Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Mark Thomas

“How can we control the arms trade? How can we stir up enough public interest? Well, if emotive pictures of destruction and child soldiers were going to work, they would have worked by now. What we need to do if we want to control the arms trade is thoroughly destroy all of their arguments.” Mark Thomas fires his opening salvo with the precision and intensity of one of the guns he is working to control. Throughout the interview, Thomas rattles off figures and statistics with unnerving accuracy. But then, he should be good at this by now. Mark Thomas has been Britain’s foremost campaigning comedian since The Mark Thomas Comedy Product was first broadcast, eschewing tired sketches or “celebrity guests” in favour of creating a platform from which to attack social injustice and political negligence.

He has campaigned for greater corporate responsibility, against the dam in somewhere, and for the removal of third world debt, but in his new book As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela, and on his current UK stand-up tour, he has his sights set firmly on the arms trade. “All the old lines that get wheeled out, “If we didn’t do it, someone else would”, “It’s good for British jobs”, “It’s good for the economy”, they’re all wrong, and we need to prove that they’re wrong to a wider audience. I mean, the arms industry is one of the most protected industries in Britain, these are companies that sponsor conflict, that sell weapons to the sorts of regimes and the sorts of individuals that sane people wouldn’t even invite round to their house for a cup of tea, and I really think they’re a cancer, a cancer in our society and a cancer at the very heart of our government. So really, my aim is to get people to engage with the arguments.”

Thomas’ campaigns have seen him doing extensive undercover journalism, posing as a pr specialist for aiding repressive regimes deal with amnesty, to setting up gun smuggling rackets in order to expose the loopholes in the current arms system. In light of his experiences, I ask him what he thinks of the LSE UGM’s recent decision to boycott donations from arms companies. His answer is less straight forward than perhaps one would expect. “Well, I would say that it does depend on the details of the companies, it not as easy as saying all companies ever involved in the manufacture of arms should be boycotted. Just to give an example, Land Rover have been involved in various arms deals over the years, but if they wanted to fund research, let’s say to develop a truck that could transport groups of people over large areas of difficult terrain, aiding the movement of refugees. You shouldn’t say, ‘They’ve been involved in arms in the past, we shouldn’t work with them’.” However, when I cite BAE Systems by name, his answer is slightly different. “I do think there is a very real ethical issue, with anyone, especially any university, accepting money from a company that has time and time again proven itself to act unethically. I mean, this is a company which has bribed, which has hidden information from investigation, which specialises in the most secretive of deals, which supports repressive regimes and that has the Labour government in its pocket, so I would definitely support a refusal to be funded by BAE’s money.”

It is a mark of Thomas’ nous as a campaigner that he does not see the world in a simple world-in-opposites reality. There is such a thing, for example, as a “good” arms company.

“The thing is, I do know some moral people who work within the arms industry and the arms trade, and people within the industry who support tougher laws and international treaties. These people will tell you that there are “good” arms companies and “bad” arms companies, and that you can distinguish between the two. Now, its fairly easy to see what a “bad” arms company is, I mean, even people within the arms trade will say that someone gunrunning to Zimbabwe is a “bad” arms company. The confusion comes when you try to work out exactly what a “good” arms company is. But it’s not as black as white as some activists seem to think.”

For Thomas, one of the failings of the arms control movement up to this point has been a lack of education, a simple ignorance of the facts. “I mean, some activists just haven’t done their homework. For example, you tell them that the Labour government has done good things, and they’re shocked. The Labour Government has brought in extra controls on the proliferation of torture equipment. That’s fucking brilliant! I mean, yes, it should go further, it should apply to all small arms, but it is a step in the right direction, it’s better than nothing. I always say that if the last Conservative government got 0/10 for arms control, then Labour is getting maybe 2 and a half/10, but that’s still something.”

The idea of a “good” arms company, I suggest, is perhaps a bitter pill for many activists to swallow. “Well, look at Liberia. The people of Liberia really deserve peace and safety. I mean, considering the things they’ve been through, the horrible atrocities, child soldiers and human rights violations of the worst kind, they really deserve some safety now. If that means that there has to be an armed police force, then arms are playing a positive role. It shouldn’t be assumed that all arms are bad.”

In this context then, support for stricter arms control does not need to infer a support for pacifism, and indeed Thomas refuses to sign up to what he refers to as “The Gandhian Perspective”. “There’s no point in adopting a pacifist strategy if the people attacking you are dropping Napalm on you from thousands of feet in the air. Non-violent resistance only works by eliciting shame in your attacker, but burning to death with your human dignity intact is still burning to death. Everyone has a right to life. That is the single most important human right. Article 2. It’s only natural that along with that right you have a right to defend your life. That’s just stunningly obvious. You have to be able to defend your own life against an aggressor.”

