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Brian Cox

snp1On the day that Labour launched their manifesto, actor and Rector of Dundee University Brian Cox gave his backing to Alex Salmond and the SNP at this election as the party to “hold the line against tuition fees in Scotland.”

In a statement, Brian Cox said: “As a lifelong Labour supporter, I find myself in this particular election feeling that I must support Alex Salmond and the SNP. The SNP has a vision for education in Scotland and the experience to ensure that they see it through.

“Alas, my position as Rector of Dundee University supersedes in this situation my hitherto strong Labour Party affiliation. At this juncture, I feel that Alex Salmond’s policies are the right policies to hold the line against tuition fees in Scotland. I believe passionately in free education and know that as long as Alex is First Minister, he will defend this principle.

“It is because of his leadership on the critical issue of higher education that I am happy to endorse Alex and hope to see him re-elected in May.”

Welcoming Mr Cox’s statement, First Minister of Scotland and Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond said:

“It is great to have this endorsement from one of Scotland’s most famous sons, and on the positive policy of supporting free education. For all Brian’s fame and international reputation, he is a dedicated and passionate supporter of the principles of Scottish education, and his welcome remarks will carry wide appeal across Scotland.”

Elsewhere in the campaign, Nicola Sturgeon praised the commitment of Scotland’s NHS staff to driving down hospital infections as new figures showed further progress in driving down hospital acquired infections.

New figures out today show c.diff rates in the over 65’s have fallen by 77 per cent in the last four years.

MRSA rates, despite a small rise in the last quarter, are down 31 per cent on December 2009 and 63 per cent over the last four years.

Health Secretary and candidate for Glasgow Southside Nicola Sturgeon said:

“After four years of hard work by nurses and cleaners across the NHS we have pushed down infection rates to a record low and cleaned up our hospitals. We must always be vigilant against hospital acquired infections and a re-elected SNP government will redouble our efforts to improve standards for Scotland’s patients.”

Also weighing in on the election bout yesterday, Finance Secretary John Swinney criticised Labour’s manifesto position on jobs and youth employment, saying it had “zero credibility”, given their responsibility for the recession and high unemployment.

Mr Swinney said: “Labour’s economic incompetence caused the recession and high unemployment in the first place – they have zero credibility on jobs. Unemployment is falling and employment is rising in Scotland under an SNP administration. People will put far more store on Labour’s failed record than on Iain Gray’s hypocrisy and empty rhetoric.”

Commenting on Labour’s manifesto publication, the Scottish National Party’s Scottish Parliament Campaign Director Angus Robertson said:

“Labour’s uncosted manifesto was a damp squib. Iain Gray had nothing new to say, having spent the campaign copying SNP policies that he has voted against over the last four years – the Council Tax freeze, free education, Small Business Bonus, and retaining A&E units.

“Labour’s manifesto has already started to crumble – they have no credible costing for their justice policy, for example, and Andy Kerr clearly had no idea how it would be paid for or how it would work.”

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Photo by: Alessio Trerotoli

Photo by: Alessio Trerotoli

The biggest theatrical event of 2011 – in Britain anyway – is based around an Academy-Award winning director retelling one of the most recycled tales of all time. Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, based on a play by Nick Dear, will please some of the following people:

Dear confronts many of aspects of Mary Shelley’s story in his screenplay – Dr F and his creation are not transported to the 21st century place where Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss dragged Sherlock. The concept of the two as co-dependents (the staple incidentally of many a sitcom from Steptoe & Son to David Brent and his staff) remains. As is the out-of-control monster, echoes of Paradise Lost, the locations of the North Pole, Orkney and Geneva, and the cold parental presence as drawn by Shelley, and most of all the searing pain of loss. All are present and correct here.

Film fans
The National Theatre are simulcasting performances in cinemas in the US and around the UK as they did when Helen Mirren graced its stage in Racine’s Phedre, and when they ‘screened’ Alan Bennett’s last play The Habit of Art. No cinemas in Stromness has signed up for Frankenstein yet. Cinemagoers will have a chance to see both principle actors play the roles of doctor and creation on 17th and 24th March.

Fans of Benedict Cumberbatch & Jonny Lee Miller
Benedict Cumberbatch’s rise to prominence has burnt slowly in roles on TV and film until catching fire over the past 18 months with his role as Sherlock, and a part in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of National mega-hit War Horse. Boyle and Jonny Lee Miller’s first collaboration since Trainspotting displays the versatility of the first Mr Angelina Jolie. After the wisecracking Sick Boy, the conflicted George Michael fan in Eli Stone, the last series of serial killer drama Dexter and our own Graeme Obree, the very physical demands of The Creature see yet another side to him.

