Norwich’s finest is back on the BBC. His shambling persona is perfect for our political moment, says Steve Coogan

This Time with Alan Partridge.
 ‘It feels right’ … This Time with Alan Partridge. Photograph: BBC Studios/Andy Seymour

Last time Alan Partridge hosted a primetime BBC show, he was sacked live on air for punching his boss in the face with a turkey. Now that the world has “realigned itself along Alan lines”, Norfolk’s most famous radio DJ returns from years in the wilderness with This Time with Alan Partridge.

Steve Coogan said it “feels right” for his character to return now, particularly given Brexit: “There might be a missive at the BBC saying that a certain area of the viewing audience had been disenfranchised … Alan potentially represents that. You can imagine them thinking we might as well give this guy another bite of the cherry.”

In an act of arch self-satire that rivals its own W1A, the BBC has brought Partridge back to front a live One Show-style magazine programme. Partridge becomes the stand-in presenter after the beloved host falls ill. “He didn’t want to be back at the BBC,” said Coogan, “but when an opportunity presents itself, he had to jump at it.”

His creation has morphed over 25 years from “unreconstructed, uber-Conservative little Englander” to a more nuanced figure. “Now he’s a bit more like David Cameron. He’s economically conservative but he understands you’ve got to be socially liberal. He tries to embrace things and tries to be ‘on message’ … but he’s not really.”

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The humour has moved beyond just mocking people who are intolerant. “It’s funnier to go for people who are attempting to adopt what is known as correct thinking and not quite getting it right.” Today’s woke world is rich pickings for Partridge: “He does try to be in tune with the zeitgeist. You don’t feel like you’re flogging a dead horse because you can adapt him to the times and his attitudes will adapt.”

Originally created by Coogan with Armando Iannucci and Patrick Marber for the Radio 4 comedy On the Hour in 1991, Partridge has become one of the most popular comedy characters of all time, with shows including I’m Alan Partridge and Knowing Me, Knowing You. More recently, Coogan has worked with the writers Neil and Rob Gibbons on the film Alpha Papa and spoof memoirs I, Partridge and Nomad, as well as defecting to Sky with shows such as Mid Morning Matters and Scissored Isle.

In fact, Partridge is so familiar to fans the production can essentially rest on its laurels. “You can just remove all the comedy and have Alan looking seriously at the camera,” said Neil Gibbons, and be left with nothing more than “the anticipation of what he’s going to do.”

Alan with co-host Jennie Gresham (Susannah Fielding).
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 Alan with co-host Jennie Gresham (Susannah Fielding). Photograph: BBC/Baby Cow/Colin Hutton

The magazine show format lets viewers see Partridge’s rambles during live takes, as well as between-takes shots of his ego being soothed by Lynn, his long-suffering assistant. It also features Partridgean tirades on everything from hand hygiene (leading him to lurk outside the BBC toilets doing spot-checks on colleagues) to hacking.

There was one distinct problem of putting him in that setup, though, said Gibbons: “In the early days of Alan, there was a tightrope he was walking because there was an expectation of professionalism. If someone fluffed a line or got someone’s name wrong or said something stupid, it was mortifying. But nowadays, those are the sort of people who are given jobs on TV.”

He likened Partridge to presenters such as Piers Morgan. “The producers of Good Morning Britain are not tearing their hair out thinking: ‘I wish he’d stop saying something offensive.’ They’re thinking: ‘That’s why he’s on the show.’ We had to ignore that, because if you put Alan in a world where his crass buffoonery is part of the selling point, there’s nowhere for him to fall.”

The Guardian

Heard the one about the time she hit on Leonardo DiCaprio? Or the grim story of the ex-husband she married … twice? Hollywood’s most unfiltered actor spills all

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Tiffany Haddish: comedian, actor and, by some measure, the US’s most enjoyable celebrity, has a helluva story to tell. One that involves a stepfather confessing he tried to kill her; a mother with schizophrenia; an abusive ex-husband whom she married twice, and, well, that’s barely skimming the surface. But ever since her breakout role in the 2017 hit comedy Girls Trip, she has had different kinds of stories to tell. And, oh boy, is she good at telling them.

