Saturday, 12 November 2016

University of Gloucestershire Media Festival

Univ. of Gloucestershire Media FestivalT

Thanks again to the University of Gloucestershire Media Festival for granting me a platform for some hoary old Hollywood anecdotes on Nov 9. Gave talk followed by an on-camera interview (shown here) and a panel discussion about freelancing.  

Was great to catch up with my old pal Paul Wiltshire, Head of Journalism there. We both worked on the Aber student paper Courier back in the day. Hadn't seen him for 30+ years, a decade before the students were even born! Some good keen questions afterwards. It's a wonderful annual event they host there. We'd have killed for something like that back in our day.

Youtube footage here. Main talk 1.19.53, interview 2.11.42, panel discussion 2.19.30

Jonathan Dimblebly

Jonathan Dimbleby

Forgot to add this from the summer. Excellent evening at The Times hosting Q&A with Jonathan Dimbleby. Superb fellow, absolute gent, marvellous raconteur.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

March of the Black Queen

For devotees of the early Queen catalogue (and less enamoured of the lame "moustache years" tribute acts) this Swedish musical performance is a must. Chanced upon it by accident. Extraordinary note-perfect live rendition of one of the band's most complex studio recordings (from Queen II, 1974).

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Muhammad Ali

MUHAMMAD ALI… Truly the greatest. Remember being backstage at the Oscars the year When We Were Kings won. Have never witnessed such a reaction for a star. Awestruck standing ovation in the press room. I swear even Jack Nicholson, who’d led him in, was getting teary behind his Ray-Bans. That said, three hours earlier, I’d watched outside as a hunched, shaky figure shuffled up the red carpet, cocking a wry grin over the fact that the E! Entertainment door-stoppers had failed to recognise him, swarming instead over the gown of some Actress-Nude Model-Whatever (Jenny McCarthy if memory serves, who’d apparently put said item on back-to-front). Wistful nostalgia, but people forget how TV-mainstream boxing was in the ‘70s, before it became a pay-per-view freakshow. A big heavyweight bout would give the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show a run for its money. Remember being at a Blondie gig in 1978 with Debbie Harry breaking off to lead the Birmingham Odeon in a chant of “Ali.. Ali…” (he was fighting Leon Spinks later on). Not sure if this got played last night, but Richard Dunn’s bout didn’t go quite the same distance…
Yorkshire TV look back on the World Heavyweight Fight between Ali & Dunn.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The People Versus OJ Simpson

Have been gripped by the BBC2 re-broadcast of the hit US series. I have a special interest as I lived in LA through the course of the trial. It was, truly, a soap opera, from Dominick Dunne's Vanity Fair columns to the Dancing Itos on Letterman. Almost tangible. I used to see dream team lawyer Robert Shapiro in my local supermarket in Pacific Palisades (where the tabloids at the till screamed their latest wacko theories). I once ran past Johnnie Cochran jogging on Santa Monica beach. I remember my downstairs neighbour bounding up the stairs and banging on my door mid-afternoon. I threw it open, assuming an emergency. "Oh my God, Fuhrman just perjured himself!" she wailed.

Somewhere amid it all was a pair of grisly murders. Nicole Simpson was almost decapitated. Ron Goldman, who was similarly butchered, became a mere afterthought in the sorry mess of a trial as Judge Ito lost control of the courtroom. As the People's key witnesses began, one-by-one, to sell their stories to the press, so its case evaporated. And they ballsed it up. Christopher Darden, IMHO, was just not up to it. He was a broken man by the end of it. Trying on the gloves was a mistake. Though a bigger one, I fear, was allowing Nicole Brown Simpson to be referred to, throughout, as OJ's "wife", painting Simpson a bereaved victim (albeit a very smiley, jokey one). Solid DNA evidence —  only a 21 billion to 1 chance that Simpson didn't do it! — was dismissed as "garbage". I remember Marcia Clark trying to explain the science of DNA to the jury (in a very patronising way) in terms of how it featured in Jurassic Park. That's how new it was. In the end it just became a clinical exercise in character assassination by the defence. Every witness methodically shredded.

The best book I read on the subject was American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth. It uses Robert Kardashian as its everyman. It purports that Kardashian knew pretty much from the get-go that OJ had blood on his hands and yet he persisted with his defence. Yep, the three Bobs — Kardashian, Shapiro and Marcia Clark's latest "do".