Thomas avoids being pigeon-holed into a neat category, and perhaps the same could be said for his career as a performer. He has worked in stand up, radio, television and written articles for publications such as The New Statesman, but As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela is his first book. I ask him if he found the experience of writing it. “In a way it was daunting, and in a way it wasn’t. A lot of comics have written books, the likes of Alexi Sayle and Jo Brand, and I think the reason for this is that all comics are egoists. We all think we can do anything, and the sort of thing that people would regard as a challenge, the sort of thing to be approached with care and precision, we think is a piece of piss. But I’ve been working on issues in and around the arms trade for years, and basically I really saw the book as storytelling, a chance to fill in the gaps. When you do a television show you get about 24 minutes, once you’ve taken out ad breaks and the opening sequence and that sort of thing. If you want to really engage the audience in an issue, and present them with all the facts, that isn’t really long enough.”

One area his career has never taken him is into the realm of conventional politics. I ask him whether he has ever been tempted to become an MP, and also about his friend Tess Kingham, who is mentioned on several occasions in his book. Kingham was a Labour MP between 1997 and 2001, but she retired after a single term citing disillusionment with the political process. “Tess is an incredibly passionate person, she’s a friend, and she didn’t fuck about when she was an MP. I mean, before she became an MP she used to go out and do body counts, and collect other data on human rights violations. But her experience as an MP meant that she resigned because basically she felt her position had become untenable. She felt as if she had become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. I think that’s what puts me off conventional politics, but also that I’m not disciplined enough to be an MP. I mean, I don’t think I could follow a party line! My skill is in offending people.” Indeed, his uncompromising style has hardly endeared him to the targets of his campaigns, but I ask him whether his humour is useful in the often dangerous situations he finds himself in, or whether the comedy only comes out later. “A bit of both, I guess. I do find myself in situations where I come away thinking, that was a bit scary, or that was a bit weird, or that was a bit horrible. I think anyone after an experience like that tries to rationalise their actions a little bit, tries to understand why they did what they did and said what they said, and I suppose humour comes in there.”

One story that Thomas details in As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela is his uncovering of an illegal deal by Dheeraj Hinduja and Anders Spare to supply military trucks to the Sudan. Thomas worked on the story for BBC2’s newsnight, but the show was never aired following pressure from the Hinduja’s lawyers, a decision by the BBC which obviously disappointed Thomas. “I think that the moment they decided to pull the program will live on as a moment of ignomy, really. It was a shame to see a broadcaster politically cowed, and I think that it made the corporation seem very timid. The BBC has a special role to play. It’s remit is public broadcasting, and I think it has a duty to stand head and shoulders above other news broadcasters, and really hold people to account. That’s really what democracy is all about, holding people to account, and I think they failed on this occasion.”

However, his work was not without reward. “A lot of very positive things did come out of it. The committee report came out of it, the show I’m touring at the moment actually features it substantially – we’ve actually printed off copies of the final report and we distribute it at the end of it show, and of course the deal did fall through. Although a Chinese company did eventually come in and fill the order anyway, at least my actions did have some effect and proved that forcing the issue can produce results.”

Thomas’ campaigns over the years have brought many successes, but, as with any campaigner, the extent to which he knows how much personal influence he has had is unclear. “I think with anything in life you sometimes know the influence your actions have had, and sometimes you don’t. There’s a famous story about Kissinger advising Nixon not to nuke Vietnam with the words “Beware the hammer blow of the peace movement”, so while they may not have ended the war immediately, perhaps without even knowing it the peace protestors prevented nuclear bombs being dropped. To give another example, there was a strike in Colombia, and the military was called in to sort things out – it was getting very nasty, so solidarity protests were called outside the Colombian embassy in London. Now at these protests you’d get 10 people, maybe 20, maybe even 30 if you were really really lucky. However, when the Colombian government called off the military and began to negotiate, one of their non-negotiable demands was that they “call off the pickets in London”. So even relatively minor actions can have a major impact.”

But some important tangible changes have occurred. “But as for my proudest moment, I think getting real changes in the law. The thing I did with furniture disclose tax was a lot of fun, and getting the law changed. Finland also introduced a new law to restrict arm sales after one of my programs, and we’ve got Nestle to change their packaging and that sort of thing.”