“So I shouldn’t tell this, but … When I arrived in London, I was staying at Salma Hayek’s house – she’s my friend now,” she says, with a grin that is half self-mocking for the name-drop and half endearingly excited. “And I get there and her house is like a PALACE. And she says: ‘OK, pick a room.’ And I’m, like: ‘First off, the fact that you tell me to pick a room is, like, AMAZING.’ Then she shows me her closet and it is the most amazing thing in the world, Gucci, whatever, EVERYTHING. And I’m, like: ‘I’ll sleep in here!’ Then she shows me her daughter’s old bedroom with pink walls, circle bed, unicorn stuff all around. And I’m, like: ‘I’m sleeping in here! I always wanted to be a princess, and this is a princess room!’”

By now, Haddish, 39, is so excited she is banging the sofa she is sitting on with her fists, a seven-year-old overcome in a toy store: “I mean, AMAZING!”

Haddish and I are meeting in a hotel in London, ostensibly to discuss her work in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. When the first Lego film came out in 2014, she was a little-known comedian who had spent the past decade hacking her way through small TV appearances (typical IMDb entry: “One episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, stripper number three.”) Now, just four years later, she is one of the main characters in the mega-earning franchise, appearing alongside Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Ferrell and, as is Haddish’s way, nearly stealing the film from all of them.

She is extremely funny as the shape-shifting blocks called Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (as in, “whatever I wanna be”), and the movie is a joy – but it’s clear pretty quickly that Haddish doesn’t have much interest in discussing it. (Me: “What did you think when you saw what your character looked like?” Her: “Never thought I’d play someone with blue eyes, but hey.”)

Haddish got her first break in 2015 on Tyler Perry’s soapy drama, If Loving You Is Easy, followed by a regular gig on the NBC sitcom, The Carmichael Show. When she finally shot to fame at 37 in Girls Trip, the riotous and raunchy film about four female friends, critics rightly compared her clearly star-making performance to that of Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. While the three other women were perfectly good, Haddish had so much vibrant charisma, she made the others look pale in comparison.

Since then, she has won an Emmy for hosting Saturday Night Live; is the star of The Last OG, a US comedy created by Jordan Peele and co-starring Tracy Morgan; and this year alone has four movies coming out. But alongside her comedy, Haddish has become almost as well known for her appearances on the US talkshow circuit, where she describes her adventures among the A-listers with a candour you never hear from celebrities.

Last summer on Jimmy Kimmel, she described the time she went up to Leonardo DiCaprio at a Beverly Hills party and told him: “So, I want to hit that – but I only want to do it to you as your character out of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” (DiCaprio played a mentally disabled teenager in the 1994 film.) DiCaprio – understandably – thought this was a joke and launched into the usual actor spiel about how he had prepared for the role, and what a great experience the film was. “And I was like: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’” Haddish says making a bored face. “‘But when am I gonna hit that?’”

 
 

Has she hit that?

“No – he never called me! He don’t want me!” she says collapsing on the sofa with an exaggerated sob. She is groomed like a Hollywood starlet for the day – hair straight, gown formal – but throws herself around like a slapstick comedian. “I better leave him alone before he says I #MeToo-ed him through the press, and I don’t harass him because I know he’s got a girlfriend. But when that relationship goes, I’m popping back up, like: ‘Hi, Leonardo!’”

I tell her that it’s so much fun to hear what it’s like on the inside of celebrity from someone who clearly still feels like they’re on the outside.

“I definitely, totally, feel like I’m on the outside. I mean, where I came from is definitely on the outside, and that’s what made me who I am,” she says.

It would hard to be more on the outside than where Haddish started. She was born and raised in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in South Central Los Angeles, and her Eritrean father left when she was three. When she was eight, her mother was in a car accident so serious it gave her brain damage and probably triggered her schizophrenia. Haddish suddenly had to look after her four half-siblings as well as her mother, who, when she got out of hospital, would regularly beat her and tell her that she hated her because she reminded her of Haddish’s father.

Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip.
 Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip. Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures

When Haddish was 12, her mother got into a vicious fight with a neighbour and accidentally whacked his baby with a plank of wood. The baby was fine, but once social services cottoned on to just how chaotic Haddish’s home life was, they intervened. Haddish was placed in a group home, where she was viciously bullied, then in a foster home where the grandfather would suck on her nipples, telling her it would make her breasts grow faster.

At what point did she realise she was being molested?

“Not until years later! Yeah,” she says with a shrug that seems more like an expression of closure and self-protection than lack of interest.

