Who is to blame for ‘booze Britain’?

Normally as twinkle-toed when it comes to public relations as he is on stage, Sir Cliff Richard has tripped up a bit this week. Announcing a national tour to tie in with his 70th birthday, the Peter Pan of pop revealed at the same time that his Portuguese vineyard would be launching a brand new sparkling wine to mark this important event.

Unfortunately, the news broke on the same day as a national health report was published, suggesting that the growing problem of alcohol misuse should be blamed on the stolid middle-class tippler – on the kind of people who are part of Sir Cliff’s fanbase, in other words. While he is still in good shape, thanks to a daily dose of multivitamins and a high-protein diet, many of the lesser mortals who will be sipping the first vintage of Livin’ Doll Sparkling Wine, or whatever it will be called, are likely to be doing themselves and the national health an increasing amount of harm.

Britain’s great booze crisis, it turns out, has two very different public images. The one favoured by the media involves young binge-drinkers fighting, throwing up and flashing their knickers in town centres on a Saturday night. They are the irresponsible minority who were recently the focus of Tesco’s hilarious attempt to claim the high moral ground by calling for a ban on cut-price alcohol while at the same time promoting it in its stores.

Other supermarkets declined to join the campaign, arguing, in words echoed by Anne Milton, the public health minister, that they should avoid “penalising those who drink sensibly”.

Yet it is these respectable home-boozers who, according to Statistics on Alcohol: England 2010, are woozily leading the country into ill-health. The sale of wine has almost doubled since 1992. Between 2001 and 2008, alcohol-related deaths increased by almost a quarter. Today, 10 million people are drinking at what is described as “a hazardous level”. The married drink more than the single. The professional classes are the worst offenders.

I was reading these figures with appropriate disapproval when one statistic stopped me in my tracks. “One in 10 men questioned for the report admitted drinking on every day of the previous week.”

That was a shock. What on earth do the other nine do when six o’clock rolls around after a busy day? Can it really be true that I am in the worst-behaved tenth of the population when it comes to hazardous drinking?

It seems so. I am a national disgrace. Another area of small, guilt-free pleasure is under threat.

Second-guessing the genetic make-up of news

It is an interesting discipline to contribute to Radio 4’s new series Fact to Fiction. The idea behind the programme is that writers take a story from the headlines at the beginning of the week and write a 15-minute fictional monologue or playlet around it to be broadcast on the Saturday evening. The trick, obviously, is to select a news event early in the week which will still be topical five days later.

My first choice of subject was the creation of the first form of artificial life by the geneticist Dr Craig Venter, who was widely described as “the genome entrepreneur”. When Dr Venter first announced that a synthetic life form had been created, the news seemed to be of cataclysmic proportions.

It was the dawning of a third industrial revolution, we were told. The implications for humankind were so huge as to be unimaginable. The course of history had just been changed.

Here, I thought, was surely a story that would last the week. I was quickly proved wrong. Dr Venter’s history-changing cell turned out to have shorter news-legs than the winner of a talent show or the divorce of a footballer’s wife.

A non-geneticist can only guess as to the reasons why we all tired of it so quickly. Perhaps, like swine flu, it was a development which was not quite as earth-shattering as overexcited journalists first claimed. Maybe it was, but science has a problem holding its place in the riotous carnival of 24-hour news.

In the end, I opted to write a story (to be broadcast tomorrow at 7pm) around the industrial action by BA cabin crew. Unlike any genetic breakthrough, a British strike can be relied upon to have staying power.

When irony sets a dangerous precedent

Irony has become so hard-wired into modern sensibility it now offers unlikely career opportunities. One can actually break into the big time by creating a work so unutterably bad that it becomes a hit.

In America, The Room, a small-budget film made in 2003, is achieving this kind of success, playing to sell-out audiences in New York and becoming the subject of bewildered press coverage. YouTube clips have gone viral. Tommy Wiseau, its star (and writer, director and executive producer), now gets mobbed in the street.

Imagine a soap opera so bad that it makes Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques sketch seem underpowered. Add bizarre elements of a thrillerish plot, a hilariously clunky script (“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”) and acting of peerless awfulness, and you begin to get a sense of The Room.

Wiseau, the romantic lead, is a solid, long-haired lug with a weird German accent who would have been perfectly at home in Mel Brooks’s The Producers. For the innocent pleasure that his bold, confident lack of talent has provided, he deserves his moment of fame.

There is a problem, though, once badness becomes profitable. Inevitably a new genre will develop, with actors striving to take the low, ironic road to success. The glorious innocence of The Room, the sheer mad optimism involved making and releasing such a turkey, is what it makes it so funny and life-affirming.

Independent, Friday, 28 May 2010