I have no doubt, based on the sheer weight of evidence, that Simpson was guilty as hell. But, of course, the case was never about a double-homicide. It was, as the author James Ellroy (whose own mother was raped and murdered) once put it to me, "a referendum on race." On the heels of the Rodney King beating and the riots, was it any wonder? Ultimately it was about whether black people in America got a fair shake from the law. They certainly didn't. And probably still don't... Except for Simpson. The LAPD bent over backwards to accommodate him. The case was compromised from the get-go.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Is this the face of Jack the Ripper?

Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of Withnail & I, has spent 15 years investigating the Whitechapel murders. He tells us whodunnit

Jeff Dawson Published, Sunday Times Culture: 4 October 2015

  • Nailed? Robinson argues that Michael Maybrick, a touring popular singer, killed prostitutes in Texas as well as Whitechapel (Roc Canals Photography)

  • As the title of Bruce Robinson’s book has it, They All Love Jack. Indeed they do. Certainly publishers do — they have made a killing out of the quest to nail the Ripper. Lewis Carroll? Randolph Churchill? Prince Albert Victor? A century and a quarter later, the dragnet trawls on.
    In 2002, in Portrait of a Killer, Patricia Cornwell fingered the artist Walter Sickert as the East End Eviscerator. (He had a deformed penis, she imagined, strangely.) Last year, in Naming the Ripper, Russell Edwards collared the Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski by genetically fingerprinting a shawl he had bought, purportedly belonging to Catherine Eddowes, the fourth (or possibly 94th) victim of “Saucy Jacky”.
    Mention of both books causes Robinson to harrumph. “I don’t mean to be rude about anybody, but that shawl’s been around for about 30 bloody years,” he says, pointing to the scientific backlash against fundamental errors in Edwards’s data. “Unfortunately, in his DNA extraction, he’s got his decimal point in the wrong place. It’s bullshit.”
    Walking tours, waxworks, Whitechapel weekenders... Women’s groups are picketing a new Jack the Ripper Museum on Cable Street (the moral equivalent, one supposes, of opening a Peter Sutcliffe Centre in Leeds). It is also reportedly the next target of the group that attacked the Cereal Killer Cafe last weekend. “There is a perverse, almost heroic status that has evolved around this prick,” Robinson writes, “as though he were someone special rather than the epitome of all that is cruel and goddamned repugnant.”
    And don’t even mention the “Ripperologists” — the Trekkies of the trade, “the self-appointed experts and guardians of flat-earth thinking”. “Dozens of books clogging the market, all quoting each other,” he howls. “Part of my motivation for writing this was getting rid of all this junk. I wanted to discard it all and go back to the beginning.”
    We know the official story. In the autumn of 1888, a serial killer emerged to slash and dismember five Whitechapel prostitutes; the last one (Mary Jane Kelly) was so mutilated that the country, the world, was gifted a bogeyman. There were few material clues, some taunting letters and a welter of contradictory descriptions, before the perp slinked off into the peasouper.
    Therein lies the problem, Robinson says. The literary sleuthing, all of it, has been predicated on a false assumption — that the rozzers were telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. “It’s an absurdity, an utter absurdity, to take these Victorian police at their word,” he protests. “You just simply cannot do it.”
    It’s taken 15 years for him to “bust the Ripper”, a mission that has been self-financed at huge personal cost, his research filling the stables of his country pile in Herefordshire: documents, letters, photographs, ranging from the findings of philatelists to the musings of maggot experts. The resultant 800-page deconstruction of the case is monumental. Dense and detailed, it is also savagely funny. One would expect nothing less from the writer-director of Withnail & I, a film that’s become one of Britain’s best-loved comedies.
    Its opening chapter is part social history, part legal treatise, and worthy of the GCSE syllabus: a scathing attack on 19th-century Britain, its Establishment and empire. What did the Victorians do for us? Well, they created a seething underclass of “sub-British”, Robinson writes, where a mother would whore herself “for the price of a mug of tea”, and a West End toff who “liked an arse” could stroll east for some penny-pinching pederasty.
    So let’s cut to the “ta-daa” moment. He declares that Jack the Ripper was a man named Michael Maybrick, previously peripheral to the Ripperati, but now front and centre. We’re talking literally. For, under his stage name, Stephen Adams, Maybrick was a popular singer/songwriter, the Paul McCartney of his day, a man who could shift 100,000 sheets of his ditties (They All Love Jack being one), but who was, as Robinson explains, carving out an unsavoury sideline.
    His case against Maybrick is compelling and complex. From the pool of hoax “Ripper letters” sent to the Met, a series are in fact genuine, he asserts, containing cryptic clues that suggest first-hand knowledge of the killings. Cross-reference the postmarks — from Aberdeen to Penzance, from as far afield as New York and Johannesburg — and they, and other slayings, coincide uncannily with Maybrick’s whereabouts on his exhaustive musical engagements. “In our day, you’d say, ‘What could his job be? He could be a pilot, he could be a long-distance truck driver [as was Sutcliffe].’ In the Victorian period, he could have been a singer or musician travelling from gig to gig. He was Jack the Ripper on tour.”
