University Challenge and Diversity

Another year, another rip-roaring University Challenge final, a fitting reward for those who endured the gruelling winter of repechages and qualification quarter finals. Goldman beats Monkman, and the question is asked if this man-on-man salvo shows a BBC shod of Jeremy Clarkson and all-male panel shows in the best light.

Eve Livingston identifies the problem, but not the diagnosis or solution. At the risk of mansplaining, I should know: I was part of another all-male final in 2014, representing Somerville College, Oxford, which only 20 years prior did not even admit men. It is wrong to assume that University Challenge demonstrates intelligence, rather than recall and specialised knowledge in ‘highbrow’ subjects. Reading 19th century novels, having a smattering of Greek and Latin, and knowing an Old Master when you see one are not indicators of intelligence, but combined with a quick buzzer finger, they are good grounding for the questions which make up the majority of the program’s trivia bank.

This doesn’t mean an automatic preference for teams from Oxbridge colleges either. Though the last few finals have been light on dark blue affairs, with a too-good-to-be-true proximity to the Boat Race in the TV schedules, the talking point when I was a contestant was the sterile domination of Manchester, with their teams well-drilled by Stephen Pearson, the so-called ‘Alex Ferguson of quiz’. Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick are the four British universities most active in what passes for the university quizzing ‘scene’, the largely underground fraternity of student societies whose competitions form a sort of training ground for appearing on University Challenge, and are one of the reasons why those institutions are consistently successful. The quizzing community was undoubtedly dominated by men when I was part of it, and I assume it still is. But the suggestion that it is actively discriminatory towards women joining is far off the mark. I had the rather quixotic title of social secretary for the Oxford University Quiz Society, so I was acutely aware of the preponderance of men involved with quizzing. I can sympathise with Emma Johnson of Corpus Christi when she says that being the only woman in a room of 40 sweatily competitive men is an unnerving one, but she identifies the crux of quizzing’s gender gap: it is a particularly male pursuit. If the BBC broadcast a show every Monday which featured competitive stamp-collecting or model railway building, the proportion of women competing would be just as low, if not lower.

Looking at other hard-as-nails quizzes in the UK shows you how male an activity it is, even ones without the emphasis on competitive buzzer-racing, which is sometimes cited as a reason for the testosterone overload. The proportion of female winners of Brain Of Britain is only just over 10%, as is Only Connect. Cuddly Countdown is even lower. University Challenge and its enthusiastic, well-meaning contestants shouldn’t be made punching bags for a wider trend.

Quotas are not the answer. Comedy panel shows aren’t analogous because the difficulty isn’t in getting women’s voices heard in the first place (though I do wonder if men are more comfortable interrupting Jeremy Paxman), and quotas detract from the quality of the competition, though some action may need to be taken before we approach the University Challenge singularity where the contestants are able to answer every single question before the audience even knows what is being asked.

For all this, there is a simple answer to the question of ‘where are the women in University Challenge?’ and it is: doing more important things than indulging in a strain of male obsessiveness. During my year on the show, both the president and vice-president of my college’s undergraduate body were women. They were both implausibly multilingual, multitalented and academic high-flyers, even by Oxford standards. I found them personally inspiring, and so the idea that my meagre efforts could be compared to them, or be held as a superior measure of ‘intelligence’, seemed very wrong. The debate about the show sometimes feels less like one about intelligence, but the leftover idea that television exposure equals importance. Students, male and female, accomplish so many incredible things out of sight of the TV cameras, and there is plenty of scope to highlight that outside of a stuffy quiz show. I was fortunate enough to know fellow students across different universities who completed Ironman triathlons, were presidents of comedy revues, and were prolific charity fundraisers. Determined and engaged beyond their years, they were the true cream of the crop. They will go on to change or better the world, whereas I am more likely to shuffle off a bar stool, having won a tenner in a two-bit pub quiz, to throw darts at a board with Ralph Morley’s face stapled to it.

Which brings me to one area where Eve delivers the nail precisely to the head. My series was the last one before Twitter, second screening, and the wider conversation around the show across social media really took off, but it was there to a degree. I don’t think anyone can ever knock me off my perch as succinctly as one Twitter user who stated: “every time i watch university challenge that cunt beer is on it”. No-one ever treated me as a sex object though, which was the fate reserved for the women we competed against. They were either attacked for not being good-looking enough to be on TV, or, if the Twitter hivemind decided they were attractive, then they were reminded of that fact, repeatedly.

