Thursday, 30 August 2012

Brilliant People I: Shaun Micallef/Elena Baltacha

Welcome to the first in my series of Brilliant People. It will ostensibly be about people, who tended to be on the brilliant side. Not half-hearted folk here. Pure dead brilliant fellows, as a man swiftly ostracised off live radio might say.

I made three rules for this, two of which I broke instantly. Rule one was that all of the brilliant people had to be alive. Whilst I tried to err on the side of the living, a few celebratory worthy deceased folk have made the list. The second rule was that the two participants per article had to be linked. Short of inventing some links for people though, this didn’t work out either. The third, and the one I kept, is that each article must contain one male and one female person discussed. There are brilliant people of either sex, and this allows an equal amount of great men and women.

My reasoning for doing so was when one landmark figure of the 20th Century died recently, and much to my sadness, I found none of my friends had even heard of her. Apart from my mum, but my mum knows everything, from Stargate to quinine adulteration in the 1920s drug trade of South East Asia. Or so I hear.

Some may seem more worthy than others may, but it’s not a serious series of articles. It’s not the Booker Prize shortlist, or the Nobel committee. It’s just this humble writer expounding on people who ought to be better known and lauded for their successes or fights against adversity. In any number of fields. From gender politics to war, from writing to pro-wrestling. And everything in between.

Now, onto the first brilliant person!

Shaun Micallef 

“I think it’s important to give up something every now and then.” Micallef 

Millions of people know who Shaun Micallef is. He’s even won awards for brilliance. Both of these events tend to, however, on the whole, be limited to one island. That being Australia. Unlike the great two-way cultural osmosis that goes on between the Americans and the Brits, the Australian humour rarely cracks through to the mainstream here unless it has Rolf Harris in the middle of it. This is a shame, as it means one of the sharpest, funniest and daftest satirists living gets short shrift.

Micallef was born in 1962, a vintage year for people who will be fifty during the course of 2012. He had the route to comedy that John Cleese would have been proud of, starting as an insurance lawyer. Jumping careers to the world of comedy, possibly a world even more stressful, Micallef hopped via the multi-performer comedy Full Frontal, into hosting his own show, and then going to host a variety of shows on both television and radio over the last two decades. Not bad going for a kid of Irish/Maltese descent who grew up idolising Spike Milligan. What are we going to do?

I have been watching his Mad as Hell (a title neatly borrowed from Network), a satirical news show with sketches, and close to the Daily Show in structure. Micallef is the ideal host for such a show in Australia, able to dive between sketches with fictional characters – some loosely based on real people – and his unique take on breaking news stories. It also gives him multiple opportunities to take shots at his favourite pet peeves, in this case Kevin Rudd, John Howard and the Australian immigration policy, all of which are poked at on an episodic basis.

I first came to know of Shaun Micallef via the Paramount Comedy Channel. They would show Drop the Dead Donkey, which I loved, every weeknight, and followed it up with the Kenny Everett show, which I grew to adore. Eventually, it ran out of Everett episodes to show, while still having DTDD episodes. So they put The Micallef Programme on in Kenny’s place. Disappointment was quickly dispelled by actually watching five minutes of his show. And five minutes of his show was all that was needed to cement it in my mind as must watch TV.

Micallef is, primarily, a cruel comic. His jokes will take shots at characters he has created, usually played by his band of fellow comics playing a variety of roles. However, he is never beyond being the butt of the jokes. A Micallef sketch or comedy routine will always wind up with him looking like a complete idiot if the bigger laugh can come from that. I find that reassuring in a comic, it shows they have a good grounding of reality around them and can happily take as well as give.

The humour can be quite absurdist. A pro-smoking Watchdog sketch, which denounces government figures on smoking casualties, before announcing, “We have found you can half the number of smoking deaths in Australia if you divide it by two.” Or “an oil tanker containing aromatherapy oils exploded off the coast of Melbourne this afternoon, causing widespread calm and a sense of well being.” It’s not humour to everyone’s taste, I admit. Hell, the comic himself admits he is an “acquired taste”. The closest I can compare to is the “Mining Exam” school of Peter Cook. 

“If you have any information, any information at all, please contact me as I'm writing an encyclopaedia.”

