Monday, 8 July 2019

Open letter to the BBC - Acting Your Age Campaign

Dear BBC,

In May 2018 I launched my Acting Your Age Campaign which called for greater representation of women over the age of 40 onscreen in film and TV. 

I contacted several of your news programmes, arts programmes and your female centred show Woman’s Hour to promote the campaign and highlight the lack of representation of women over 40 compared to men.

I even made a very short campaign film which features a wealth of our most most loved and talented actors.

I wasn’t asked to appear on any of your platforms. It seemed odd to me as you seemed to have a good track record of covering most feminist campaigns, on closer inspection however these campaigns seem to fall into line with your target demographic, young people; in the case of feminism, young women.

My Acting Your Age Campaign deals with the subject of gendered ageism and in the Autumn of 2018 when Ofcom published their BBC review, my concerns were borne out as Ofcom found that whilst there is gender equality in representation of men and women under the age of 45, the gender disparity by the BBC of people over the age of 45 is woeful. 

Men in primetime BBC programming over the age of 45 outnumber women, by 3-1. 

Over the age of 50 this picture for women, worsens considerably.

I recently contacted BBC Sounds your new audio platform which you tell us is something to which we can “listen without limits”. I wanted to pitch to your rolling commission for new podcasts. I was told that you are currently focusing on under 35’s only. How is this fulfilling your brief as a public broadcaster? It seems you do have limits in terms of who can listen when you’re only aiming your audio content at young ears.

Therefore, I have a proposal for you. I’m requesting that if you’re only going to cater for my demographic currently 12,000,000 women in the UK aged between 40-69 years old, perhaps you might also only ask us for a one third of the licence fee, in line with one third of the onscreen representation you offer us? 

When you distil that to the quality of roles you give us at my age or indeed to possibility to  play the lead in drama and comedy shows, I think it’s worth remembering that currently the only female character leading a comedy show in my demographic, is Mrs Brown’s Boys. 

Unsurprisingly given the popularity of gendered ageism, that woman is being played by a man. 

I look forward to not hearing from you. I’m sure you’ll ignore this letter as fully as you ignore your responsibility to representing our diverse society which includes actresses who don’t lose talent or ability as they age merely the same opportunity which you give to their male colleagues. 

I’m asking politely that you remember your mantra to inform, educate and entertain because it isn't a vague target, it's a promise. A determination to encompass and embrace all audiences. Not just young audiences. 

This exclusion of older women is sending a message of exclusion to young and older people alike. Older women are to be ignored, disenfranchised, unemployed and invisible. More worryingly isn't the message being sent speaking to a narrative that the only women who should be seen and heard are those who have the perceived sexual currency of youth. When you know that girls as young as 14 are seeking botox because they fear ageing so much, isn't it time to rethink your diversity and inclusivity goals.

Women who have creative dreams and aspirations are working in an industry which refuses to value them when the calendar changes. A drama student beginning her training today will see a career trajectory approximately half that of her male student peers. I don't remember that being taught to me when I was at drama school.

The TV & Film industry is unique in its enabled and promoted gendered ageism. An industry that calls for truth and offers facade, champions creativity but demands female cosmetic alteration, searches for stories but ignores experience and values wisdom as long as it's male; and since its inception, the song remains the same. 

Here it is.

Very best,

Nicky Clark 
"Acting Your Age Campaign" 
Female age is a number not a career deadline.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Officially Sanctioned Mischief

Last night we along with millions of others donated to comic relief, a comedy based fundraiser which really does save lives. I love the premise and the achievements are undeniable especially now when Comic Relief have to provide protection against starvation and homelessness here in the UK. The 5th richest country in the world.

So as it's all about jokes with unexpected punch lines.

Did you hear the one about Mendip House?

Mendip house was a residential home for learning disabled adult with autism. You won’t have heard much about it in the news except from Ian Birrell one of the few journalists and columnists who details the routine abuse endured by learning disabled people at the hands of care workers.