Part of the casting process for University Challenge involves being interviewed as a team by the producers so they can assess if you are comfortable with the pressure of a televised environment. TV is one thing, Twitter is quite another. Television and Twitter are now part of an amorphous double-world, where each feeds off the other. Most Twitter commentary on University Challenge is light-hearted and supportive of the contestants. Yet I can’t help but feel it is only a matter of time before someone reads too much into unpleasant messages and takes it badly, given that it is fairly easy to track down a contestant online once the show has finished. Let’s not forget the bulk of University Challenge contestants are only a couple of years too old to fall under the BBC’s Child Protection Policy. If you have been hothoused in academic environments your whole life, the sudden exposure can be a shock. In that environment, I can perfectly understand why women in particular would be less inclined to take part. While I’m sure the BBC does all it can in providing a duty of care to their contestants, they and other TV channels should be wary of stirring the online conversation in search of publicity, lest they are unable to control the consequences.

If we as Monday night masochists still crave a slice of competitive quizzing, we will probably have to accept that more men will appear on screen than women. The danger may not be in failing to get more women to take part, but failing to take care of the ones that do.



Waiting For Godot at the Barbican: The Death of the Old White Man

POZZO: Who are you?
VLADIMIR: We are men.

Samuel Beckett –  Waiting For Godot

For all of Samuel Beckett’s keen insight into general existential questions, Waiting For Godot is a play with an all-male cast, and therefore reveals something of the deep-seated insecurities of being an older man, a deeper sense of purposeless which lies behind flaccid penises and enlarged prostates. In 1988, a Dutch judge ruled that the play was sufficiently about ‘the human condition’ to permit an all-female production of it, whereas Beckett (via his lawyers) used the analogy of different musical instruments to emphasise the importance of his characters’ physical sexual difference, memorably claiming a woman couldn’t play Vladimir because ‘women don’t have prostates’.* It was immaculate timing that I should go see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting For Godot in the aftermath of the Twitterstorm reacting to Craig Raine’s poem ‘Gatwick’, published in the London Review of Books at the beginning of June. The first viral reaction to poetry on Twitter I can remember, it might just be poetry’s biggest moment of public controversy since Tony Harrison’s V. Emerging as it did firmly out of step with the contemporary mindset on issues on sex and femininity, there is much to be written about the poem and I will probably do so at some point in the future. In the interim though, the furore over Raine’s poem can help us colour in sometimes overlooked details of Beckett’s play, and appreciate a 2015 production of it.

The second stanza of Raine’s poem sets the scene in London Gatwick airport, a transport hub used as a metaphor for the mundane reeling in of old age. The humdrum formality of waiting around in queues for passport checks finds a companion in Beckett’s all-encompassing anteroom that is the desolate road where Vladimir and Estragon wait. Raine’s experience is momentarily lit up by flushes of youth, whereas Beckett’s run-down tramps find their only source of entertainment amidst their various ailments – urge to urinate, sore feet – to be vaudeville patter and mime, a brand of comedy which stands out (and did so during its stage debut) largely for being so out of date. Godot comes to represent something, anything, which ends the monotony and slow decay of growing old as a man – like death.

Having this in mind also gives a new interpretation of the boy who appears as Godot’s ambassador at the close of both acts; an envoy of youth, someone whose innocence stands apart from the chaos wrought by the older figures on stage. Lucky initially appears to be a slave whose prime of life is spent serving Pozzo, but is revealed to be far older than he first appears. This was impeccably done in the STC’s portrayal at the Barbican, as Lucky’s hat is knocked aside to reveal long, silvery hair betraying his real age (as a tangent, the fact that an Australian Theatre company is putting on the play raises valuable questions about Lucky’s role in relation to native cultures, and how subjugated they are). At the end of Act 2 the Boy seems to preempt the interpretation of Godot as God by describing the only physical description of Godot we are afforded in the entire play – that he has a beard, and that it could be white. I don’t discount that interpretation of Godot, but just as important is the white beard and its attachment to the chin of a Creator (whether God or Zeus) as the apotheosis of masculinity which has been upheld for centuries through art history, and which Vladimir and Estragon cannot inhabit in their detumescent ennui. As far as Craig Raine is concerned, the women he encounters provide different forms of reading to the ones he is familiar with. The shamanic status of poet as oral storyteller, or as any public commentator, hangs forlornly in the background as one girl immerses herself in a Kindle, and another at the immigration service moves from studying his poetry at ‘uni’ to scanning his passport, pinning down the aura of the artist to zeroes and ones. The seemingly oxymoronic final stanzas capture this, as the poet recognises the distillation of his voice. For all of the controversy that the poem provoked, much of it is anticipated in the verse. Raine knows full well that a man in his position is obliged to be silent about certain topics, ones which he has presumably ‘grown out of’ as he reaches an asexual whitebearded stage of his career.