His roots in the great British absurdist tradition are open for all to see. During the three years of the Micallef Program(me), his on-air relationship with ABC, his television employers, often mirrored Kenny Everett’s on screen digs at the BBC/ITV/Radio Luxembourg/whoever was employing him that week. Like naming his recent show Mad as Hell, it’s not an incidental add on to the show, but adds to the layer of his comedy output: there’s a great intertextuality to it, for those aware of the great comedy traditions to pick on and have a smile over. The Micallef Program(me) only lasted three seasons, despite being an audience grabber, as the man has never liked to stick to one project too long. A brave move in itself, to end a show on which he was given 100% creative freedom before it grew stale. (Especially since his replacement show was cancelled soon after being renewed for twenty episodes!) Not that he has ever been out of work long since. Nevertheless, that tends to sum up Micallef, he is in every sense the anti-celebrity, who continuously puts himself down as a “continuity man” and who shuns the spotlight for an ego, at the contrast of the egotistical hosts he portrays on screen.

“Remember, a dog is not just for Christmas. It can also be for a birthday. In fact, you can eat them all year round.”

His comedic acting is a master class of comic timing, belittling his own small opinion of his talents in that department. The timing of his retorts to guests in studio sketches is sublime.

And oh the sketches.

“’A man who could never say no to a drink’ was how I once described Owen Tully to a prospective employer. He’d be a bit embarrassed to hear me say this, but he was under suspicion for a number of robberies in the area. Never charged, only questioned. He said I could have his chair.” A Micallef character eulogising his late friend.

“Anyone sitting there?”

“Anyone sitting there?”

“Anyone sitting there?”

“Hah. You’ve got no mates.”

Now that might translate badly onto the written page, but here it is performed.

The partnership between Shaun and Francis Greenslade is a joy to behold. They met (I believe) when they were both on Full Frontal, and have worked together on most of Micallef’s projects since. They have an ability to work off each other intrinsically, one being able to get the best reaction out of the other for comedic effect. Greenslade’s ease at slipping into numerous characters, the dafter the better for his ability to play them straight, allows Shaun’s host to work even better at being the adept satire of frankly far too many living talk show hosts. There is a great sketch, where in the burned remains of a house, Micallef tells Greenslade’s insurance lawyer all the things he lost (“my antique paintings over there, 15th Century Ming vase there...”) all the while insisting he’s not here for the money, he’s just glad no one was hurt. He continues to list lost items. “Over there’s where I started the fire” randomly enters his list of items. He goes to continue for a second, before seeing the Paddington Bear stare upon him and acting like a Scooby Doo villain foiled by those pesky kids. Genius.

He’s not just a man with a witty tongue like his heroes though, our Shaun. He also possesses elements of Buster Keaton that are hard to express in words. Almost aptly.

But witness the Wine Cellar sketch.

And the Drunk Room sketch.

Please do, this’ll still be here when you get back.

The moment when the husband passes the painting, only to “fix it” and then dust his hands with a satisfied smile is one of my favourite comedy moments.

“ I have been saying that I’m used to sprints and the book was more like a marathon, but I think it’s more different than that: I think writing sketches is like jogging for a bus and that writing a book is a like swimming the Channel.”

It is a great shame Micallef is not better known in this country, as he would be quite popular. He mines the great British surrealism strand quite well, and for all those who claim he is too Australian orientated in his satire for British audiences to make sense, well, Jon Stewart is very American centric, being American, yet we still lap him up.

“I’m sorry. We did the best we could.”

“But he only came here with a broken wrist.”

“Yes, well...I’m afraid there were complications.”

“What sort of complications?”

“I threw him out the window.”

Micallef’s Doctor attempts to console some parents.

His humour is strange. Sometimes it dives well over the thin line of good taste. Yet there is a quintessential brilliance at the heart of Shaun Micallef that deserves a wider audience abroad.

I link to a select few favourite sketches below:

“I want to do sketch but sketch is very hard to do now because of budgets. You go to the ABC with a sketch show and they’ll say it’s a light entertainment programme so the budget they offer is sufficient to make Spicks and Specks but it’s not sufficient really to make a sketch show.”
(Meat Boy, a new TV show for kids)

(Better Homes and Gardens)

(The Death of the Australian funeral industry) 

"If you're like me, it's possible you're a clone generated from my stolen DNA. I suggest you turn yourself in for destruction immediately."

Elena Baltacha

It seems likely we have seen the last match in the career of Elena Baltacha, so here is a moment to celebrate one of Britain’s finest, and unheralded, athletes.

Not a footballer. Not a rugby star. Not even a Judo star. But a tennis player.