“The next big aim is an international arms trade treaty, but really the aim before that is just to get as many people as possible engaged in the debate. It may seem complex, but, for example back in 1992 I was talking about reducing world debt, and people were incredulous. If you told them the facts they simply wouldn’t believe them. If you told them that some of the debt had been created by the Americans funding a nuclear power plant in the Philippines at the foot of an active volcano and in an earthquake zone, people wouldn’t believe it, but its true – a fucking active volcano. But now, some 14 years later, the removal of world debt is a large and popular debate, which shows that the public can get behind quite complicated arguments and movements. The same can happen with arms treaties.”

Thomas’ message, like his body of work, is a rallying shout, a call to arms if you will, for each of us to get informed and get engaged with the debates that will shape the world for years to come.

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Ashton Kutcher

“We could be in a really dangerous situation in this room if we really want to think about what could happen," I smile nervously and hope that this isn't a thinly veiled threat from the dapperly dressed young man opposite me, and just ordinary run-of-the-mill film star paranoia. "So when we were filming, it's only looking back that I realise how dangerous some of the stuff we did was, if you think about what could have happened. I think about hanging eighty feet above concrete by a thin little wire controlled by some guy with a little winch. I remember hanging from there after we did it two or three times. Kevin Costner said 'maybe you guys could put a little fall pad down there in case…' I'm thinking, 'Kevin, if we fall will we really hit that pad? We're swinging around in the wind and the rain. How are we gonna hit a tiny pad? So, yeah, there were definitely some dangerous situations filming."

Thank God. For a moment there I thought that Ashton Kutcher was going to beat the living crap out of me. The truth is, he probably could. For his latest film, The Guardian, he has become, to use his word, "built". "I'm the fittest I've ever been in my life" he says, "I started training for the movie before I knew I had the role, I was training for about eight months. Demi [Moore, Kutcher's wife] went through a similar training program for GI Jane, and she said to me, "Just go all out". So I did. I feel like when you're doing a film the idea is that you do all the work before you get there. Everything that you're going to do in a scene, everything that you're going to have to do physically, you have to have the work already done before you get there, because there's going to be enough problems once you get there that you're gong to have to solve. If you haven't already figured out what you're going to do you're not going to... win." Kutcher's speech is dogged with these kinds of pauses, Kutcher-isms almost, as he flails around for a suitable expression. His tweed suit, complete with waistcoat, is a far cry from the slacker garb in which he became famous on That 70s Show and which saw him launched onto the big screen in the cultural trainwreck which was "Dude...Where's my Car?" Today, as he name checks Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, one thing is abundantly clear. Ashton Kutcher is trying very, very hard to be taken seriously.

The film itself puts Kutcher in a more serious role than he has typically been seen in before. Kutcher plays a Rescue Swimmer, one of an elite Coast Guard team whose job is to rescue people from the most dangerous conditions the sea can whip up. While Kutcher was keen to get the role, it did present one major initial worry for him. "I hate the water. Hate it. I didn't like taking a bath really, never mind swimming" So if one good thing came of this film, at least it improved Ashton Kutcher's personal hygiene by getting him back in the water.

Removing his overpowering personal odour and cleansing his stinking pores was not the only way in which the role benefited his friends. "I was on holiday recently with Demi and some English friends of ours, and this guy – we call him ..'Dickie Doc..', he..'s like 80 and a doctor, anyway, he..'s been drinking all day and then he decides to go for a swim. He gets about 10 feet from the boat and then starts going under, so I dove in and brought him in. I wouldn..'t have been so quick to get in the water before we did this film.

"The Guardian" also helped Kutcher kick the rabid nicotine monkey from off his back. "It's hard to smoke and swim at the same time" admits Kutcher, smiling, "But seriously, it is difficult when you finish a length of the pool and you're thinking about a cigarette when what you really need is oxygen. I suppose I traded the nicotine for the oxygen. I read this book by a guy called Alan Carr, "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking", and it really worked for me – I enjoyed it because I got to keep smoking while I read it. The last page was like ..'Smoke your last cigarette now..' – so I did."

His co-star in "The Guardian" is Kevin Costner, a man who could perhaps be forgiven for not wanting to go back in the water after the now infamous debacle that was Waterworld. Kutcher is passionately defensive of an actor whom he says he "reveres", "What's interesting about "Waterworld" is that it actually made some $200 million, it was actually a financial success. But because it didn't perform well domestically in the United States it's assumed it didn't do well for him. I even assumed that myself."

"The movie Field of Dreams was filmed in Iowa, and so I grew up with a cornfield in my back yard, and I always thought baseball players were going to walk out of it. The mantra "if you build it they will come.." becomes a way of life. I'm very fortunate to have met a lot of my acting heroes, those people that you get to sit in little dark rooms and watch on a little box. They really become your heroes, they become your teachers and your team-mates. They're your bodyguards, or your authoritative figure. Now Kevin is my friend."

