2004-03-29

Intolerance: Peter Ustinov

2004-03-22

Money: The miner who outsells Monet

2004-03-18

Intolerance: New TV controversy on Mary Queen of Scots

'Mary is seen as a sort of soppy woman who liked dancing and sex, and who was involved in her husband's murder. But that's not her story; that's her enemies''. 'In my end is my beginning .'
Never was a truer word spoken, or stitched, to be more accurate, for during her 18-year imprisonment before she went to the block, the ill-starred queen Mary Stuart enjoyed a pun, both in her needlework and in her often accomplished poetry. Mary, Queen of Scots, as they say, got her head chopped off - and an agonisingly botched execution job it was too - but more than four centuries later, she still refuses to lie down and die. Tragic martyr or warrior queen, saint or whore, begetter of folklore, romantic novels and movies ... not to mention patron saint of the Scottish heritage industry, Mary, Queen of Scots takes to the small screen again, a glamorous, distraught figure amid a squalid and violent 16th-century Scotland, on Sunday night, in 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot'. Jimmy Mcgovern Jimmy Mcgovern The two-part epic is the seasoned TV playwright Jimmy Mcgovern's examination of not only the story of Mary, but of her son, James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England, who brought the two kingdoms together in 1603. So the hoary old controversies are invoked once again, like a possession of disputatious ghosts: was Mary implicated in the murder of her husband and general cad Lord Darnley; did the Earl of Bothwell rape her or did she fall in love with him? Gillies Mackinnon Gillies Mackinnon Directed by the Scottish film-maker Gillies Mackinnon, 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot' also features a volatile portrayal of 'Jamie the Saxt' by Robert Carlyle, for whom Mcgovern has written some powerful roles in he past. And in an age when we are haunted by the spectre of international terrorism, the 'Gunpowder Plot of 1604' is held up as having resonances that run deeper and darker than 'penny for the Guy', as the conspirators agonise over the morality of what we now call collateral damage. Robert Carlyle Robert Carlyle Historians may roll their eyes at the portrayal of the 'Wisest fool in Christendom' as a rampantly bisexual conniver, obsessed with power and his twisted appearance, and forcing sexual favours in return for the cessation of the persecution of Roman Christians, and party to the execution of his mother as a justifiable route to a peaceful union between Scotland and England. But it is James's hapless mother, Mary who continues to fuel countless novels, plays, operas, movies and, indeed, TV dramas. Initially, McGovern was already involved in scripting a drama about Mary when the BBC approached him with a view to doing something about the 'Gunpowder Plot'.
'We decided to combine the two and show them both as TV films,' says McGovern. 'The historians will probably put the boot in, of course,' he acknowledges, with some prescience. 'They hate historical drama. It simplifies things, you see. 'Characters in a drama have to have clear motives. The dramatist chooses those motives as fairly and honestly as he can, and then he sticks to them. Unlike the historian, he cannot hedge his bets. Nor does he have the luxury of the footnote or the appendix.'
Cl�mence Po�sy Cl�mence Po�sy Blissfully unencumbered by footnotes, then, McGovern makes his first foray into non-20th-century historical drama, with 'Mary', played by the 21-year-old French actress Cl�mence Po�sy, arriving in a suitably grubby and haar-bound Leith, to be greeted by an unprepossessing bunch of dour Scots (a far cry from the ridiculously strutting and anachronistic pipe band which serenades Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March in the hopelessly romanticised 1936 'Mary of Scotland'). She finds herself in a Scottish court seething with hate, jealousy and duplicity, through which strides a grim and hungry-looking James Hepburn, 'Earl of Bothwell' (Kevin McKidd). The plot develops apace, with some gloriously cavalier dialogue - the foppish "Darnley" (Paul Nicholls) mocks a raging 'Bothwell' as 'a Scotsman in need of his oats', while 'Mary' dismisses the much put-upon- 'Bothwell' to go off and 'toss his caber'. Speech anachronisms aside, though, what historians may take issue with is the drama's presumption that Mary was deeply implicated in the murder of her unpleasant husband Darnley; also that she willingly went off and married Bothwell, who is often depicted as raping her and forcing her to marry him. So, does the historian's heart sink automatically when he or she hears of yet another impending dramatisation? Prof.John Guy of Clare College, Cambridge, author of a recent, acclaimed biography of Mary Queen of Scots, tends to think so -
'Although it is drama, not history and I'm not against that. It's just that it does seem a shame because the facts are so much more interesting that the fiction. But it's not really for me to criticise, because I'm not a TV or drama critic and I haven't seen it yet. '
Guy's recent biography on Mary, 'My Heart Is My Own', champions her as 'the greatest queen that England never had'. He believes she was traduced by the English, including faking the so-called 'Casket letters' which appeared to implicate her in Darnley's murder, and he believes that bad reputation has stuck with her historically.
