Monthly Archives: March 2014

I Can’t Sing!

The X Factor musicalYou’re watching one of those torture porn movies, like Saw or The Collection, in which human captives have their bodies mutilated, dismembered or painfully abused. You’ve paid your admission, bought your popcorn and are enjoying the opening sequences of the Grand Guignol. Then, the first grotesquery approaches, and you can barely watch; you clench your fists and prepare yourself for the bloodshed. You are mortified by your reaction– but enjoying it all the same.

That’s how I – and I suspect many other millions of viewers – feel when watching The X Factor, a television show that has a resilient charm and which returns to itv later this year for its eleventh series. The show features people with slender talent but limitless ambition, who are invulnerable to humiliation even when cruelly derided by members of a panel of judges. We watch not as observers, but as active agents who can cast judgement on the wannabe celebrities by just texting our votes.  The X Factor captivates us typically for five months of the year, concluding in December when the winner is elected. We start watching like anarchists and end up as participants in a cultural democracy.  Often the acts that don’t win our votes, like One Direction and Olly Murs, become more successful than the actual winners.

The show is a ratings phenomenon:  even in it’s declining years it attracts more viewers than Coronation Street. At its height of popularity in 2010 it drew 17.5 million viewers (that’s nearly 28% of the UK population) to their screens. It also thrives on a kind of symbiotic relationship with redtop tabloids, all of which carry gossipy stories, often scurrilous, on the contestants. And now it has even spawned a stage show (see picture, above). I Can’t Sing! isn’t the first musical based on a tv show. Corrie has been the subject of Street of Dreams. Jerry Springer Show, the template for so many shows, has also been the source of a musical, Jerry Springer: The Opera. Happy Days will also be a musical. There have been countless stage versions of movies, of course; so television is presumably the next logical source of inspiration. All the same The X Factor is a curious transposition: its plot notionally inspired by an unscripted, plotless talent contest that has plenty of humorous moments, but which is, if we dare utter this with a straight face, a talent competition.

There are uncertainties. For example, I Can’t Sing! will have an original soundtrack, which means audiences will not be familiar with the music and may not even like it. Unlike musicals based on movies with a soundtrack, such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Dirty Dancing, The X Factor tv programme has no original score, apart from its theme music. There has been one attempt to dramatize The X Factor-type shows. Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop Factor, in 2008, was a misfiring parody. It was one of shows you almost wanted to laugh at. Then you realized it couldn’t exaggerate or caricature The X Factor: in fact, it was more restrained and thus less funny than the show it was meant to lampoon.

So why take the risk? As I Can’t Sing! is written by Harry Hill, we can safely presume it will not have the solemnity of, say, King Lear.  Hill is a known commodity with a strong audience that’s receptive to his singular comedy. Then there is the original show’s fan base. The X Factor has accrued a loyal following. If only a small fraction of the millions who have watched the show avidly over the years are curious enough to see the musical, then the show will be a commercial success. Of course, those fans may also balk at not seeing the real Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh. Street of Dreams probably flopped because audiences were so inured to seeing the likes of Rita, Ken and Deidre on their tv screens five times a week that they couldn’t stand impersonators. In I Can’t Sing, actors will be doing their best impressions of Simon et al. They’ll be playing (irreverently, I assume) real figures, rather than dramatic artifices. And that could be crucial to the musical’s success.

It’s a gamble, but the kind a company like Colgate-Palmolive takes when launching a new dental product. The X Factor is a proven brand, so the musical will be an addition to an already-established range of products bearing its imprimatur. So, there is a commercial logic guiding this play. The same logic could deliver us other tv shows that have proven track records. A comedy drama like Benidorm seems a natural. Or even more serious shows such as Downton Abbey or Call the Midwife, both of which pull in eight or so million viewers in the UK alone. But please, please, please: not TOWIE. The programme’s paper-thin conceit surely couldn’t bear the weight of multilayering. Could it?

This is a slightly abridged version of an article that appeared in The Conversation.