Predominantly the facts, which led to the residential placement being closed down, included the sort of ritualized torture and humiliation, which made me feel sick. The difference being that if I had been sick, I wouldn’t have been made to drink my own vomit by any care worker, unlike one of the residents of Mendip House.

Latest figures show that 3 learning disabled people die an avoidable death in the NHS everyday. That’s the apex of the facts, death. 

Whether learning disabled people are deliberately murdered like Gemma Hayter or neglectfully killed accidentally by professionals, the truth is the life expectancy of learning disabled people is significantly less than the rest of the population.

On the way to dying earlier than everyone else, learning disabled people will experience, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, verbal abuse and politically targeted by austerity. Some learning disabled people experience all of those things more than once.

When I say learning-disabled people are the most vulnerable people in society, I mean it, because even when they are killed and the guilty actually prosecuted, the sentences are so light as to be insulting.

The Nazis had a term for disabled people, which enabled their T4 Euthanasia program, before and during the Jewish Holocaust. The phrase that accompanied the black triangle, which all disabled people had to wear, read “Life unworthy of life” in all Nazi propaganda posters, articles and speeches.

Disabled people were the original catalyst for mass extermination programme and the extermination method of Zyclon B gas, began in psychiatric hospitals where mobile gas trucks arrived and the patients were taken to the shower block. 

Zyclon B was a pesticide.

But I’m not talking about disabled people “taking the bread from the mouths of hardworking Germans” or as we would call them in peace time, disability benefit claimants.

I’m not talking about “untermensch” (sub humans) or as we would call them in peace time - learning disabled people who didn’t merit much press attention even when they’re being tortured by people paid to care for them. 

I’m going to talk about Alan Partridge.

Last night he appeared on Comic Relief and he was funny. He’s always funny. There’s nothing funnier than a middle aged white man which I guess is why middle aged white men lead most of the BBC comedy shows currently on air. 

Middle-aged white women are on prime time too, it’s not like the BBC isn’t great at equality- if by equality you mean people under the age of 45. 

The most popular prime time comedy show featuring a woman in middle age on BBC One, is Mrs Brown’s Boys, so there we are “gender equality”.

But back to Coogan.

Last night he did his Alan thing. If you don’t know who this character is, then I suggest you Google him. But to sum up he’s a character who’s very popular. 

Coogan too is very popular. He’s very loved by famous people and he’s pretty much untouchable, like most middle-aged men at the BBC. He was also nominated recently for an Academy Award playing the best beloved Stan Laurel,  and a raft of nominations for the beautiful “Philomena”. 

So you’d think a man with this much on his CV would be above punching down. 


That’s where you’re wrong.

Last night Alan did his thing with Side Kick Simon. It was a “live feed” from the Comic Relief Studio in the manner and mode of regional news presenters up and down the country who report live with those of us doing something funny for money. 

They flipped it Alan Style but it was the intro, which I disliked so intensely that I fell in line with my demographic and phoned the BBC to complain. I’m sure the BBC will fall in line with their usually response default and do fuck all about it.

So Cut to Coogan/Partridge.

That was me saying ‘Hello I’m Alan Partridge’ but backwards and that was to raise £75 for Patrick in the Shetlands, which is in Scotland, so make sure you pay up. And that’s exactly the kind of mischief, officially sanctioned mischief, that we’ve been getting up to today. Be it getting your grandma to dress up as Elvis or me saying ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ backwards. I am Alan Partridge but I’m not backwards.

                                (smiling) I beg to differ.

 (laughs) Very good yes. I’m just saying….I’m not…you know….I don’t have special needs

It’s funny apparently because it’s awkward. He also goes on to tell a group of people not to 'stand like you’re at a Jewish wedding' but Side Kick Simon pulls a face after repeating, it so we know, as an audience that Partridge is mindlessly mentioning delicate stuff.

Later in the sketch he also mentions/complains about gender and me too, eggshells and unfairness but again no one is laughing as he digs himself deeper into the offense pockets of his smart casual slacks. So we know, on those topics it’s all about the inappropriateness of his views.