'I think after the union of parliaments in 1707, somehow the Scots didn't re-investigate Mary possibly because of the Presbyterian tradition and she was a Catholic [Roman Christian]. And today, I think the Scottish nationalists tend to be republican, so they don't really have an interest in rehabilitating a queen. 'So the traducement continues, with Mary, seen as a sort of soppy woman who liked dancing and sex, was having an affair with Bothwell while Darnley was still alive and was involved in her husband's murder. 'But that's not her story; that's her enemies' story, that has come down to us through history because the English found it terribly convenient. We wouldn't really have heard of the Casket letters if William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth 1E's first minister, hadn't published them, in phoney Scots -- although I suspect the Scottish tourism industry has done very well out of Mary, the way she is.'
Remember, continues Guy, that we're talking about a woman who may have loved music and dancing, but she was no shrinking violet:
'She puts on a steel helmet, a gun in her holster, and rides at the head of her army, to chase the rebels out of Scotland in the Chaseabout Raid of 1565. 'She's incredibly powerful, but basically they murder her husband and she's brought down because she makes Bothwell her protector. That was sensible; he was the one noble who had been consistently loyal to the monarchy and could raise an army, he was financially independent because as hereditary Lord Admiral, he had the rights to all wrecks on the coast of Scotland, but the price of his protection was marriage to him, and that's where it all went wrong.'
Robin Bell, a poet who translated and compiled Mary's poetry in 'Bittersweet Within My Heart', believes we can expect countless more books, films and lectures about her,
'Because she is a very glamorous figure, but also a very complex one. All I would hope is that any drama or book takes the trouble to make her multi-faceted, because I think she deserves that respect. 'She was educated at Fontainebleau, arguably the most sophisticated European court of its day, and was brought up speaking many languages, as any young princess was - well, you never knew what dynastic marriage you were going to be stuck with. 'I find her so interesting because there are so many paradoxes about her. On the one hand she was committed to the faith in which she was brought up, a very European 'Catholicism', but on the other hand she was not averse to other people expressing their faith in their own way. 'What she didn't like was violence and intolerance, yet so often she has been turned into a one-dimensional shortbread tin figure, or the combined saint and whore. In fact she was a far more complex figure than that. 'The one thing for which you can condemn her without fear of contradiction was that she had rotten taste in men, but to have lost three husbands and three kingdoms by the age of 24 is not only bad judgment, but bad luck as well.'
Mary's best poems, Bell argues, rank inclusion in any broad-spectrum anthology of Scottish poetry and, he adds, the most interesting way of looking at Mary, is as 'a European dynastic figure whose culture at court linked Scotland with mainland Europe in a way that England was not linked at that time.' One historian who is rather less than enthusiastic about Mary is Dr.Jenny Wormald of St.Hilda's College, Oxford, who regards her as
'A grade-A bore. In the 17th century nobody really much cared about her. But once stuff started to be published, particularly the Casket letters, here was a drama: sex, murder, you name it '
While Wormald has yet to see the forthcoming drama, she expresses some strong reservations about what she has heard about its portrayal of James-6S1E :
'I think James was bisexual. He had kids but he also had male favourites. There wasn't much comment on this at the time, although there would be political comment, because these favourites had terrific influence.'
She dismisses, however, any suggestion that James-6S1E, may have forced sexual favours in return for halting the persecution of 'Roman Christians', and she regards any suggestion that he was party to his mother's execution as 'utter balls, frankly'.
'I mean, James had no reason to like his mother. He had no memory of her and she was a scandal and an embarrassment, but he did all the right things about protesting at her execution, before and after.'
But isn't this drama, not history? In retort, Wormald protests at what one might call "Braveheart" syndrome.
'Then why don't they make a drama about two people called 'Mary' and 'James', not attached to historical characters, which will make people think that this is real history?'
For his part, Gub Neal, producer of 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot' is cheerfully unrepentant:
'I firmly believe that good stories are good stories, whether they are based on historical fact or essentially embellishments of authenticated history. Drama is about interpretation; if you want to watch a show about the so-called facts of history, watch a documentary. 'At the end of the day, I think using history for drama, particularly television drama, is about exploring universal truths and whether that is about historical accuracy or taking a sequence of events and knitting a parable or story into it is irrelevant. 'I think Bobby Carlyle does really well as 'James', who was a very panicky, very neurotic and very intelligent man, but also a man who was fuelled by a lot of problems: he drank a lot, he was essentially orphaned when he was very young, psychologically he was a bit of a mess, really.'
He and McGovern draw parallels between the 'Gunpowder Plot' and today's threat of international terrorism:
'I think there is a universal comment there, that men who perpetrate violence will ultimately be undone by it.'
Certainly Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators meet a very sticky end. It will be interesting to see whether, following 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot', irate historians or outraged devotees of Mary call for further heads to roll. "Gunpowder, Treason and Plot" starts on BBC2 2004-03-14 Su 21:00. By Jim Gilchrist, The Scotsman, 2004-03-11 Th Links: Available on DVD at Amazon 'Mary, Queen of Scots: Pride, Passion and a Kingdom Lost' Jenny Wormald