Kick It Out poll reveals racist abuse still rifeA survey of all Premier and Football League clubs has confirmed that many players have witnessed racist abuse in stadiums or been directly subjected to discrimination. The poll, carried out by football’s Kick It Out campaign, also revealed an overwhelming backing – from the 200 players who responded – for the “Rooney Rule” to be brought into English football to give coaches from ethnic backgrounds more opportunities in the game. This was named after Dan Rooney (pictured above), owner of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. With my colleague Jamie Cleland, of Loughborough University, I’ve also conducted research on the reasons for the absence of black managers in English football. In this project 1,000 fans were asked to consider what is becoming an embarrassing absence of black football managers. Could a Rooney-style regulation work in English soccer?  If you click here you can read the full text of the study and decide for yourself … On BLACK FOOTBALL MANAGERS

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Should lives be lost or ruined because of something that’s meant to bring joy?”

Rumble In the Jungle Boxing

Just think of a world without sport. Almost unimaginable, isn’t it? No sports to provide us with those ritualistic actions that bring us together, or the traditions that transfer customs and beliefs from one generation to the next. Where would we look for the dramatic spectacles that set the adrenaline pulsing through our system, the savage, gladiatorial conflicts that have no counterpart in any other area of entertainment? Our pantheon of heroes would be seriously diminished without figures like Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth or Stanley Matthews. How we’d miss savoring the delicate skill, the unconquerable combativeness, and the occasional moment when art intrudes into the realm of competition and elevates a contest into an expression of sublime creativity. Sport can be overrated. But not by enthusiasts.

If we had to reconstruct history without sport, it would leave unbridgeable gaps. Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 would be missing. The “Rumble in the Jungle” of 1974, when Muhammad Ali reclaimed the world heavyweight title (above) wouldn’t have happened. Tiger Woods’ historic Masters win in 1997  just wouldn’t exist. Numberless people would have been destined to live in poverty if denied their only opportunity for advancement. There would be no camaraderie, or the filial relationships, the ritual bonding, the common causes that unite people. The peaks of triumph, the troughs of failure, the ecstasy and despair: we would never have experienced how sport can elicit all these. The color would be erased from otherwise monochrome lives.  The commerce, industries, media of communications, and employment sectors that have organized around sport just wouldn’t have materialized.

Surely, we would be worse off without sport. Wouldn’t we? Not according to some: they insist the world would be a better place. They’d argue that the clasp that sports have had on our hearts and minds has been unhealthy and led to all manner of despicable incidents. Sport may not have been the cause of the Munich atrocity of 1972 (above), when eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed, but it provided a global forum. The 95 football fans who were crushed to death at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, in 1985 (below) were gathered for one purpose – to watch a sporting competition: they surrendered their lives for a pointless game. Countless young people illicitly procure dubious substances and ingest them, often in dangerously high doses, for one simple reason: to win sports contests.

The Heysel tragedy, 1985

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These are the kinds of reminders that should us make scratch our heads and wonder: is this madness? Should lives be lost or ruined because of something that’s meant to bring joy? The answer is, of course, no. So have we lost the ability to make rational choices? Let’s consider one sports events that seems to offer an answer. Since its inaugural race in 1903, the Tour de France has been responsible for at least 30 deaths, of cyclists (including Britain’s Tom Simpson in 1967, below) as well as spectators. And riding a cycle over 2,130-miles along a track that takes in Champagne country, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast has no obvious utility. Yet, every year, 15 million spectators crowd along the cyclists’ path. All they see is a brief blur of 198 cyclists hurtling past en route for Paris.

The Tour de France is an exceptional event, of course: it remains one those competitions that excite people from around the world, turning rationality on its head. They forget the purpose of the epic ride – which was actually to promote a magazine – and flock to whatever vantage point they can just to catch sight of the competitors whizzing past. Spectators are familiar with the brutal side of this sport, but there is a momentary frisson at the sight of fit and doughty young men submitting their bodies to what is an almost inhuman ordeal, not for 90-minutes, or three hours, or even for the five days test cricket sometimes takes, but for three weeks, with only a couple of rest days.