To be a professional sports star in Britain is in many ways to take on the mantle of permanent criticism. Beyond the idealism of Premiership football, and in most disciplines, the most press a sports person gets is when they lose out on something, and then it’s so the press can get the knives out. This is more so in tennis, where to the mainstream press, it is Wimbledon or nothing. No matter what a tennis player does in their career, if they fail to win this specific Grand Slam (something currently done by about 5 out of 20, 000 active female tennis players, incidentally) then they are forever a failure. To deal with this, you need an incredible thick skin. To come back from a near fatal liver condition, deal with it, and wind up playing better than you did before? That takes more guts than any of the press charlatans have put together.

The daughter of USSR football ace Sergei, Elena Baltacha was born in 1983, and grow up in Scotland after being born in Kiev. She grew into tennis, and by age 18 was showing flashes of potential brilliance, having won Fed Cup matches and produced some fighting displays at Slam level. Then came disaster. Cholangitis is not an illness that rolls off the tongue, but the primary issue – inflammation of the liver causing blockage of the bile ducts – is serious enough. How serious? It can cause death within ten years in untreated cases. Even successful treatment might shorten considerably a lifespan.

No one could have forsaken her had she given up at these odds being thrown at her, but this was not to prove Elena’s style. Vast surgeries put her out of action for the majority of 2003.

“ if someone had told me that I would end up playing people like Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters, competing at all the grand slams and on the WTA Tour, I wouldn’t have believed them. I’d be feeling so exhausted all time time in the months leading up to the diagnosis and it was hard to imagine ever being fit to play again.”

Baltacha returned to tennis, and competed at a high level in spite of her ills for the next eight years. One of the first women in some time from Britain to qualify for all four Grand Slams, she was left holding the flag for British womens tennis in the barren years before the recent appearance of Heather Watson, Jan Konta and Laura Robson to take the pressure off, as well as the later career resurgence of Anne Keothavong. She was never going to be winning any Slams – though her performances were often exemplary, especially her two third rounds of the Australian Open, in 2005 and 2010.

But let’s put this into perspective. This girl needs to take ten pills a day to prevent her condition becoming fatal. Yet she’s been a consistent top 100 player for vast quantities of the last five years. That takes an effort and a heart, which is beyond my comprehension.

It does bring up issues. See the controversy stirred up by certain papers and commentators over her pulling out of the New Dehli Commonwealth games in 2010, under doctors advice about the environment being detrimental to her condition.

Elena Baltacha is now patron of the Children’s Liver Disease Foundation.

So bloody brilliant? I’d certainly say so.

Next time, we met a football manager never short of a witty retort, yet with a heart of gold, and a woman who managed to win respect and fight for female equality in that most male of environments: pro-wrestling.

I can't wait to find out who, and I'm writing these...

Monday, 6 August 2012

Only A Joke?

Trigger warning - rape

This week I was watching RAW. Yes, I watch pro-wrestling, it's my Corrie, Emmerdale or Eastenders. Anyhow, I was watching RAW, and in the midst of a rather middling episode, one of the performers, Abraham Washington, on a live microphone, said:

"[Wrestler] is like Kobe Bryant in a Colorado hotel room: unstoppable."

Hohohohoho no.

WWE apologised for the incident, but the performer appears to have got by without much worries, he still had his live mic section on the next show. It was, after all, only a joke.


I remember a while ago, an anonymous relative of mine randomly made a rape joke in the middle of conversation. They were a bit confused as to why I took it so badly.

A while after, one of my uni pals made a similar joke but more specific about someone in general. I responded by telling him he'd crossed the line, getting up and storming out of the pub. OTT? Perhaps a little, but it got the point across. He apologised next time I saw him, and in the years of hanging out after, never made a single similar joke in my presence, at least.

(Before I step forward, I feel the need to protect someone’s good name here. As the only one of my male uni pals, who has a public platform, as being one, I assure everyone this wasn't Shim. He in fact is the only guy I know who has less tolerance for such things.)

The point, neither of the two joke tellers would have, as far as I know, ever hurt a woman in their lives, and would have been genuinely sickened at the thought. Yet they told rape jokes without even thinking.

Now a defence of such jokes that has come out recently is that it is good to laugh about traumatic things. Hence 'The Producers'. Now, I'll accept humour as the best defence and medicine, true, but I'd say there's a slight difference, ever so slight, between Joan Rivers making jokes about her life as a form of therapy and some male comedian who thinks he's the next Frankie Boyle cracking a joke about the crying lass to "lighten the mood".

I admit with my cards on the table that I have personally been affected by the crime, on account of two friends that I know of at least. That's all I need mention. However, it doesn't change my views, as I'd have had them anyway.