Money: Budget Q&A: What it means to you

Will my pay packet be smaller? The chancellor has announced tax rates are staying the same, but tax bands will rise in line with price inflation. However, this has been seen as a stealth tax by some because incomes tend to increase more quickly than prices. Therefore an increasing number of people will be caught within the higher-rate tax band. All personal income tax allowances and age-related allowances for the tax year 2004-2005 were announced in the pre-Budget report. The basic personal allowance for people aged under 65 will be increased in line with inflation to 4_745 GBP for 2004-2005. There was some good news for self-assessment taxpayers. As widely anticipated, shorter tax returns will be introduced for more than 400_000 taxpayers from April. What about booze and fags? If you are a smoker you will be hit by another increase in duty - but much less than expected. Cigarettes are going up by 8p a packet.
'SIN' TAXES Cigarettes: Up 8p a packet Beer: Up 1p a "pint" Wine: Up 4p a bottle
There is good news for spirits drinkers once again. For the seventh Budget in a row the Chancellor has frozen duty on spirits. Duties on cider and sparkling wine will also stay the same. Beer and wine drinkers also got off lightly. The Chancellor is adding another penny on the price of a pint and 4p on a bottle of wine - the same rates by which they went up last year. I'm a first-time buyer. Is there anything here for me? There's nothing immediate here for people struggling to get a foothold on the property ladder. Many first-time buyers were hoping the Chancellor would raise the level at which stamp duty becomes payable.
STAMP DUTY RATES Up to 60000 GBP: 0% 60001 to 250000 GBP: 1% 250001 to 500000 GBP: 3% Over 500000 GBP: 4%
Instead, he has frozen stamp duty rates for the second year in a row.
'Given the speed at which house prices are rising more people will be dragged into the highest rates. In effect, freezing the rate while prices are rising is a classic stealth tax', said Anne Redston, tax partner at Ernst & Young.
The Chancellor has asked the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to consult on the affordability of housing, opening up a national debate on the issue. The move follows the publication of a Treasury-sponsored report by economist Kate Barker. It concluded Britain needed up to 140_000 extra new homes a year if housing supply was to keep apace with demand. What if I am thinking of investing in property? You will soon have another opportunity open to you. The chancellor has given the green light to a collective buy-to-let investment scheme, known as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS). These allow small investors with modest means to invest in diversified property portfolios, and will be more tax efficient than traditional property investing. The trusts were a key recommendation of the Barker review, and they are already operating in a number of countries, such as the United States, France, Australia and Japan. In turn, the government hopes that investor cash will be used to boost the provision of private rented accommodation, easing the UK's housing shortage. What about inheritance tax? There was no reprieve for families concerned about how rising property values have created an inheritance tax liability on their estates. The chancellor has only increased the current inheritance tax threshold of 255_000_GBP fractionally. From 6 April, the first 263_000_GBP of an estate will be exempt from inheritance tax, levied at 40%. I've got children. Do I get any extra help? Yes, as long as you are on a low income and qualify for the Child Tax Credit - a benefit for families with children. The Treasury announced in the pre-Budget report that as many as 3.7_million families and 7.2_million children will benefit from the increase, which will boost the amount people can get by as much as 3.50_GBP/week, or 180_GBP/year per child. I'm a pensioner. Will I get any additional money? Pensioners who have been lobbying for much higher state pensions will be disappointed. The chancellor has once again ruled out linking the rise in the state pension to earnings growth, which ensures the state pension keeps apace with wages.