That’s not the case with the “backwards” special needs stuff. It’s constructed as funny because of its association with learning disability.
It’s constructed to be funny because the joke has a long set up with special needs as the final payoff. 

It’s not lampooning PC culture or his own outdated matrix of terminology, the whole premise of the joke is based on laughing at learning disabled people and I’m so fucking sick of this shit.

Race, ethnicity and sexuality and gender used to be the punch lines of many jokes. But then black and Asian people, women, trans people and gay and lesbian comics picked up the microphone where Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning had dropped it and after picking off the cigarette butts and strippers tassels, they amplified their voices to tell their truth.

Routinely marginalized comedy targets began taking back the narrative and shaping it to. accuracy rather than the damaging stereotypes.

This isn’t routinely the case for learning disabled people. So learning-disabled people still remain everyone’s last resort comedy punch line, punch bag.

Coogan isn’t alone. It’s just depressing to see it done so blatantly in a charity fundraiser, which list amongst many projects ones which support mental health initiatives and services. Not all learning-disabled people have mental health issues but many, many do.  Learning-disabled people still live in a world where they’re not included within disability hate speech legislation. If an abuser beats up a learning disabled man, woman or child and uses a pejorative epithet the abuser many see additional sanctions but it sill isn’t in and of itself a crime.

Which is why the boxer David Haye was also featured in a comic relief sketch last night even though he routinely uses the term retard and tried to get the term “wetter than a spastic’s chin” trending on Twitter. 

I took him to task but of course he blocked me citing, in an unintentionally ironic twist “free speech”.

It would be good for the next Comic Relief and frankly more generally on the BBC as a whole, if pejorative epithets about learning disabled people were deemed to be as damaging and stigmatizing as race hate epithets are. 

In a world which still doesn’t prosecute care workers who deliberately render the food of a learning disabled person inedible and then when they vomit, force them to drink it; it would be good to see our public broadcaster and all privileged men and women, show they recognize their responsibility not to be part of a wider problem.

Until then I’ll keep complaining and being ignored, trolled, abused and accused of being humourless. 

Our learning disabled daughter, Emily is worth it.

Oh and here's how to be funny about disability and SEN without targeting anyone.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Stan and Ollie, Ida and Lucille

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have an iconic place in the affections of many of us who spent our British, (sunshine free) school summer holidays, watching their films. As children discovering their brilliance decades after they had died and far more used to colour TV than black and white films with crackling sound tracks, we still laughed as our grandparents had done and found a comfort in their gentle, devastating physical comedy. 

Their magnificence and the alchemy of their comedic partnership has been brought back to celluloid life in the biopic “Stan and Ollie” with Steve Coogan and John C Reilly taking on the titular roles.

The biopic centres on a six week tour of the UK and Ireland which the duo embarked upon and the mesmerising recreation of the men and their mythical film personas, offers too a moving account of their friendship, work dynamic and the quiet brilliance of their talent. 

The make up especially in respect of the prosthetics of John C Reilly’s Oliver Hardy, is flawless and the body language, dancing, vocal patterns and even hairlines are immaculately rendered. The team involved in this from actor to costume is working so brilliantly it’s completely invisible. We are watching Stan and Ollie, not Coogan and Reilly.

Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Jeff Pope the film brings into the mix the wives of both men and for me this is where the film finds an additional element which though at times comedic and nurturing, is also combative and competitive.  

However this is where I noticed the join.

Hardy’s wife Lucille, is played brilliantly by Shirley Henderson,  an actress of 53, but whose character's age at that time was actually 38. Oliver Hardy was 43 and Lucille 26 when they met on set in 1936,  another aspect noted in the biopic.

Ida Kitaeva, Laurel’s wife played to superb comic effect by 34 year old Nina Arijanda,  was actually 48 years old. Ida as portrayed here looks young and is young. What a coup it would have been to have cast two actresses age appropriately.