"It's hard, you could probably name on the fingers of maybe one hand the number of people who've been able to have a successful career for as long as Kevin has. You look up to those people when you..'re trying to do the same." "Dances With Wolves is one film he won an Oscar for as a director, I think it won seven Oscars, and if you're a young actor and you don't respect that I think you're kind of ignorant in some ways."

Unfortunately for Kutcher, and Costner, it is difficult to imagine "The Guardian" troubling the Oscar committee. The film is a by-numbers action film, modeling itself on genre-defining films such as "Top Gun", but offering little new on the tried and tested formula. In defence of the film, it is at least positive to the formula taken out of a conflict-fuelled, war-time scenario, and Kutcher explains that this is one of the things that drew him to the film. "I liked the fact that the film focuses on a branch of the military that they train to save lives, not to take them. I think that that's a noble thing." Kutcher is perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, expressing the influence of director Andrew Davis when he says this. Davis, who describes himself as a "good leftist", talks of his time learning his trade at the infamous Democratic convention of 1968. However, while making heroes out of life savers should be applauded, some of the politics of the film itself are questionable, particularly the way in which it seems to apologise for the debacle that was the US Government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina. In one scene of the film, a character talks about their training allowing them to be "so successful during Katrina". While the disaster certainly shot the Rescue Divers to a prominence that they had not enjoyed before, painting the disaster as a success in any terms seems controversial. Work on the film had in fact started well before Katrina happened, but it is impossible now to view the film outside of that context. With this in mind it is perhaps surprising that there is a merely token effort at racial diversity. Kutcher's 'team' in the film is made up of one black male, one mixed race female, one white female and about ten white males. Watching from Britain, the film seems to be at heart an all-American tale which one would expect the average cinema-going deep-south bible-belter to be proud.

Cliché-ridden and painfully over-sentimental, 'The Guardian' cannot be taken too seriously. Taken on its own terms, the film is a partial success, but it has little to distinguish it from generic Hollywood blockbusters. Firstly amongst the problems, is the not inconsiderable obstacle that Kutcher is.. how can I put this?.. not the most convincing of actors. While his star quality and charisma is not to be doubted, at crucial points in the film Kutcher is asked to convey what he calls his "emotional revealment", another Kutcher-ism, but his anger comes off as little more than petulance. Tellingly, he says he felt nerves shooting that scene, particularly during the constant re-shooting that Andrew Davis demanded. Kutcher says that it was at those points that Costner's mentorship was most useful. "Kevin took me to one side and said, "There's only one difference between me and you. I'm more confident because I'm more relaxed, and I'm more relaxed because I've been doing this for a lot longer than you have. Don't try to do anything, and you'll do everything."

While Kutcher is earnest and eager to be liked in person, he doesn't seem to have too much trouble playing a character so conceited that he has a "2" tattooed on his back so that "The other guy knows what position hes going to finish." Kutcher will no doubt continue to make big budget films for some time to come, but he thinks that 'The Guardian' will be his calling card to more serious roles, I fear that he may be severely dissapointed.

So finally, the one thing everyone must wonder while in the vicinity of Kutcher: Are we about to get Punk'd? "I don't guarantee immunity, when I'm working with someone I'm not going to break that trust that you have to have. You have to be able to look across to the person that you're working with and trust them, and trust that they're going to give it everything they've got. I can't break that trust in my work. So if they do I hope that they know while we're working together that nothing will happen." "When you're hanging from the wires you have all this concrete, if something's going wrong you don't want the guy going 'are you punking me?' 'No, you're really going to die!'. You don't want to get caught in that situation, so I would never do that." "But now we're finished...who knows?"

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Ralph Steadman

“Hunter used to call Blair a ‘simpering little whore’, and I think we saw that yesterday” says Ralph Steadman, speaking the day after Tony Blair’s speech at the Labour Party Conference, and quoting his long time collaborator Hunter S. Thompson “Blair has dragged the socialist party of Britain to somewhere I never imagined it would be, and I don’t think the party did either.”

Perhaps the same could be said for Steadman himself, dragged out of his ordinary surroundings by his unstoppable talent. His career has taken him places that he could barely even of conceived of as a schoolboy growing up in North Wales. Born in 1936, Steadman’s artwork took him from the confines of the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts to working for the foremost satirical and cultural publications of the era, including Punch, Private Eye and Rolling Stone.

Described by Will Self as “Britain’s foremost post-war satirist” Steadman has forged a niche for himself with his instantly recognisable artwork that unflinchingly mocks and undermines the major political players of the day. However, as Self explains, he has not always achieved the intended offence; “Ralph eventually had to give up drawing politician’s faces after he discovered that no matter how disgusting, corrupt and venal he made them look, they’d still ring him up trying to buy the original prints.”