PENSION GUIDE Full basic state pension will rise to 79.60 GBP for single pensioners and to 127.25 GBP Guaranteed element of the Pension Credit will rise to 105.45 GBP for a single person and 160.95 GBP for a couple.
Instead, the full state pension will rise in line with inflation to 79.60_GBP for single pensioners and to 127.25_GBP for a couple from April 2005. The poorest pensioners should qualify for the Pension_Credit, a top-up benefit for pensioners on low incomes. Those who qualify will be guaranteed 105.45_GBP if they are single, while couples will get 160.95_GBP. What about my private or company pension? High earners who have or are likely to build up more than 1.5m_GBP pension savings during their lifetime will have to study their options carefully.
LIFETIME LIMITS 2006: 1.50 million GBP 2007: 1.60 million GBP 2008: 1.65 million GBP 2009: 1.75 million GBP 2010: 1.80 million GBP
But for most people the new regime being introduced by the chancellor is good news. This is because the government is getting rid of a series of complex pension tax regimes - and introducing a single limit. It should make saving for a pension easier and more flexible than ever before. From April 2006, the first year of the scheme, the maximum amount you can have in your pension pot without suffering penalties will be set at 1.5_million_GBP and will rise to 1.8_million_GBP in 2010. Has the chancellor done a u-turn on council tax? Not likely. However, pensioners over 70 years old will get a 100_GBP payment. This will be paid in addition to the winter fuel allowance. Has the chancellor hit motorists again? Vehicle Excise Duty paid by every motorist is being frozen, and a 1.9p a litre rise in unleaded petrol and a similar rise on diesel will be delayed until September. This will add about 30_GBP/year to a motorist's annual fuel bill. As expected, Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) will rise, by 2.4p a litre. But the biggest hit was imposed on company van drivers. Company van drivers who only use their vans for work purposes, and for travelling to and from work, will have no tax at all. Those who use their vans for other purposes, such as picking up their children from school, will see their tax bill increase from 2007. Instead of a taxable benefit of 500_GBP, this will shoot up to 3_000_GBP with an extra 500_GBP if the employer provides free fuel. For a higher-rate taxpayer their bill would go up from 200_GBP to 1_400_GBP. I run my own small business. Will I be affected? As expected, the chancellor has introduced sweeping changes to incorporated businesses from 1 April 2004. Many small businesses have rushed to incorporate over the last two years because the chancellor introduced a zero rate of corporation tax on profits up to 10_000_GBP for limited companies in the 2002 Budget. The chancellor threatened a new tax regime for small "owner-managed" companies in the pre-Budget report, because he felt some of them were not paying the right amount of tax. He is introducing a new 19% rate of tax on dividends paid from small businesses to individual shareholders.
Higher-rate taxpayers
A small business is any company with profits up to 300_000_GBP. Ms.Redston said the move would lead to a rush of companies distributing their profits before 2004-04-01 in order to avoid the new tax. There was speculation that this new tax regime would sweep away controversial tax rules IR35 and S660A (husband and wife tax) but this hasn't happened. Small businesses will simply have an additional new tax regime to those they already have to face. However, there is a hint in the Budget documents that today's change is not the last word. The government has promised a "strategic" review of the dividing line between employment and self-employment. BBC News, 2004-03-18