Most major competitions are over in a fraction of Tour’s duration time, and take place in confined spaces that can accommodate thousands rather than millions. But, thanks to television, anyone who’s interested can watch from anywhere in the world. Association football’s World Cup is actually longer than the Tour and draws an overall audience 30 billion over 25 days, the final game alone drawing 1.7 billion people to their tv sets. That’s about a quarter of the world’s population. A figure like this makes the NFL’s Super Bowl seem like a private gathering of 200 million. Well, all this certainly looks like madness. After all, the sight of grown men cycling at breakneck speeds for three weeks, or eleven supremely fit and trained men trying to move a ball in one direction while another eleven supremely fit and trained men try to move it in the opposite direction serves no obvious function. Nor will the fruits of their labors bring any lasting benefit to civilization. It’s not as if they’ll take us anywhere nearer curing cancer, or bringing peace on earth or saving the planet. And unless we’ve staked a substantial wager on the outcome, we don’t stand to gain anything in material terms. In fact, we will, for the most part, be out of pocket. Enthusiasm for sports is truly universal and seemingly unquenchable: no matter how much we get, we thirst for more. And there’s no apparent let-up to our spending.


This is an edited version of the Introduction to Making Sense of Sports, 5th edition.




Sport is a metaphor for life: you win or lose, then you move onEllis Cashmore, professor of sport, culture and media at Staffordshire University injected a welcome dose of reality into the aspirations of young people, and their parents, when he pointed out this week that your child probably has more chance of winning The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent than they do of making it as a professional footballer. 
Ian O’Doherty, of the
Irish Independent, has just published this article based on my observations on the exaggerated importance we place on sport. It’s a provocative read — much better than my original argument. Click on the above link for the full text.

Ras Tafari: “Look to Africa … “

Caribbean leaders to ask the UK for apologies, repatriation and debt cancellation Elders of Ras Tafari are calling on European nations to help repatriate fellow Rastafarians to the continent that inspired their way of life. The demand is part of a growing campaign by Caribbean governments for reparations from their former colonial masters for what they view as the remaining ill-effects of the slave trade on the West Indies (click the link above for the full story). I was struck by this news. In the late 1970s, I studied for my doctorate at the London School of Economics. The focus of my research was what was then a perplexing, fast growing movement that had sprung up in all Britain’s major cities and was attracting all manner of negative labelling. Rastas were regarded with suspicion and blamed for street crime, drug dealing and, later, the riots of the early 1980s. The reaction had all the hallmarks of what used to be called a “moral panic.” My first book Rastaman was based on the PhD thesis (and, if you’ll excuse the shameless self aggrandisement) was recently re-published. Some years ago, I was asked to write a short essay summarizing the history and development of the movement. Here it is:

Arguably the fastest-growing black movement of the 1970s/80s, it first appeared in Jamaica in 1930 just after the decline in fortunes of the leader Marcus Garvey, who organized his Universal Negro Improvement Association around the ambition to return to Africa. “Africa for the Africans” was Garvey’s basic philosophy and he worked at mass migration programs, buying steamship lines and negotiating with African governments.

Garvey had some success in the West Indies (he was born in Jamaica), but was more influential after his demise, for he was reputed to have prophesied: “Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.” Around this prediction a whole movement was mobilized. In 1930, Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia and took his official title of Haile Selassie I. Garvey, at this stage, had slipped from prominence, but at least some black Jamaicans remembered his prophecy and made the connection between “the black king” Haile Selassie and “the day of deliverance” the return to Africa. The connection was reinforced by a new element added by new adherents of Garvey. They made the conclusion that Haile Selassie was not just a king but also their God and Messiah who would miraculously organize a black exodus to Africa (used synonymously with Ethiopia) and simultaneously dissolve the imperial domination of Western powers “Babylon” to the new Garveyites.

It’s worth noting that in no way did Garvey endorse this new interpretation of his philosophy. Indeed, he assailed Haile Selassie as “a great coward” and “the leader of a country where blackmen are chained and flogged.” Further, Garvey insisted on practical organization and de-emphasized the value of spiritual salvation; his new followers went in the other direction, making no provision for returning to Africa, simply awaiting the intervention of their Messiah, Ras Tafari.