Eventually, Haddish’s grandmother got custody of the kids, and Haddish went to school, where she managed to hide the fact that she was illiterate until she was 14. A few years later, Haddish’s stepfather told her that he had cut the brakes in Haddish’s mother’s car when she’d had her car accident, in the hope of killing her and all the children.

“I’m supposed to be a millionaire and y’all supposed to be gone,” he said, according to her extraordinary memoir, The Last Black Unicorn.

Is she in touch with her stepfather now?

“Yeah, yeah, I just saw him this weekend in Vegas. He came to my show,” she says.

How does it feel to see a man who confessed to trying to kill her?

“Well, at least he confessed,” she says. But when she sees the expression on my face, she continues: “And, you know, I can’t PROVE he did it. Maybe he was just saying it.”

Um, why?

“Maybe to make me work harder or to appreciate life or … or … I don’t know. But I don’t hate him. You know, he fought in the Vietnam war, he was a sniper – he’s got his own little demons. God makes you pay for your sins, and if I hadn’t gone through that, where would I be now?”

When Haddish was 15 and back with her grandmother, she became so disruptive in school that her social worker gave her an ultimatum: psychiatric therapy or comedy camp. Haddish chose comedy camp, and, she says simply: “It changed my life.” One of the most heartbreaking parts of reading Haddish’s memoir, I tell her, is thinking of how many other kids – in LA, the US, anywhere – had similarly chaotic beginnings, and knowing she is the exception to getting beyond them. “Totally. I mean, I still live in South Central because it’s where I’m comfortable. But I know I’m blessed,” she says.

After finishing high school and getting kicked out by her grandmother, she gave up her tentative dreams of comedy and took various jobs, ranging from working in an airport to being, briefly, a pimp. Eventually, she decided to return to comedy. But she was regularly sexually harassed by comedy club owners – “They’d say: ‘So you want this, you’re gonna have to do that,” – and Haddish always refused. She was so broke that, for a while, she lived in her car. When her comedy colleague Kevin Hart heard, he gave her $300 for a hotel room for a week. Haddish, characteristically and correctly, shot back: “What? I cannot get no hotel room nowhere for 300 bucks.”

The two are still good friends, and regularly work together. Haddish is loyal to him when asked about the recent furore around Hart’s homophobic tweets, which led to him stepping down from hosting this year’s Oscars.

“First of all, he apologised for what he did years ago,” she begins, which is a somewhat debatable claim. But her second point is undoubtedly true: “So he was like: ‘Oh you guys don’t want it? OK bye.’ And he went to Australia and did a show for 35,000 people, and I think he made more money doing a comedy show than doing the Oscars.”

Haddish is always conscious of money. When we meet, she is wearing a beautiful long green Gucci dress (sweetly, she has left the side zip down) and shoes, which she admires lovingly. “It’s nice being able to buy things now, but I still count every penny,” she says.

The first thing she did when she started earning was get her mother proper medical care. Haddish’s grandmother and youngest brother live with her while Haddish is redoing her grandmother’s house.

So does she support her whole family? “We support each other,” she says firmly. “Maybe I contribute a little more financially because I’m gone a lot now, and that makes me feel bad. But I’m looking forward to having my house back to myself so I can walk around naked. Ha ha!”

Haddish is single, and has had, she admits, poor judgment when it comes to men. To make a very long story short, she met her now ex-husband on a cruise, he tracked her down five years later in 2011, and wooed her by finding her father, whom she hadn’t seen since she was three. Pretty much from the beginning, she says, he found him controlling. And yet, despite not even being attracted to him, she married him.

“I’m thinking: this is God’s work, and even if he’s not that physically attractive, I can live with that. What’s important is his soul, and to me, it seemed his soul cared about me a lot,” she writes in her memoir.

She has also made allegations of physical violence in her autobiography, which he has denied; he has also filed a $1m libel suit against her publisher. She finally divorced him – and then, two years later, remarried him. She divorced him for a second time in 2013 and is the one subject on which she will not be drawn.

“Girl, I don’t deal with that man. I wish him well, and stay out of my life, please,” is all she’ll say when asked about him.

She jokes about how she is looking for her fantasy man (“He gotta know how to cook, dance, be psychic …”) But Haddish has generally looked for men who need saving, and, given her family history, it’s not that surprising. Probably the most poignant part of her memoir comes when, as an adult, Haddish tries to involve her biological father in her life. But he abandons her again, and she is devastated.