Repeat attenders
On the night I attended, Cumberbatch was playing Dr Frankenstein with Lee Miller as the creature. As the parts are strikingly different, either viewing of the play would be too. Just as cinemagoers went twice to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, so theatre audiences may well want to see two actors each play very contrasting roles.

National Theatre admirers
Platforms have been organised around this play, on Mary Shelley’s character, Damage author Josephine Hart looking at the poetry of the time, Dear and Boyle talking about the adaptation, particle physicist Professor Brian Cox’s look at the science around it, and critic Kim Newman looking at the other film depictions of Frankenstein’s monster.

For those not planning on travelling to London currently grumbling, the platforms are unlikely to go on tour but many of the National’s productions do – even to Luxembourg.

The film rights for Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon were snapped up when Apollo 13 director Ron Howard saw it on the Donmar Warehouse stage in London’s Covent Garden.

Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro and Helena Bonham Carter had a go in 1994 and of course Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 but with Boyle’s track record, you’d predict movie moguls will be sniffing around options here.

Not everyone will fall for Frankenstein. One of Danny Boyle’s trademarks in his films is a kinetic energy. Action, normally one of Boyle’s strong suits, is not that obvious here. The play takes half an hour to get going and as it doesn’t employ an interval, it lacks aspects of cliffhanger potential, theatrical acts employ. Horror. an expected part of the Frankenstein story, is in short supply too. There are only a couple of jump-out-the-seat moments.

The dialogue takes third place to the suspense and Mark Tildesley’s design and the performances of Lee Miller and Cumberbatch.

The music from Karl Hyde of Underworld is understated to the point of being hidden. Having said all that, Frankenstein is almost certainly a (sorry) monster hit and a superior piece of commercial entertainment. Whether London’s regularly picky theatre critics, who wield scalpels sharper than any owned by Dr Victor, will love it is more doubtful. Like the doc’s creation, many will not be able to take their eyes away from it but it is certainly not without its rougher features.

Aberdeen Word festival logoScottish literary icons, thorny scientific issues, funny women and verbal/musical hybrids all feature prominently in Aberdeen’s 10th Word festival, a three-day programme of readings, talks, performances and panel discussions featuring well over 50 writers and thinkers.

Reflecting the rude current health of Scottish writing, together with its richly diverse heritage, home-grown authors both living and late form the backbone of the line-up. There’s a double meeting of heavyweights, for instance, as Robert Crawford and Stuart Kelly meet to discuss their respective biographies of Burns and Scott. The great Aberdonian storyteller, ballad singer and folklorist Stanley Robinson, heir to generations of travellers’ tradition, is the subject of a special tribute following his death last year.

Edwin Morgan’s 90th year is celebrated firstly by an array of fellow Scots scribes reading their favourite Morgan poem, then in this year’s Linklater Lecture, an assessment of his life and work by Allan Riach. That inimitable vernacular bard William McIlvanney will open proceedings with Word artistic director Alan Spence, plus Ireland’s Bernard McLaverty, in a reprise of the festival’s first-ever event back in 2001, when it debuted on a budget of just £1,000. Spence will also be launching his latest poetry collection Morning Glory, featuring illustrations by Elizabeth Blackadder.

Other leading Scottish names on the bill include Janice Galloway, Denise Mina, Louise Welsh, Allan Massie and James Robertson, while Scotland’s biggest recent publishing success-story is showcased at the late-night Canongate Irregular Club, with contributions from Louise Welsh, Dan Rhodes and Robin Robertson, music by Black Diamond Express and DJ Francis Bickmore.

They’re complemented by a strong international contingent, among them the distinguished Polish novelist Stefan Chwin, Sierra Leonese rising star Aminatta Forna, Spain’s multi-talented and outspoken Lucia Etxebarria and from Guatemala, the poet Humberto Ak’abal, who writes in his native K’iche’ Maya language. Red Riding author David Peace, meanwhile, will be reading from his current trilogy set in Tokyo, where he now lives, with last year’s movie The Damned United, adapted from his novel, being screened earlier the same day.

Now for the science bit…

Simon Singh has written bestselling books about mathematics, cosmology and cryptography, but is currently best known for the controversy triggered by his latest, Trick or Treatment?, co-authored with Professor Edzard Ernst, which challenges the efficacy of some alternative therapies, and which saw him sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. After the Royal Courts of Justice allowed his appeal early last month, his talk will range across all these diverse issues.

If you’re one of the many who’ve never really got their heads around Einstein’s theory of relativity, then Jeff Forshaw, who co-wrote the book E=mc² with celebrity physicist Brian Cox, promises to explain it all, while four contributors to the recent study Fat Matters: Behind the Female Body offer a medical and sociological perspective on obesity and the “ideal” female form. Sharing their tales of where the wild things are will be naturalist and presenter Simon King, discussing his Shetland Diaries, and intrepid TV adventurer Benedict Allen, whose latest title Into the Abyss explores the psychology of survival.