However, what Garvey actually said was less important than what he was reputed to have said and, quickly, the new movement gained followers among the socially deprived black Jamaicans, hopeful of any kind of change in their impoverished lives and willing to cling to the flimsiest of theories of how they might escape their condition. They adopted the Garvey movement’s colors of red, black, and green (from the Ethiopian flag) and twisted their hair into long matted coils called dreadlocks as if to exaggerate their primitiveness in contrast to Western appearances. Some made use of ganja, a type of cannabis found in Jamaica, and even endowed this “weed” with religious properties. They used it in ritual worship of Jah (the form of “Jehovah” used in bibles before the King James version). Many took to the hilly inner regions of the island and set up their own communes, one celebrated one being led by Leonard Howell, who, with Joseph Hibbert and H. Archibald Dunkley, is popularly attributed as one of the original formulators of the new Garveyism.

Garvey remained a reluctant prophet, although a careful reading of his speeches and published comments reveals his great interest in Ethiopian royalty and his repeated use of biblical, often apocalyptic, imagery to strengthen his beliefs. “We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God,” wrote Garvey in volume one of his Philosophy and Opinions. His conception of a black god was also significant; he implored his followers to destroy pictures of white Christs and Madonnas and replace them with black versions. “No one knows when the hour of Africa’s Redemption cometh,” he once warned his followers. “It is in the wind. It is coming. One day, like a storm, it will be here.”

Periodically, the Rastas, as they came to be called, gathered at ports to await the ships to take them to Africa and, at one stage, a faction of the movement resorted to guerrilla tactics in a vain effort to assist the destruction of Babylon. More recently, the movement in Jamaica has gained a more respectable status and, nowadays, has become a vital cultural force on the island.

In the middle of the 1970s, the Rastafarian movement manifested itself in such places as the United States, England, Holland, France, New Zealand and Australia. Its growth was stimulated by the rise in popularity of Rasta-inspired reggae music which was given a personal focus by the almost prototype Rasta Bob Marley (1945–1981). It seems that the vision of a united African continent and a black god was a potent one. It was used in sharp counter-position to the imperial dominance of the West. Blacks feeling disaffected with society and searching for alternatives found in the movement a new force which upgraded blackness and instilled in them a sense of identity belonging to a unity.

Despite an infinite variation in interpretation of Garvey’s philosophy, two themes remained central to Rastafarian beliefs: the divinity of Haile Selassie (whose death in 1975 did little to dissuade Rastas of his potency in instigating the transformation) and the impulse to return to Africa – if not physically then in consciousness (as the Rasta reggae musician, Peter Tosh, sang; “Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African”).

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Email from H.G.

Subject: nature or nurture?
Professor Cashmore: I recently stopped off in the late twentieth century and had the opportunity of reading the fourth edition your book Making Sense of Sports in which you make reference to the Back to the Future films and venture to imagine what sports might have been like in 1880. Before we continue, I should perhaps point out that in 1898, I wrote a book entitled The Time Machine, which was popularly thought to be a work of fiction.  You are probably already anticipating that this was not the case: it was based on factual experience. I was visited by a time traveler who had constructed an appliance capable of carrying her through the fourth dimension of time and who kindly allowed me to journey with her, at first to the year 802701, where I made the observations that were recorded in my book.You can understand why I was so confident about my various predictions, such as lasers, which I describe in The War of the Worlds (which was published in 1898), genetic engineering, which I portray in The Island of Dr Moreau (1896). When I wrote The First Men in the Moon (1901), people thought it was science fiction. You’ll have to wait awhile to see – or not see – the inspiration behind The Invisible Man (1897).I have undertaken voyages into the distant future, when the sun no longer shines, and to what is, to you, the recent past. All of which leads me to the point of this communication: why are you still agonizing over what seems to me an unanswerable question: are we products of nature, or are we shaped, influenced, perhaps even determined by our environments? People have been struggling with this since the days of Plato (429-c.347 BCE). There’s no such thing as nature, plain and simple. And, in order to talk about an environment, you have to have surroundings and conditions that promote growth and development, and these are ultimately parts of the natural world, aren’t they? So maybe the whole nature versus nurture argument is based on a fallacy. Try thinking in terms of nature through nurture and see where this line of argument gets you. I’ll write to you again soon, next time with some observations from the future. I’m especially interested in how people, in the late nineteenth century, started to struggle against each other in what seemed a fruitless pursuit of pointless goals. In the 20th century, you called it sport. And in the 21st century, you became almost obsessed by it. Anyway, enough for now. More on this subject to come.
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Oscar Pistorius murder trial: Paddy Power prompts outrage by offering ‘money back if he walks’ betsQuestion: What’s all the fuss about? Paddy Power, the bookie, is offering odds on the outcome of the Oscar Pistorious trial. So what?  Gamblers bet on all sorts of events nowadays, don’t they? Answer: Yes, they do, but Paddy Power is taking bets on a premeditated murder trial, remember: 7/4 for a guilty verdict and 2/5 for not guilty. People are calling what is, after all, a marketing gimmick ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting.” Question: They have a point, don’t they? Answer: Well, I suppose Paddy Power would say the background to the case is not relevant; only the verdict. The trial is being televised ‘live’ and is bound to attract more international interest than any case since the O.J.Simpson trial in 1994. So the bookie would say he is just responding to the enormous interest by offering odds on the outcome. Question: Is he right? Answer: I think many people will regard this is crass and tasteless. But those are not the people who are likely to place a bet. The gamblers who are tempted by this will take a more neutral position and presumably conclude this is a big event worthy of a wager. Question:  Labour MP Tom Watson (see below), has campaigned for Paddy Power to pull the ad and donate to charities fighting domestic violence. The campaign already has around 110,000 signatories. Will he succeed?

