast on Radio 4. Colley is convinced that to understand current decisions and choices, it is history more than geography that accounts for the current situation in the UK.

Many books written about Parliament are worthy but dull. The Labour MP, Chris Bryant, has now provided a history that is well researched, stimulating to read, and addresses a number of myths. The author has written biographies of Sir Stafford Cripps and Glenda Jackson, is an active parliamentarian with trenchant opinions, and at times, an ability to seriously irritate both Conservative and Labour colleagues. Parliament The Biography, Volume I: Ancestral Voices (Doubleday) begins in 1258 and concludes in 1801. A second volume will cover the period 1801 to 1990.

In The Tories From Winston Churchill to David Cameron (Bloomsbury), Timothy Keppel offers a comprehensive and accessible study of the electoral strategies, leadership approaches and ideological thought of the Conservative Party from Churchill to Cameron.

Kim Philby was the most notorious Soviet mole and British defector in history, and is still much honoured in Russia today. It is difficult today to comprehend what a shock it was to the British establishment when over the 1950s and 1960s a number of British men who had served in either SIS or the Security Service were exposed as having spied for the Soviets. Much of the evidence has been available for some time, but Ben Macintyre has had access to new released Security Service files and previously unseen family papers. Very aptly his book is entitled A Spy Among Friends Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Bloomsbury).

Robert Gates was US Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 serving under both Bush and Obama. Prior to that he was Director of the CIA. Gates was involved in both operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has critical comments about the Obama White House and the Pentagon monolith in Duty Memoirs of Secretary at War (W H Allen). It is a sobering fact that there is virtually no mention of the UK or any of our political or military leaders in the book.

David Starkey, who sees himself as the doyen of Tudor historians, is now being challenged by a younger generation of very talented female historians. Amongst them is Jesse Childs, who examines the Catholic predicament in Elizabethan England through the eyes of one family, the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall, in God’s Traitors Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England (Bodley Head)

The thought of another biography of Napoleon is enough to depress the enthusiasm of any reader. But Michael Broers Napoleon Soldier of Destiny (Faber & Faber) is the first life of Napoleon that makes full use of the new comprehensive version of his correspondence without the nineteenth century editing. In this biography through his correspondence, we can read the thoughts of Napoleon himself, his intense emotions, iron self-discipline, acute intelligence and immense energy and ambitions. A must read for any ambitious young back bench MP.

Following the death of Queen Victoria, Reginald Brett and Arthur Benson were selected to edit what became three volumes of her correspondence down to 1860. Both men were highly complex figures, with Esher being a Royal confidante who had a secret obsession for Eton boys, whilst Benson struggled badly from depression and yearnings for young men. In Censoring Queen Victoria How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon (One World) Yvonne M Ward, describes how Brett and Benson had to read some 400 volumes of the Queen’s correspondence, whilst promoting their own preconceptions about Victoria and her court, covering up scandals and promoting an image of royalty.

Mary, Madeline and Pamela – the three Wyndham Sisters – lived privileged lives in the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Their parents were liberal and romantic and friends with the Pre-Raphaelites. The three Wyndham sisters were attractive and unconventional. As Claudia Renton shows in Those Wild Wyndhams Three Sisters at the Heart of Power (William Collins) through the use of private correspondence and memoirs, the sisters found emotional connections with the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt, the Tory Cabinet Minister Arthur Balfour and the Liberal Foreign Secretary Edward Grey. Downton Abbey without the servants.

Hew Strachan, Oxford University Professor of Military History, adviser to Whitehall on defence matters and a prolific author, has long argued that in both the USA and the UK there is a failure to misread and misapply strategy. In The Direction of War Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press) he argues that wars since 2001 have not in reality been “new” as has been widely assumed and that we need to adopt a more historical approach to contemporary strategy in order to identify what is really changing.

Leaders, ministers and senior military frequently draw the wrong lessons from conflict experience. Eden saw Nasser as another Mussolini, George W Bush saw Saddam Hussein as unfinished business from his father’s watch. In Toppling Qadaffi Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (Cambridge University Press), Christopher S Chivvis examines the role of the US and NATO in Libya’s War of Liberation and its lessons for future military interventions. He questions whether this specific kind of intervention can be repeated.

David Owen, former Labour foreign secretary and member of several parties, is now a crossbencher in the Lords. In The Hidden Perspective The Military Conversations of 1906-1914 (Haus Publishing), he argues that there was a “mind set” in the Foreign Office – and indeed in the War Office and Admiralty – which influenced political decision making and sentiment. This is quite a well trodden patch but David Owen does use with skill his experience as a former Foreign Secretary to breathe new life into a well known controversy.