Tension between the old and the young is not limited to Godot in Beckett’s oeuvre – it is more evident in the familial push-pull of Endgame, the layers of memory in Krapp’s Last Tape, and in the novel Molloy, where Jacques Moran has an irritable relationship with his son. One of the defining characteristics of Beckett’s works is the sense of prior catastrophe – this is where his true (if inflexible) genius comes in writing for the stage, because its fixed dimensions become a cage for characters who are trapped by oppressive circumstances. Sometimes the membrane is pierced to allow a memory to venture outwards. In Godot’s case, it is Vladimir and Estragon harvesting grapes on the banks of the Rhone. That occasion is memorable for Didi and Gogo because the latter fell in and had to be rescued by the former. Such memorial reconstructions intimate glory days long gone, distantly seen through the mud of what, in Estragon’s case, could be dementia, explaining why he is unable to remember immediately previous days. The woman on the bus who is ‘so young today’ that it is ‘almost painful’ in ‘Gatwick’ is portrayed in a quite sinister fashion, but this are inseparable from the feelings of a man who realises he has permanently left youth behind, both his own and the people he has relationships with.

Hat-tips should be given to the actors of the Sydney Theatre Company, (especially Philip Quast, who channels his inner PT Barnum as Pozzo), and the staging, as the floor is lit up with dusty pockmarks like a lunar surface which emboldens the actors’ forms upon it. The Barbican is a wonderful space to put on plays for their Beckett Season, as its gutted concrete innards feel like a subterranean cocoon from the city of London.

All of these factors and more ensure that watching Waiting For Godot is a valid exercise in 2015. To spend two hours in the company of Vladimir and Estragon is an act of witness to the kernel of pathos which lies at the heart of the old white man as the marbled busts are taken down from their pillars and we begin, at long last, to reimagine culture and history in the popular mind according to different standards of arbitration. Still, there is a certain irony at work here. Vladimir and Estragon as long-forgotten vaudeville entertainers, the Hamm actor at the centre of Endgame, the 17 copies sold of Krapp’s latest book – these are failed artists at the centre of Beckett’s view of art as a heightened form of failure, and perhaps copies of Beckett himself. The inherent mystery to his plays has nevertheless helped create an icon of the visionary artist, and if there is one practical lesson to take from a 2015 performance of Godot and its attendant concerns with aged masculinity, it should be to reconsider the role of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, Beckett’s partner through marriage and partner in crime during the French Resistance. As indispensable to his work as Dorothy Wordsworth was to her brother WIlliam’s poetry, she took Beckett’s manuscripts to publishers, gave him the incentive to produce work in the first place, not to mention the financial security to do so. Less of a muse, and more of a colleague.

From the Götterdämmerung of the old white man we can forge new icons. The time is right to re-evaluate who the guardians of culture really are, but we must be careful not to overlook abandoning other corners of human experience in our withdrawal, corners where age and sex are not just abstract tokens of privilege, but are also responsible for physical incapacity and mental disenchantment, leading to a ballooning of the suicide rate in men over the age of 45.

*Beckett’s insistence on strict sexual roles in his plays is ripe to be challenged now though, following the watershed moment of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. It should also be considered how writing about ‘the human condition’ is nearly always the preserve of male writers in the popular mindset, because there is this lingering belief that men write about the human experience, and women write about the female experience.