PaddyPowertomWatson-Campaign-2013 Answer: No. Tom Watson is sanctimonious — he tends to make a show of being morally superior and, on this occasion, he risks coming across as holier-than-thou. If people find the bet offensive, they will just not place a bet. If a great many people are seriously offended, distressed, hurt or just disgusted by the bet, they will switch their bookies. This will damage the Paddy Power brand. But the bookie’s pre-tax profits rose to a record 141m euros (£116m) last year. So PP seems to have a reasonable marketing policy. Presumably, he feels confident that he’s assessed the mood accurately on this occasion. Either way, I think the punters should and will decide. MPs are not our moral guardians. @elliscashmore

Why do we take sport so seriously?

Click here for the original Daily Mail story


You could say I’ve been courting the unforgivable: let’s examine why sport and the competition it elicits are taken so seriously. After all, when you think about it, sport is useless: it’s a trivial, purposeless activity that has no obvious function, save for entertaining us — and, of course, separating us from our hard-earned money. Will sport offer a way of bringing peace on earth? Saving the planet, or advancing us closer towards discovering a cure for cancer? I guess, in its way, professional sport does its bit, working in collaboration with charities and other great causes. But just think about it: what is the point of eleven grown men trying to move a ball in one direction, while another eleven grown men try to stop them? Or grown men or women fighting hammer and tong in a roped-in space? Or adults chasing each other around a quarter-mile of track? Some might answer: they are engaged in the pursuit of excellence. But what is that excellence for? To compound my offence, I argued that parents were misguided if they encouraged their children to aim for a career in professional sports. Thirty years ago, parents would do everything in their power to get their children off the sports field and into the classroom. It’s testimony to the inflated importance of sport in contemporary culture that parents today see sport as a viable career path. They might just as well urge their children to shoot for a chance of winning The X Factor — and remember this much-maligned tv programme is often seen as a symbol of all that’s crass and valueless in modern society. Let’s be realistic: the chances of a young man or woman holding down a job in competitive sports for even a year are remote. “Hang on!” a radio presenter told me yesterday.”If this happened, we would get no more Jess Ennises or Andy Murrays.” So what? Ennis-Hill (pictured above), Murray and, we might add, David Beckham, Amir Khan and countless others, have given us great pleasure and perhaps satisfaction in being British. But, with the possible exception of Beckham who has aligned himself with good causes, the others have made little contribution to the world — the real world — outside sport. I like sport: I enjoy watching it, reading about it, talking about it. I even teach about it. But that doesn’t stop me thinking intelligently about it. Over the past twenty-four hours, there’s been plenty of media traffic about my argument — which, by the way, grew out of comments I made on air about how little we cared about the recent Winter Olympic games. I’m writing this merely to establish the context in which I made the remarks. Sport has become a prominent feature of society and it gives many of us great pleasure. But don’t treat it as a sacred cow — an institution held above criticism. You can respect something, but remain critical.  @elliscashmore