2004-03-17

Money: Budget "Ends spending spree"

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown has been forced to end a three-year spending spree on public services in his annual budget but held out the promise of strong economic growth in the run-up to the next election. With tax revenues stagnant, Brown halved the rate of public spending growth in the next few years from the near five percent annual surge of recent years. He was bullish about the economic outlook, forecasting growth of a punchy 3.0 to 3.5 percent this year and next, which few economists would disagree with, for this year at least. 'The purpose of this budget is to lock in... an economic stability that can and will endure,' Brown told the English/UK Parliament, effectively opening the tax-and-spend fight that will help decide the next general election. As a key plank of the policy that swept Labour to power in 1997, Brown had been pouring money into Britain's neglected schools and hospitals. But now money is tight -- public finances are deep in the red -- voters remain dissatisfied with public services and the government's popularity has waned. The budget contained few big initiatives on either the tax or spend side, promising a war on government waste to save money and a cash boost for pensioners rebelling against local taxes. Marc Ostwald, strategist at Monument Securities, said:
'It's a tinker-man budget. It's what people were expecting.'
TAX SHY With a general election likely in just over a year, Brown steered clear of tax hikes to cover the shortfall but economists say rises are a near certainty if New Labour wins a third term.
The opposition Conservative & Unionists, trying to frighten voters out of electing New Labour again, say Prime Minister Tony Blair will have to tax his way out of the problem. 'This budget has made it clear that if New Labour get a third term, tax rises are inevitable,' said Conservative & Unionist leader Michael Howard.
Brown also effectively buried any chance of ditching the pound for the European single currency this parliament by saying Britain was still not ready to join the Euro, and that he would review its readiness again next year. BULLISH ON GROWTH In his pre-budget report in December, Brown suffered the embarrassment of having to revise up his estimate of this fiscal year's deficit to 37_000_million from the 27_000_million_GBP he had forecast in last year's budget. For the new fiscal year 2004-2005, starting in April, Brown predicted a shortfall of 31_000_million_GBP, a figure that analysts think is just as over-optimistic. On Wednesday, he raised borrowing by another 3_000_million_GBP over the next two years, saying the current fiscal year would end with a deficit of 37_500_million_GBP, followed by 33_000_million of borrowing in 2004-2005. Brown strived to boast instead of the economy's strong performance during the recent world downturn.
'In the past, Britain has been first in, worst hit and last out of world recessions,' he said, contrasting weak performers overseas with an economy in Britain characterised by healthy growth, slow inflation and low interest rates. The current run of uninterrupted growth, he said, was the longest for over 200 years.
Many forecasters, including the International Monetary Fund, think tax rises of up to 10_000_million_GBP will be needed in the next few years to ensure Brown meets his rule of balancing the current budget, minus investment, over the economic cycle. Ashley Seager, Reuters via Yahoo! News 2004-03-17 We (St.Patrick's Day)

Money: Budget "No" to Euro (Again)

Britain is still not ready to join the euro, Chancellor Gordon Brown says, appearing to rule out membership of the single currency this parliament. Presenting his annual budget, Brown said on Wednesday there was no case to revisit his five economic tests for Euro entry now but that he would review progress at the budget next year. Brown ruled last June that only two of his five conditions for joining the Euro had been met but said he would consider the issue again at budget time. But with the British economy powering ahead and the euro zone's lagging, hardly any analysts had expected Brown to offer a positive assessment at this budget. Reuters Wednesday 17th March 2004 (St.Patrick's Day)

Money: Housing will Crash, Take 4 Years to Recover

2004-03-01

List: The 76th Academy Awards