Now perhaps if you’re not campaigning for full representation of actresses over the age of 40 on screen, this won’t matter, but I think it’s problematic in terms of the film as a whole, because the level of detail everywhere else is forensic. 

Dramatic licence has compressed and expanded certain facts elsewhere in the film, it’s true but my disquiet is relevant because it was a creative choice to include these women and so there was a requirement to do so accurately. Also the women are in competition most of the time, with one touching moment of solidarity only. Both nagging their husbands, both hectoring each other at times. It was a good decision to include women in the film but it would have been enjoyable once this decision had been taken to portray them as fully realised people.

In interviews it’s been explained that the script as written, barely mentioned the two women and so work was done to increase both their screen time and relevance. So it seems odd that where careful attention was paid to the accuracy of time and location, the women of the plot integral to the lives of the main characters, are treated with a sort of copy and paste Hollywood portrayal.

The previous wives of both men get a mention at the start as they complain about the alimony they’re expected to pay and the children they’re supposed to maintain and this I think is also an interesting creative choice as it belies a callousness and disposability of family, which was often the situation Laurel and Hardy found themselves in their films.  

As Laurel wrote their film scripts was he either resolving his own relationships or holding a mirror to them. He was married 3 times and lived unmarried with a fourth partner when younger.

The duo in Laurel’s scripts were characters either frustrated in love or living in abject fear of their onscreen hectoring spouses, duplicitous man children in fear of being punished by exasperated wives. 

Of their time, reflective of the sexual politics and well within the constraints of the Hays code of “decency”. It didn’t matter because the men were always our focus. We loved them, whether they laughed, cried, ran, danced, sang, spoke, poked one another in the eye or fell flat on their faces. We loved them when they ran from women or fooled them and won. Because they did so as the underdog, not the smug privileged oppressor.

But in this biopic I think the creative choices in respect of women speak more to a Hollywood of now. One that still prizes youth and beauty in women above all and where despite both Olivia Colman and Glenn Close winning well deserved Golden Globes for their performances (as women and actresses in middle age), little attention to detail is ever given to the women featuring in films about men.

Sad too was the number of actors who passed on the male lead in the Golden Globe winning film "The Wife" before Jonathan Pryce was cast and played the role brilliantly. Apparently for the actors previously approached, the title of the film put them off. Not because it was a bad, but because it only mentioned a woman.

Ida Kitaeva gave Stan Laurel the happy marriage he wanted, yet years have been taken off her age in the film. It’s slightly jarring and it distracted me.

Despite the brilliance of Nina Arijanda’s portrayal, I do wonder if this has been done so that Steve Coogan (aged 53 playing Stan Laurel aged 57) is appearing with an actress who befits the model of Hollywood marriage, as male film makers prefer to see them.
The male film and TV gaze is an unforgiving one on middle aged women and it's rare to see a film in which he middle aged lead actor is paired with a female lead his own age. Perhaps Hollywood prefers to see it's own relationship power dynamic portrayed onscreen.

It's both a casting exercise which fits the model of marriage, which existed when Laurel and Hardy were in their heyday of the 1930’s and a model which still exists in show business relationships today.

Worryingly too despite the emphasis on how ageing affected Laurel and Hardy’s careers in 1947 as portrayed in the film, actresses in the 1940’s and actresses today, still see unemployment past the age of 40, as a reality with few exceptions.  

The 1947 UK theatre tour was in fact hugely successful, with audiences flocking to see the pair. Their age, notwithstanding or indeed dimming the affection in which they were held.

The truth is Hollywood simply isn’t as unkind to ageing men as it is to ageing women. In fact men in middle age still have careers well into their 70's before their age becomes a career-limiting factor.

This bizarre spousal age twist aside, the film faithfully brings the audience a truthful rendition of a beloved comedy duo who sustained the world through the worst of the depression and in the post war uncertainty, with their theatre tour.

At this time of global uncertainty and with national division getting more febrile by the day, here and in the US; this biopic brings the healing qualities of “Stan and Ollie” back to us just when we need them the most.