“My dad didn’t care. Stepdad didn’t care. [So] I think I interpret possessiveness from men as love,” she writes.

Today, she says she doesn’t really want kids, and initially I assume it’s because of her career ambitions and, yes, she says, it is a bit of that. (“If Meryl Streep can be invited to the Oscars 22 times, why can’t I?”) But she is also scared of repeating her mother’s patterns: “My mama would say to me: ‘You look like your ugly daddy.’ I would hate to hear that come out of my mouth, but who’s to say it wouldn’t? I never want to put that on someone else,” she says. “But if some man inspires me to bust this thing open that’s cool, too!”

My favourite Haddish moment is not from her comedy and movies, but when she appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show last year, where, to her astonishment, Oprah Winfrey surprised her on stage.

 
 

Haddish went in full meltdown, alternately sobbing that she loved her and furiously asking why Winfrey never replied to her letters.

“I lost the letter,” Winfrey replied, in a tone that suggests she gets asked that a lot.

“But I wrote you six!” wept Haddish on national TV.

I tell Haddish I’d never seen a celebrity seem so human on a talkshow, or interview one so open about herself either.

“For me, being fake is too exhausting,” she says. “I think the way I grew up, in different homes, different schools, taught me I’m most comfortable being myself wherever I am. Also, I think being fake shows on people – they get tired, or bitter. Being yourself is easiest. I may be cheating but you know what? It feels good!”

The Guardian 

The Rembrandt of the housing estates found lyricism in Tile Hill, capturing a changing Britain. Now he’s celebrating the books, records and T-shirts that triggered his artistic awakening

‘My entry level into Romanticism was Peter Saville’ … George Shaw with his old Joy Division T-shirt.
 ‘My entry-level into Romanticism was Peter Saville’ … George Shaw with his old Joy Division T-shirt. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

There’s a photograph of George Shaw, taken in 2002, that shows the Coventry artist gamely attempting to relive his youth. Facing the camera, he’s squeezing himself into the tiny Joy Division T-shirt he bought back when he was a skinny 14 year old. It looks more like a crop-top in the picture, barely reaching his belly button and pulling at his broad shoulders. “I remember my wife saying, ‘Stop it, you’re going to tear it!’” Shaw, who would have been in his mid-30s when the shot was taken, laughs at the memory.

It’s a silly photograph, but also a moving one that explores – as most of Shaw’s work does – the passage of time, the roots of who we are and the melancholy of approaching middle age. The photo – and the T-shirt itself – are currently on display as part of a small exhibition at the Paul Mellon Centre in London revealing all his pop cultural influences: vinyl by the Fall and 2-Tone pin badges stand alongside pulpy skinhead novels and Ladybird books about trees.

“I’m always quite interested in the soil things grow from,” says Shaw, now 52, when we meet at the centre. “I thought showing people these influences might be more interesting than everyone thinking it all came from Constable or Turner. My entry level into Romanticism was [Factory Records designer] Peter Saville. It wasn’t the National Gallery.”

‘Not again!’… one of Shaw’s Tile Hill paintings.
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 ‘Not again!’… one of Shaw’s Tile Hill paintings. Photograph: George Shaw, courtesy Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London

The exhibition is linked to a major retrospective of Shaw’s work at Bath’s Holburne museum. It is largely comprised of Shaw’s paintings of Tile Hill, the estate he grew up on that has obsessed him ever since he started painting. The drizzly visions of an empty, everyman England transcend their bleak settings, inviting viewers to project on to them their own childhood ennui. A rope dangling from a tree, a lock-up garage left open, a broken goalpost: each one suggests possible youthful adventures – or traumas.

Back in 2011, they gained him a Turner prize nomination. “There’s nothing like them in existence, either in writing or in painting,” says Mark Hallett, who helped curate the show. “Certainly not as rich or complex in terms of chronicling a particular kind of place – the British council estate – which has been so important in postwar Britain.”

Sorting through his childhood influences has been illuminating for Shaw: together they form a kind of self-portrait revealing new things about their subject. He’d always assumed his ideas came from Samuel Beckett or Proust, yet now he could see the path his artistic development took, starting as early as the Ladybird books, which were illustrated with the same lack of flamboyance he sees in his own work. There are several Ladybird books on display – including one on Great Artists – but it’s The Gingerbread Boy that seems to have struck a chord with the red-headed artist. “Because that was me,” he says. “Every fight in my life has been over the colour of my hair.”