    We have been down the Maybrick road before. James Maybrick, Michael’s older brother, a Liverpool cotton merchant, has long been a Ripper suspect, courtesy of a confessional “diary”, unearthed in 1992, the veracity of which has been argued over ever since. But it’s a case of “up the right arsehole on the wrong elephant”, Robinson says. James was murdered in May 1889 (allegedly poisoned by his wife, Florence, who copped a death sentence in what was considered a serious travesty of justice). Did Michael do that, too? Then go on to frame his brother as the Ripper? Robinson thinks so. “I believe 100% he was who I say he is.”
    Jack the Ripper would not seem obvious Robinson territory. He has attained cult status as a sort of reclusive — and profanely garrulous — writer, having spent the past 20 years holed up in the countryside, bashing out unproduced scripts or children’s books with his illustrator wife, Sophie Windham, coming out of exile only to direct The Rum Diary (2011) at the behest of No 1 fan Johnny Depp (who, coincidentally, appeared in the Ripper film From Hell. Don’t get him started...).
    Delve further, however, and victimhood is at the heart of his work: the bleak, semi-autobiographical Withnail; his nine-tenths autobiographical novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. One can add The Killing Fields (for which he won a screenwriting Bafta), with its Khmer Rouge horrors, among other screenplays. “What helps me with that victimisation thing vis-à-vis the Ripper is that I have a huge distrust of authority.”
    Withnail was a bittersweet experience, the stardust swept aside by the acrimony over lack of financial reward, followed by a disastrous sojourn in Hollywood. It was while making his first American studio picture, the serial-killer flick Jennifer 8, back in the early 1990s, that the Ripper came his way. Intrigued by true crime, he had intended to do something on the case of William Herbert Wallace. “Chandler [in his 1962 memoir, Raymond Chandler Speaking] rated this as one of the two greatest crime mysteries of all time. The other is James Maybrick.”
    A call to a researcher led him serendipitously to Keith Skinner, an old actor buddy since refashioned as a Ripper expert. “There seemed to be something going on here. Here’s Chandler writing about it, and here’s this so-called diary turning up 100 years later, accusing [James] Maybrick of being the Ripper.”
    It is James’s sibling Michael, though, who fits Robinson’s bill: tall, powerful, clever, egotistical, homosexual and quite the misogynist. “You don’t have to be insane to cut people up, you just have to hate enough,” Robinson contends. And, importantly, he was a Freemason: the Ripper letters (like the crimes) were laden with allusions to Masonic ritual, taunting Sir Charles Warren, the Metropolitan police commissioner and “Boss Cop”.
    Masonry is the nub of it. Warren was a leading “Bro’”, an amateur archaeologist who had excavated King Solomon’s Temple. From there it’s a “funny little game”, with Boss Cop eliminating clues as fast as Maybrick can lay them (including Warren’s expunging of the crucial “Goulston Street graffito”, found on a wall near victim number four).
    The police, the coroners, the courts — it was about containing one of their own, Robinson suggests, with Warren bent on preserving the “mystic tie” to the “government within government”, all the way up to the most powerful Freemason of all: “Fat Ed”, better known as Edward, Prince of Wales. “My God, you could have boxed it up and sold it like Cluedo,” Robinson splutters. “He was dumping clues everywhere, and every time Warren covered up the clues, the Ripper upped the ante.”
    Robinson adds other murders to the roster — the female torso found hidden, “like Hitchcock”, in the foundations of Scotland Yard on October 2; the prostitutes Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (“non-canonical” to his Ripperology chums). And he doesn’t restrict the killings geographically. An eight-year-old child found mutilated in Bradford was the Ripper/Maybrick’s handiwork, he insists.
    So just how many did he kill? “I’m thinking 25, 30, something like that. It just suited the authorities to reduce the murders to these old hags in the East End who no one’s gonna give a toss about. There were seven prostitutes killed in Texas in 1884, and the policeman running that case came to London because of the similarity to the East End hits. In 1884, Michael Maybrick, of course, was touring the USA. But you can only research so much. There comes a point when you’ve just got to say, ‘That’s it.’ I couldn’t get into all of these, because I’d be doing this until I was 91 years old.”
    Maybrick had had enough, too. In 1893, he seems to have hung up his blade, forgoing the Café Royale and champers with his boyfriend for a curious retirement on the Isle of Wight, “married to a fat butcher’s daughter from Hammersmith”. He died in obscurity in 1913.
    Robinson’s book is delivered with characteristic, entertaining vituperation. I wonder, though, whether the catherine wheel of rage might be spinning too furiously. He digs at Blair and Thatcher; there are blistering but digressive passages on General Gordon and Khartoum, Irish oppression and Fat Ed’s reinforced fornicating chair. Even Danny the dealer from Withnail — crafter of the Camberwell Carrot — pops up.
    No less apparent is Robinson’s — how shall we say? — fragile tolerance for those of a contradictory disposition. Detractors are derided as “imbeciles” or as “lying like a back-alley slut”. “The reason I’m so harsh on Ripperology is I’ve got to kill ’em off. I’ve got to swat these guys like flies.”
    He laughs, but he’s deadly serious. “I think any bright 12-year-old could have caught Jack the Ripper. I genuinely believe that.” The only thing one can add with equal certainty is that there will be another book round the corner, alleging someone else. Robinson knows this. “I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think it is the last word. But if people want to break this book, they’d better know what they’re f****** talking about... every damn thing in it is very, very closely researched and sourced. It’s not opinion. This is not a theory. It’s an explanation.”