Supplying some high-quality light relief – albeit not without its darker edges – will be Pauline McLynn, aka Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, who’s also the author of seven books including a private-eye trilogy, and our own Karen Dunbar, performing her Edinburgh Fringe hit A Drunk Woman Looks At the Thistle, scripted by Denise Mina.

Veteran actress Linda Marlowe also appears in a one-woman show, The World’s Wife, based on a verse sequence by Glasgow-born Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Further alternatives to straight-ahead literary fare are on offer in the shape of Scottish Opera’s latest 5:15 programme, five brand-new short works deploying contemporary writers – including Spence, McLaverty, Ron Butlin and Zoë Strachan – as librettists, and a Saturday-night concert featuring, The Weather Journals, a new collaboration between Lewis musician Iain Morrison and Gaelic poet/storyteller Dabhidh Martin.

A final coda to the festival comes with the closing event in its Word Extra fringe programme, a showing on Tuesday of the 2005 film F*ck, a lively, part-animated documentary exploring the etymology, ubiquity, media history and cultural significance of arguably our language’s most densely loaded word.

- Various venues, Aberdeen, May 14-16

BBC6 logoOne of the last reviews on Jonathan Ross’s Film 2010 was for Matthew Vaughan’s new movie, Kick-Ass: “It’s a winner.” In the interests of full disclosure, Kick-Ass was written by Jane Goldman (Jonathan Ross’s wife).

It’s possible the DVD will be released around the time of the Film 2010 debut of Claudia Winkleman this autumn. In the interests of full disclosure, Kick Ass was produced by Kris Thykier (Claudia Winkleman’s husband.)

Let’s be clear before there’s a lawsuit. The new host of Film 2010 being married to a film producer doesn’t have to be problematic. This is not a question of conflict of interests. It’s a question of too many interests.

Claudia Winkleman is a kooky gun-for-hire, who presents Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two, Comic Relief Does Fame Academy, Hell’s Kitchen, Eurovision: Your Decision.

The BBC has chosen her to host Film 2010. With all due respect to Claudia Winkleman, this is a big mistake.

Jonathan Ross got away with it because he has a film nerdery for everything from obscure Gothic horror, Russ Meyer and everything comic book. When he interviewed Quentin Tarantino about Inglourious Basterds, he made it clear he was familiar with the 1978 Italian B movie original without being ostentatious.

At a time when the Beeb needed to restore its credibility after keeping BBC3 while planning to axe 6Music, they’ve played it safe and gone light entertainment in a specialism many take very seriously. The last time they did this, George Lamb joined 6Music. Result: revenge of the music nerds, and Lamb now starts his working week at 7am on a Saturday.

Appeasing a dumbed down audience is pointless, particularly when you’re justifying why you offer distinctive quality, not ratings, as the BBC has to. No-one would complain if they axed Fearne Cotton’s R1 show (they wouldn’t dare) but touch The Archers or the Today programme and the listeners are up in arms.

Film 2010 deserves to be fronted by a cineaste of record – the co-presenter of Let’s Dance for Sport Relief does not reassure. TV presenters are everywhere. They give them chat shows (Davina, Justin Lee Collins), let them host their own radio shows (Vernon Kay, Richard Bacon) and even ask them to present Question Time (Dermot O’ Leary).

Experts, from Sir David Attenborough to Jools Holland, from Jonathan Meades to Professor Brian Cox and even – whether they’re to your taste or not, Simon Cowell, Sir Alan Sugar and Gordon Ramsay – are rarer. They bring a unique expertise to the party. Telly presenters are ten-a-penny.

Therefore, when you get a film critic with a theory on everything (even The Hottie and the Nottie), a thesis on horror fiction under his belt and a talent for broadcasting like Dr Mark Kermode, the BBC should have regarded it as a gift.

Instead they saw it as a challenge. Don’t be fooled by Kermode publicly ruling himself out – he’s made it clear they wanted a general show full of interviews, just at the point the smart money was moving out of chat shows with dull PR-driven chats with film stars. They should have built the show around his talents.

If you thought it was about time the first woman since Joan Bakewell should get the job, critic Anne Billson had her admirers or, in modern parlance, her own Facebook page. Even Johnny Vaughan has written and broadcast about films in the past in a way that suggests he could have done it. Moreover, Midnight Run is one of his favourite movies. which recommends him.

This is not intended as a personal slur on Claudia Winkleman, who’s clearly bright, funny and loves her movies. The problem is she’s a general interest presenter when the job required a specialist. Her appointment suggests the Corporation has learnt nothing from the howls of protest around the closure of 6Music.