Amongst the plethora of books appearing on the origins and consequences of the First World War, two stand out. The Cambridge historian Christopher Clark – much demonised by Michael Gove – has exhaustively examined the sources and arguments over the origins of the war in The Sleepwalkers How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane). Clark places Serbia and the Serbian government at the centre of the crisis and suggests that the Austro-Hungarian government had a lot of justice on its side. He argues that France and Russia were more complicit in the crisis than has been accepted, and that Germany was perhaps less of a villain than has previously been thought. Not surprisingly this book has topped the best seller list in Germany and is used as primer on diplomacy and negotiation in the current crisis over the Ukraine.

Complementing Christopher Clark is another Cambridge historian David Reynolds, whose The Long Shadow The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster), addresses the political, parliamentary, cultural, military and social legacies of the war and corrects many of the myths that have been perpetuated. How we interpret the war today depends as much upon the post war mood as what actually happened at the time. If you read no other book on the First World War, it should be this one.

Finally, in the finest tradition of Tory lady novelists – Sandra Howard, Ann Widdecombe, Frances Osborne and Louise Mensch – Nadine Dorries has contributed to the genre. Based, one suspects on some of her own childhood experiences, The Four Streets (Head of Zeus), is a novel set in the tight-knit Irish Catholic community of 1950s Liverpool. This is a serious novel and readers should be warned that it is not in the bodice ripping category.

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Radio

Nominated For Interview of the Year Award

2 Apr 2014 at 14:37

Bit of a good day at work. For the second year running I have been nominated for a Radio Academy Award, something which I have to say wasn’t at all expected. It’s for Radio Interview of the Year, for my interview with James, an eyewitness to the Woolwich murders. The other nominees are Stephen Sackur, Iain Lee, Winifred Robinson and Becky Milligan.

If you don’t remember the interview I wrote it up on the blog HERE. Here’s the interview, which came right at the start of my show on May 22.

Obviously I am delighted to be nominated, and one of the reasons is so I can acknowledge the work of my two brilliant producers Matt and Laura. Matt took the call from James on that afternoon in May 2012, calmed him down and then briefed me in about 30 seconds before I had to start the programme. Laura is leaving the LBC to return to her north east roots, but it was she who not only talked to James immediately after the interview, to ensure he was OK she phoned him back several times over the next twenty four hours and has remained in touch with him ever since. That’s called exercising a duty of care.

LBC has picked up 9 nominations, a record for the station. Call Clegg and Nick Ferrari deservedly got two each, with our senior reporter Tom Swarbrick being nominated for radio journalist of the year and also getting two nominations for his ‘Slavery on our Streets’ documentary. And we’re also nominated for Radio Station of the Year. And finally, I was delighted to see Newsbeat’s Declan Harvey getting a nomination two. He was at LBC for my first two years and is a star in the making.

Looking forward to the ceremony on May 12th!

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Books

Why I'm Writing David Cameron's Authorised Biography

1 Apr 2014 at 08:07

Back in 2006 I nearly wrote a semi-authorised biography of David Cameron, only shortly after he had been elected leader of the Conservative Party. I had decided to take six months off, having been fairly burnt out by two failed election campaigns during 2005 (my election in North Norfolk and then the DD leadership campaign) but during that period I pitched the idea of a Cameron biography to a couple of publishers and to Cameron’s team. In the end, I pulled the project partly because I got a new job, but also I heard that Francis Elliott and James Hanning were pitching the same idea.

However, eight years later, I can announce today that I have been commissioned by HarperCollins to write an authorised biography of the Prime Minister to be published in the autumn of 2015, a few months after the general election. I am delighted that David Cameron has agreed to cooperate with the book. In return I have promised him a soft interview on LBC at a time of his choosing.

As readers may know, Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott are also writing a biography of David Cameron, to be published at the same time. Er, by me.

Awkward.

I am sure the Good Lord will see the funny side of the situation and won’t be at all irritated by his own publisher writing a book on the same subject for a, er, different publisher. He’s got a great sense of humour….. hasn’t he???

I’d like to thank LBC for being very understanding about the time I will need to devote to this project. So from today I will no longer be hosting a four hour daily show. Instead, I will be broadcasting for 15 minutes every other Friday afternoon.

If I can spare the time.

UPDATE: April Fool…

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