Birdman, or, The Unexpected Ignorance of Jimmy Fallon

In a publicity interview for Birdman, Ed Norton relates an instruction he received from the director Alejandro González Iñárritu: he shouldn’t try and play an artist, but create the sense of midlife malaise that could be felt by someone any profession. Birdman certainly works as a general fable, but it highlights a very pointed paradox currently at the centre of celebrity culture and cinema: do we want actors to be superheroes, who offer us an escape route from our anxieties, or do we feel more comfort in tracking their every movement through social media, and thinking that they are just like one of us? This is just the starting point for many debates which the film prompts regarding how identity is sculpted.

Since Christopher Nolan tore up the rulebook  and then painted the shreds deep black in his reboot of the Batman franchise, superhero  films have, at their best, examined the post- 9/11 climate astutely and thrown up difficult moral quandaries. In the main though, franchises are, by definition, based upon following a person or group of people who have been marked for greatness in some way, and then facilitating the (significantly sized) audience’s sympathies towards them. Alongside this, we have Jimmy Fallon as ringmaster to a showbiz circus where celebrities are encouraged to talk about the times that they did Normal Things, or coerced into doing Activities. The world wants to see Riggan Thompson reprise his role as Birdman, but they also want him to see him parade through Times Square in his underwear. How can two such opposing views coexist? It’s an intriguing question, and Birdman wants us to carefully consider the possible answer.

Emmanuel Lubezki continues his Midas touch in this film, with his distinctive use of Steadicam and long takes central to the thematic package of the picture. The camera has to follow something, so it follows the characters. The viewer becomes a voyeur, because none of the characters in the film have any intimate space to retreat into with the camera always following them.

"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing" © Fox Searchlight 2014.

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing” © Fox Searchlight 2014.

There is one shot in this film where that is suspended, and the viewer is instead forced to glimpse down an empty corridor for approximately ten seconds (it may be even shorter than that, but it felt like an eternity in the cinema). It creates an incongruously static space, as you are forced to consider just how many extended glimpses you have had of the characters on screen. In the deep field of the frame is something – I couldn’t make out exactly what – going on, but it’s tantalisingly too far out of sight to be perceived. It suggests hidden mysteries along the lines of Thompson’s possible supernatural powers, and also forces the viewer to try and engage their mind to think about what is happening, rather than having a succession of images imprinted upon their mind. Hidden in there is a comment on the sheer amount of information that is available to people in digital spaces, particularly as so much bandwidth is taken up by social media avatars. That one shot was one of the most understated yet powerful I’ve ever seen in a film, and the tension it created within the room is a testament to the experience of watching films with dozens of strangers, rather than on your own through Netflix.

The presence of the superhero in popular culture has helped bring to light the ‘hero syndrome’, whereby an individual deliberately commits acts, such as arson, so that they can become famous for saving people’s lives from the tragic event that they instigate. There are peripheral instances of this in the film aligned in parallel; the meteor that he summons with a click of his fingers during a flight of fantasy, and the stage light which he makes fall on the original actor whom Edward Norton’s character replaces.

Shiner is in his underwear here, foreshadowing Harrison's undressing. © Fox Searchlight 2014

Shiner is in his underwear here, foreshadowing Thompson’s undressing. © Fox Searchlight 2014

Here then, the superhero ideal is undercut with a subtle comment from Iñárritu: namely, that superheroes are only judged on a relative basis to the non-super. Thompson’s attempts to become an auteur/superhero hybrid require the manipulation and neglect of others, particularly his daughter. He does not ascend from a static base, but applies pressure downwards. The quest to obtain constructive powers necessitates destructive relationships with those around him. Another parallel in the film serves to highlight Thompson’s decline (rather than ascent): he is late to the first rehearsal shown in the film with all the bravado of a Hollywood export to Broadway, but his delay during the final preview is due to him having to endure being stripped naked in every sense on Times Square.

jimmy just like us

It’s Jimmy Fallon! He blew a date with Nicole Kidman! Like that time you blew a date with that girl! Crazy! © NBC Universal 2015.