I've been trying to write a story about the aftermaths of a rape case for the best part of seven years. Trying being the operative word. (It incidentally would show no actual rape scene, only the effect in months to come. As friend of, I know that bit. In addition, as friend of, you carry the personal shame longer than the bloody rapist, forever thinking of how you should have stopped it happening, regardless of distance, age at the time and in one case, not having even known the person then.) It's just too sickening a topic to write about, even in the abstract.

As sickening was the repeated treatment my fellow writer, Lorrie, has received over the past month and more, for the harrowing crime of defending rape victims against Twitter idiots. I even get my first hate Tweet in defending her, because bloody hell, I'm not going to sit back and watch that. (Though Lorrie seems far more adept at tackling these people than I am, but that's beside the point -she shouldn't have to!)

It’s sort of amusing. As a writer, I have commented on: Palestine/Israel, student activism, the Old Firm, anti-racism, and other lightening rods for replies, yet the first hate mail in any form was due to defending a rape victim. Actually, that's quite tragic.

Besides, Lorrie and others seem to be attacked for the crime of being feminist. There's nothing wrong with that. (The only feminists I wouldn't get on with are the ones in that BBC documentary who abandoned their children and who claimed all women should be lesbians as "sexuality is a choice, not something you are born with." And you know what? I've never met anyone like that, just as I've never met someone on ESA who wasn't a genuine claimant, and I have never met an asylum seeker who wasn't a genuine case. If there is a minority, then I am sorry for them, but it shouldn't get in the way of the vast majority of innocent folk.)

One night, several years ago, I was meeting pals to go to a nightclub. Outside the pub we were meeting, a girl (about 20 at the most, though I fear she was a damn sight younger) was falling about the place. Smelt of booze, yes, but not that much, which made me a bit worried she'd had a fit or something. The bouncers were being utterly hopeless. She got to her feet and leaned on me for support, and tried to engage in chitchat. (I might have been being chatted up, I'm not very sure about these things, she did suggest going for a drink, I was too worried she was going to collapse again.) Anyhow, she decided she couldn't get back into the pub, so started walking down the street. And fell over. At which point my friends came along - female ones - and they were desperate to leave the scene immediately. And I did start to walk away, but the street was quite busy, and I noticed no one was trying to help this woman. So I came back, and helped her up. She was so out of it she was slurring badly. There was a taxi rank across the street and next to the train station so, with my friends grumbling about it, I led her to the taxis. Once inside one, she kind of knew where her mum lived (but not where she lived) so I paid the taxi driver £30 in advance and he drove her to her mum.

It didn't even occur to me that she might have been drugged until I spoke to Shim about it a few days later.

Now, I know now that's not how you are meant to deal with such things. You should phone the cops, or take the person to the hospital or something like that. I was 18, and hadn't a clue what to do. I was waiting for one of the grownups to do something, anything, and none of them did. And throughout it all, I was increasingly worried as I noticed that no one, not the bouncers, not my friends, not the many hundred people who passed us, seemed to give a care. Someone else's problem. Someone more predatory than me would have had a field day. Which disturbed intensely, and more than anything is the reason I can recall the entire scene very well today when I cannot remember what I had for breakfast.

Now a writer, a female writer, of some repute who I will again keep anonymous would have labelled this "heroic", because "men who don't rape are heroic". This is bollocks to me. Reminds me of that Chris Rock bit. "I look after my kids...YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO!"

Nevertheless, her point was that rape is prevalent in society that by her thinking those who didn't even consider it were abnormal. Or so it seemed.

This is why I draw the line. Humour is subjective, yes, but there's no humour in something so bloody widespread.

Now, someone who might think I am taking things too seriously, I would point in the direction of Sarah Lauren Scott's comments on the matter, as they chime with mine, and really gave me the impetus to write this.

So I will stand up if I see someone make one on my Twitter feed. Or someone makes such a joke in the pub, or train, or elsewhere in my presence. And I do hope the WWE make an explanatory apology for their incident, though I don't hold my breath.

It's very simple, to me.

The more people who DO come out and say "That is not acceptable", the more public the idea of it being unacceptable is, the more we can knuckle down and deal with the crime itself and stop being waylaid by apologists.

Because covering up a joke with "it’s only a joke" when the stats suggest you have a damn good chance of making the joke in front of a victim is unacceptable.

EDIT - Shortly after this was published, WWE released the wrestler in question from his contract.