To the Hampstead Theatre and the latest verbatim play from Robin Soans, Life After Scandal. This time he’s interviews several well know (and some rather more obscure, their infamy faded with time) ‘victims’ of scandal, and gives us an insight into how this notoriety has changed their lives. And it really is a mixed bag; the Hamilton’s are probably doing much better now then they every would have done if Neil had continued to serve as a Tory MP, so they have much to thank the ‘Egyptian Grocer’ for, though they might not see it that way. The Ingram’s situation is rather more grim, it even made me feel sorry for them. If Major Charles is to be believed, they now live in penury and face petty, but still highly damaging, insults and jokes wherever they go, and of course he has lost his job to boot. In a culture of celebrity everyone knows who they are, and treats them not decently as fellow citizens (and everyone walking the streets has that right), but as a tabloid joke.
This rather gentle play is sympathetic towards its subjects (as it mostly emanates from their mouths), with only the real blackguards getting some mild stick. That is mainly Jonathan Aitken, and Soans interviewed an understandably unfriendly, though actually very reasonable, Guardian journalist, which is inter-cut with Aitken’s nearly unbelievably deluded account of his predicament. Sympathy for Aitken is just beyond me (cheating on a quiz show and bent government ministers are in different leagues), and he showed himself up as someone who almost believes his own hubris, he sanctimoniously blames the media for his lies, taking very little responsibility himself. The most deluded of the deluded is mentioned in passing, but if the play were about Lord Archer, it would surely have to be retiled ‘A Life in Scandal (it’s all bloody lies anyway)’.
The play reveals some interesting points about our media culture. Whilst the unmasking of Aitken or Hamilton as corrupt politicians is one thing, I believe the celebrity cult fostered by the tabloids, magazines and television (and to a lesser extent the broadsheets) is pernicious and damaging to our national life. Two members of the public are interviews, asked to recall the scandals of several of the characters in the play. The Hamilton’s are simply a beloved media couple from a phalanx of reality TV shows, why they are there has become beside the point. This denigration of celebrity, allied with the nonentities who are constantly promoted in the media, makes fame simply a commodity to be conjured up, and not a position to be earned (let alone the fact that the Hamilton’s sin has been forgotten rather than forgiven). Of course there has always been shallow celebrity (can it be otherwise?), but with publications from Hello to Heat dominating the newsagents and their prey the newspaper front pages, and the television schedules being littered with their ilk, it is very hard to escape ‘celebrity’.
Of course it is a two way street, the media and the celebrities work together, and our victims of scandal have certainly used it to their advantage whenever possible, and flagrantly sometimes (the Hamilton’s, Edwina Currie) in perpetuating their media profile and earnings potential. When you think about scandal, the sheer prosaic nature of some of them surprises me, when I actually think about it. Someone was having an affair, or he’s gay, do we really care, should we care? Certainly I feel that the media blows up many stories out of all proportion, and behaves in an extraordinarily hypocritical way, prurient interest on one hand and some kind of moral authority on the other. An example of overreaction and hypocrisy is the treatment of the BBC execs who have just resigned over ‘Queengate’, did they intend to lie, no, was anyone damaged by the error, not really (maybe Her Maj was not amused, who knows). Yet this cock up, and the faked competitions ‘scandal’ have created a huge amount of hand wringing in the press, sometimes bordering on the openly hostile. In an organisation of over 20 thousand, and one whose job is to make artifice seem natural, is it any surprise that a few very insignificant lies were told. It was stupid and wrong, but not aimed at cheating or swindling people out of money. This is another example of one section of the media having it all their own way, I can guarantee that if the attention and standards that are expected of the BBC were brought to bear on the print media, many people would immediately loose their jobs, including most of the editors (that is not to belittle the majority of honest and even noble journalists). The hypes up headlines, the overblown scandals, also bear little relation to the way many people live their lives today (with divorce, or openly gay, or having had affairs, all making human mistakes).
The play is an entertaining and interesting two hours, the cast of 7 are all very good in multiple roles, direction by Anthony Clark is brisk and bright. Two older ladies in the interval told me they didn’t like ‘the language’ mind, so be warned!
P.S: I saw Anne Widdecombe on a television advert last night, she is now hawking pasta as well as chasing hoodies. What does this say about modern politics, celebrity culture and advertising? Widdecombe will be standing down as am MP at the next election, but I’m sure we won’t have seen the last of her, I suspect many more adverts and reality TV appearances lie ahead.