Self continues to work with Steadman on his regular Psychogeography column for The Independent, and speaks fondly about having Steadman as an illustrator. “After he gave up drawing their faces, he would just draw their legs. I used to get reams and reams of faxed politicians legs sent to whichever hotel I was staying at while I was writing the accompanying articles, which would utterly bewilder the hotel staff who received the faxes. I ended up just screaming at them ‘Have you got the legs??” Self states unequivocally that “Receiving a brand new Ralph Steadman print every week has been one of the greatest honours of my life.”

Steadman is currently in town to promote his latest work, a memoir of his late friend Hunter Thompson, entitled “The Joke’s Over”. Specifically the book focuses on the time the two spent working together covering such events as the Kentucky Derby, the Americas Cup and the Honolulu Marathon. Thompson wanted him to capture in his drawing ‘absolute evil’, the face of the decadent America that Thompson was pursuing. Steadman says he failed, and was only able to draw certain shades, certain types of evil.

He describes writing this memoir as a cathartic experience, which helped him to deal with the loss of a companion of was not only a great friend but also a constant inspiration. “I think we sparked off each other”, he says. Steadman now possesses a number of items of Thompson memorabilia, such as a distinctive hat, pair of aviator glasses and a cigarette holder. During the promotion of the work, he has begun donning these items to recreate the character of his lost friend, something he says he only feels comfortable doing now that he is dead. “When I used to go to Hunter’s house in Colorado, there were lots of people trying to be Hunter when they were with him. I could never do that.”

Steadman was always an outsider, and cursed with a naivety which at some times it seems Thompson took advantage of. He shows me a fax from Thompson, which begins with pleasantries but is soon down to brass tacks; “What I really need is $50,000 dollars. Keep your advice and send money.” Thompson was notoriously unwilling to share the credit he received for his work. Indeed, Steadman says that Thompson always regretted one of their deals when they did end up splitting the royalties. “For “The Curse of Lono” we agreed to split it 50-50, but afterwards he was never happy. He would say to me ‘Ralph, couldn’t we change that deal? Make it 51-49 in my favour?’ but I always said No.”

However, despite their differences of opinion, and of character, Steadman played an integral role in the forging of Gonzo journalism, Thompson’s great literary legacy, and Steadman delights in explaining the phenomenon. “What is Gonzo? Well, there are two concrete events in his life which I would point to and say “That’s pure Gonzo” The first would be, quite late in his life, when he had had a hip replacement and surgery to his spine, and he insisted on smoking inside the oxygen tent. The second would be his habit of turning off his lights and driving very fast down the wrong side of the road. We could see the other cars coming, but they couldn’t see us. We’d go past like ghosts, and they wouldn’t be sure whether they’d seen anything or not. The police had no idea. There was nothing to report. How could they know that some maniac was speeding down the wrong side of the road in pitch darkness?”

Thompson revelled in danger, and claimed that he wanted to drive fast enough that the “thrill of speed exceeded the fear of death”. Bearing this in mind, I wonder whether Steadman was surprised by Thompson’s suicide? “I say in my book ‘I have always known that at last I would take this road, but yesterday I did not know that it would be today.’ I always knew that he’d do it someday, but I wasn’t ready for it when he did. I understand his reasons for it. He was sick. He hated not being able to do what he loved, he hated not being able to do what he’d always done, and he hated the idea of going to an old people’s home. He used to say, “Ralph, the thing I worry about is being in an old people’s home, being strapped into a chair and some woman coming along and playing with my balls – and not being able to do anything about it.” Arthritis and illness had crept up on Thompson in later life, a man who had always been larger than life. Steadman mimics Thompson’s peculiar ambling gait, so ably reproduced by Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Well he had one leg shorter than the other due to an American Football injury, so he always ended up with one foot just off the floor” Steadman explains “He would walk into a room and everyone would look at him. They had to; he was right in their faces.” He talks about Thompson fondly, but without deifying him, as so often happens after the death of a public figure. “He was a bastard” Steadman smiles, “but he was a lovable bastard.”

Speaking of bastards, Steadman is back to ranting about Blair. “He’s claims to have achieved everything he dreamt of coming to office – presumably that means bombing the shit out of Baghdad.” As I leave, Steadman is approached by a fan who asks him to doodle on the cover of the day's Guardian. He willingly obliges, and sets about defacing the grinning image of Tony Blair with devil horns and other demented features. I suggest that he’s getting closer to absolute evil. He laughs, “I think you’re right”.