All characters in the film are trapped within the web of showbusiness. The lines between their performances and their true selves are blurred to the point of personal veracity being completely unreliable. Almost every character lies. The principle of acting is transposed onto day-to-day life, as the intrusion into public lives dictated by social media is shown to be an auction-house for personas, instead of a reliable barometer for personalities. Here’s where Jimmy Fallon comes in. The guests on his show seem to be giving an account of themselves that is much more genuine than other chat shows, but it is still a question of persona, whether at work or play. The film posits that people exist with an arsenal of different personalities ready to be deployed on the right occasion. This split of personas, or constant reinforcement of performance, is rendered on screen by the technique of only showing a character’s reflection on screen as they talk to someone – the viewer can only see the reflected image, not the person actually speaking. The supposedly intimate space of the dressing room still leads to dispersion of identity.

Thompson’s life story, of trying to be a superhero on the Hollywood set and the Broadway stage (important to realise that his attempts to import his vision onto the Broadway stage is a form of self-indulgent heroism in its own right) leads him to have a fractious relationship with his family, particularly his daughter, played sensitively by Emma Stone. As well as the strange expectations of transcendence and groundedness which we desire from public figures (applicable to politics as well – Barack Obama is, or was to predominantly European commentators, a beacon of idealistic change but also a guy familiar with the streets) ,

I mean it was made by a street artist with stencils, for god's sake. 'Hope', Shepard Fairey, 2008.

I mean it was made by a street artist with stencils, for god’s sake. ‘Hope’, Shepard Fairey, 2008.

a superhero culture creates a debate that applies to life more generally. What is the currency of relationships? Are they formed from epic acts, or more banal interactions that exist largely to fill a vacuum? With Thompson’s daughter, the complete absence of the latter confirms that it is more important.

Keaton and Stone's distant relationship is a refreshing antidote to patronising cliche. © Fox Searchlight 2014.

Keaton and Stone’s distant relationship is a refreshing antidote to patronising cliche. © Fox Searchlight 2014.

I have no discernable performing talent. I don’t act, I can’t play a musical instrument, and if my dancing could be summarised in one word, it would be ‘unnecessary’. Yet since the age of 14 I have harboured a fantasy that I will get up on a stage and perform something so intensely powerful and moving in front of all the people I know – in the curious way they can be organised together in a dream – that will completely overwhelm them, lay forward my personality in a super-comprehensible way and perhaps summarise what the whole world is about too. This is not how life works. Life is forged from miniature interactions. A friendship is composed of simply being there when the going is good, even if the conversation remains skipping along the surface. The last shot in the film will undoubtedly go down in cinema history as a head-scratcher for generations to come, but my feeling is that Sam is not looking at her father in flight, but rather the birds shown earlier in the scene; as someone who was left in the residual heat of her father’s Icarean trail, she is more appreciative of the small-scale wonders.  Dedicating yourself to mammoth artistic projects often divorces you from human society, which is paradoxically the inspiration and audience for such a project. Think about Carver’s manifold title – are the ‘we’ who talk about love and the ‘we’ who experience it one and the same? Can the artist be part of both groups?

Sam Harrison's threats of suicide are yet another parallel the film sets up - a suggestion that for all of the role play at work, it gravitates towards particular types.

Sam Thompson’s threats of suicide are yet another parallel the film sets up – a suggestion that for all of the role play at work, it gravitates towards particular types.

Staying on this theme, Antonio Sanchez’s soundtrack is constantly teasing the viewer who is expectant for some regular rhythm to emerge, when one never really does. It is like a constant clearing of the throat preparing for a symphonic release that will envelop the film and neatly wrap it in a bow to say: this is what this is, and this is what it is all about, but the reveal of the soundtrack’s diegetic origins keeps everything tethered to the film’s core.

Just as the soundtrack is trapped within the film, Thompson gets his wings clipped too. As much as Thompson’s opening night performance is feted, I can’t help but feel the film is playing a bit of a joke and suggesting that all he has done is quite literally cut his nose off to spite his face, caught between the two stools of reality and representation. Birdman posits so many different forms of identity that it is difficult to arrive at a meaningful conclusion. However, the film shows that art rises amidst such a backdrop because it is defined by representation, relying as it does on a sense of performance that outstrips the manipulation of identity through social networks. The conflict between Thompson’s ego and the artistic project he develops emphasises the need for art as a communal space, one where meaning emerges from a communication between artist and audience, rather than pandering to how we wish to be perceived.