    They All Love Jack is published by Fourth Estate at £25. To buy it for £22.50, inc p&p, call 0845 271 2134 or visit Bruce Robinson will be talking at The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday at 8.30pm (

Monday, 27 April 2015

Gallipoli: A Personal Story

My maternal Grandad, Lance corporal Wilfred Mack of the 5th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment, was badly wounded at Gallipoli in August 1915, shot several times in the leg (as kids we were always told seven bullets) during the futile attack on Suvla Cove. Gallipoli is rightly remembered for the terrible and heroic sacrifice of ANZAC troops — memorialised by Peter Weir's excellent film, Gallipoli — but I'm glad the centenary has given the Tommies their due, too. It is also a reminder that this was truly a World War, troops drawn from all over, with not all the action confined to the Western Front.

Stirred by the 1960s anti-war movement, the tendency has been to subscribe to the "Lions Led By Donkeys" version of hostilities, latterly known as the Blackadder school of thought. Undoubtedly there is truth in this, though for me it's too facile a judgement to lay upon all of the action — especially if you do your reading, and especially if you look at the ratio of officer casualties. That said, the Gallipoli campaign, of which Churchill was an architect, certainly fits the bill as a grossly ill-conceived Whitehall project. This was the D-Day landing of its time, yet was executed with what seems criminally scant attention paid to very deadly detail. Eight months of fighting, 250,000 Allied casualties. Enough said.

Some years later, a myth grew up about the 5th Battalion, Norfolks. In a sort of Levantine version of the Angle of Mons, extrapolated from some descriptive newspaper accounts, the men were supposed to have charged the Turkish positions, with 200-plus simply disappearing into a strange mist, never to be seen again (in some outlandish recent versions they were abducted by aliens). Yet another drama, a TV one this time, All The King's Men, promulgated the myth of the "Vanished", skewing the story with suggestion that the Battalion was drawn exclusively from the royal staff of the Sandringham Estate. (The pals' brigades were actually recruited from all over the county. My grandfather was a smallholder, born nr. Holt, lived the rest of his life in Sheringham.) For me the whole thing is rather disrespectful and ignores what seems almost certainly to have happened, especially when, after the war, they found many of the remains shovelled into a ditch.

From what I can remember him saying, and from what my mum tells me, they charged the Turks (records show they got 800yds behind the lines and regrouped, confused and lost, at a farmhouse) before machine guns took their toll. It would account for the number of bullets Grandad copped. These were raw, untried troops, remember. He was 19 at the time. From what can be gleaned from his recounting, in the chaos and carnage, people running all over the place, the survivors took cover in the shell holes of No Man's Land till darkness fell — though not without Grandad seeing his best mate's head being blown off right next to him and with a lifetime of nightmares to show for it. Eventually he crawled back.

Grandad died in 1981 when I was in my teens, before I really gained appreciation of what he'd been through (due to my dad's National Service stories and the paternal side's own multiple representation in WW2, it tended to get eclipsed). He was a man of few words, his accent so strong — back then broad Norfolk was a different language — it was difficult to make out a lot of what he said anyway. But I do remember him talking about docking at Marseilles and, later on, continuing the fight against the Ottomans in Palestine, which would have brought him under the supreme command of Lawrence of Arabia.

Grandparents Wilfred and Louisa went on to have eight children, all girls, one of which being my mum. With the maternal family name facing extinction, too, we thought it only fitting to name our own son Mack.