Monday, 16 May 2011

Through a Maoist looking glass

This astonishing poster is called: “In Following the Revolutionary Road, Strive for an Even Greater Victory.” Can you call it beautiful? There’s the enigma.
As a visual statement it’s electric and mesmerising. As visual documentary – a frame excerpted from history – it is... what? The talisman of a terror, totalitarian and mendacious?
We know nothing about the mind behind the brush beyond a date, 1970, and a workshop: Shanghai Revolutionary Publishing Group. Was she or he idealist or cynic? volunteer or conscript? Committed, socialist genius? artist with nowhere to go but “revolutionary” art? and what did the original audiences think? and if we could possibly answer any of those questions, would it (should it?) affect our perceptions?
The poster is part of a superb Chinese archive held by the University of Westminster. An exhibition, Poster Power: Images from Mao’s China, Then and Now, has just opened at the University’s buildings in Regent Street, London W1B 2UW, and runs until July 14.
If you can get there, do. I spent my journey back home on the C2 bus revolving all the antimonies that the exhibition provokes.
Alien to our celebrated British taste for the oblique, the ironic and the understated are the very titles of Chinese propaganda posters. Here are seven of them:

Produce more without waste
Pay attention to culture
Promote excellent quality goods, wholeheartedly serve the people
Work as hard as possible
Get rid of selfishness and develop public spirit
Make a greater effort to get ahead
Study hard and prepare to devote your efforts to socialist modernisation

And yet, sitting in a meeting room this week, I turned away from a wretched deck of PowerPoint slides, tuned out of a numbingly dogmatic presentation, and found myself confronted by a poster on the wall which was headed “Meeting Etiquette” and prescribed the following list of what are now called “behaviours”:

Prepare Carefully
Be on Time and Ready to Go
Clarify Purpose and Objective at Outset
Stay on Topic and Keep to the Point
Encourage All Persons Present to Contribute
Let People Finish Their Sentences
Minimise Secondary Discussions
Respect Different Points of View
Conclude Clearly with Next Steps and Actions
Follow Up on Your Actions by Agreed Date

The same poster was on the wall behind me, and appeared in miniature form on a table-stand. Its insistent capitalisations and suppressed definite and indefinite articles seemed to me to be borderline Maoist. Unimaginable, I think, that such exhortations would have appeared in a British meeting room even 10 years ago.
In Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, a female artist, Sabina, assays the world of “totalitarian kitsch” with which she finds herself involved in Soviet Russia; kitsch being propaganda which refuses to admit that there is ambiguity or shit and that ambiguity perplexes and shit happens.
“Whenever she imagined the world of Soviet kitsch becoming a reality, she felt a shiver run down her back. She would unhesitatingly prefer life in a real Communist regime with all its persecution and meat queues. Life in the real Communist world was still liveable. In the world of the Communist ideal made real, in that world of grinning idiots... she would die of horror within a week.”
A world of grinning idiots in which even the grinningly idiotic point of view is solicited and respected, although dissent may, after all, constitute a secondary discussion to be minimised?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Westward, TSW and the Cadbury ghost

[Archaeology: Westward/TSW complex, Derry’s Cross, Plymouth, 2011. Rubble covers the old studio and transmission areas; I used to work in an office by the four windows at the back; the canteen and bar ended where two vehicles are parked; new executives arrived triumphant and departed bruised just beyond the upturned tray, old drink can and squashed plastic bottle]

It annoys me that I never met Peter Cadbury. I arrived at Westward TV shortly after his final defenestration, which was rather like going on an exchange to a foreign family who’d just concluded a vicious divorce.
On one side were the remaining and new management: the parent left in possession of the home. On the other, the staff: his orphaned children.
Enmities. Flashes of inexplicable anger. Sarcasm. False smiles and denial.
I’d never before experienced anything like this (nor have I since). What was it about?
“There is, I suppose,” I’d said to Ronnie Perry, the MD, at my interview, “no chance that you’re going to lose this franchise?”
“Absolutely none,” he said, glancing away from me. Somehow, neither of us observed the large and scarlet writing on the wall.
The ghost of Peter Cadbury stalked the building. Test pilot, business buccaneer, street fighter and chocolatier manqué, he’d founded Westward, and it was his empire.
I had no idea exactly what he’d done wrong. As far as I could work out, it involved a flock of geese, an aeroplane, possibly a blonde, and rude letters written on company notepaper.
We had a wonderful time this weekend in Plymouth at the last Westward/TSW reunion, thirty years after Westward surrendered the franchise to TSW and twenty years after TSW, in its turn, was disenfranchised.
But to my surprise the Cadbury ghost was still around, more than a generation later, in the ballroom of the Duke of Cornwall Hotel. Westward was celebrated in speeches, TSW forgotten.
The Westward veterans never really forgave TSW, even though TSW was, in essence, Westward revived, reinvented and re-imagined: same studios, substantially the same staff, same philosophy – hell, they even kept Ken MacLeod, the rabbit and Clive Gunnell, even if the last of these mascots was consigned to an off-screen role.
Was there a myth that if Cadbury had kept the throne, TSW wouldn’t have succeeded in 1981, the ’91 outcome could have been different, and Westward might still be in Derry’s Cross?
Baudelaire wrote in his Journal: “God is the sole being who has no need to exist in order to reign.”
Down here on the planet, one occasionally comes across potent individuals who need to reign in order to exist.
I think Peter Cadbury was one of these. According to his Guardian obituary, after he was deposed from Westward “he remained bitter about his departure and had little success with other business ventures,” trying and failing to take charge first of MG Cars and then the Playboy Club.
While he wears his crown, this type of character has the gift of inspiring his followers to believe that their own existences – the very health of their commonwealth – depends upon the survival of the ruler and the continuation of his reign.
This is beyond rational explanation. We saw something of its magic at work a few days ago in the popular ecstasy elicited by the spectacle of a royal wedding.
After Cadbury’s first expulsion by his fellow directors, he fought back and was reinstated. After his second, the staff petitioned for a second restoration, which didn’t happen. A fatalistic mood descended. In the months after I arrived this mutated into a kind of gallows humour.
In a curious series of aftershocks – perhaps poetic (perhaps nemesis?) – the top corridor of TSW was hardly ever stable nor quiet, but almost continuously echoed with the stab and squelch of executives knifing each other in the back. By and large the rule was that, compared to his or her bright-faced successor, the senior officer assassinated was a superior intellect but an inferior politician.
But I don’t ascribe TSW’s defeat to this progressive deterioration of the collective IQ of the executive board, nor to the ghost of Cadbury finding its quietus at last.
In the retrospect of twenty years one can see that the whole franchise process was...
Absurd: big companies with muscle could bribe and bully rivals out of the arena and win back their franchises for relatively tiny sums. Little companies were forced to make extravagant bids they could scarcely sustain.
Deceitful: far from protecting the unique ITV brand – a federation of regional companies – it was unarguable from the start that the consequence would be the destruction of the federation and its replacement by a struggling monolith of depressed quality.
Corrupt: you might think the demise of Thames TV had nothing to do with Death on the Rock – I couldn’t possibly comment. And before the cap had even been unscrewed from the inkbottle, and a pen dipped in the ink to begin writing TSW’s franchise application, one of the top men on one of the top quality national newspapers said to me: “I know which companies are going to lose their franchises, and TSW is one of them.”