Youthful influences … the artist’s memorabilia.
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 Youthful influences … the artist’s memorabilia. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Did he get beaten up a lot? “If I said yes, it would make me seem more interesting wouldn’t it?” He smiles. “I was certainly beaten up a lot more than I beat up. There were big lads hanging around, and that made the myths of fairytales seem all the more relevant.”

Shaw’s collection of pin badges attest to a well-cultivated outsider status – the Fall and Throbbing Gristle. “People at school would be listening to the Jam and they’d see a Joy Division badge and say, ‘Who the fuck are they? That’s just arty farty poofty wank!’”

There was one band, however, that did unite Shaw and his classmates. He says it felt tremendously exciting going into school the day after “from Coventry, the Specials!” had been uttered on Top of the Pops, and he still marvels at the access locals had to the group. “You could get on a bus and go stand outside their house,” he says. “It was like the Beatles in Help! – they’d come out and have a chat with you.”

The Specials inspired some of Shaw’s early art – he’d paint homeless people and kids he’d see in the streets of the ghost town. “I would have liked to have formed a band, but if you haven’t got any friends…” He trails off, making a comedy glum face.

It’s hard not to make the connection between Shaw’s work and the Smiths record in his collection (Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, featuring pools winner Viv Nicholson as the cover star). When he was younger, Shaw would visit galleries with his dad, marvelling at the artwork but feeling a sense of alienation from their grand settings. The paintings they constantly painted said nothing to him about his life – hence one of the motivations for the Tile Hill series, which contain references to all sorts of masters, from Rembrandt to Poussin, while placing them firmly in the present day.

“It felt liberating to find this language in paint that could articulate a kind of folkism,” he says. “And suddenly I wasn’t ashamed of saying I was an artist. Even now, I can go to the pub down the road, and if someone asks what I do I can tell them I’m a painter and show them my work. Whereas if I was making abstract stuff I’d be going…” He hangs his head in mock embarrassment, the stereotypical Midlander uncomfortable with any trace of pretension.

The Tile Hill estate is located on the edge of Coventry, where the city ends and woodland begins. These woods have long been a fascination for Shaw, and it’s no coincidence that some of the vinyl sleeves in the Paul Mellon collection – The Fall’s Live at the Witch Trials, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles – feature trees. Shaw decided to explore these woods for his My Back to Nature series, painted while he was the National Gallery’s artist in residence.

The Call of Nature … Shaw in the woods.
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 The Call of Nature … Shaw in the woods. Photograph: National Gallery/courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery

Wandering around the gallery alone, he started to notice the sheer debauchery going on on the walls, and made the link to the goings-on in his own forests. Where Titian might paint a nymph writhing in sexual pleasure, Shaw saw the equivalent in the discarded pages of porn magazines that would be blown through the forest. There’s a wonderful video of Shaw browsing the National’s collection, unable to stifle his giggles as he points out various lewd Carry On-esque scenes embedded in the classics.

“It wasn’t what I wanted to do when I went to the National Gallery,” he says. “That was what I used to do as a kid. So I’d hoped that when I went to the National Gallery as a serious artist in residence, it might be an opportunity for me to grow up.”

He remembers his dad being similarly unable to keep a straight face during their visits there when he was a child. “He’d be saying, ‘Look at this great painting by Piero della Francesca – and the guy at the back in his Y-fronts.’ So there was always this loftiness mixed with a sort of earthiness, the sacred and the profane, which is a very English thing. I think that’s what makes some of the British art of the 90s interesting. It has an artiness and pretentiousness about it, but at the same time it’s taking the piss a bit.”

Shaw is the same age as the Young British Artists whose careers exploded in the 90s. Back then, his work involved more cutting-edge methods – film-making, performance art. When nobody came knocking to make him a superstar too, he felt he’d missed the boat. “Although there was a reason why my stuff was ignored,” he concedes. “It were shit.”

The Back That Used to Be the Front, 2008
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 ‘There’s nothing remotely magical about it’ … The Back That Used to Be the Front, 2008. Photograph: courtesy of the artist and Wilkinson Gallery

It must have come as a surprise, I say, that recognition arrived along after he’d turned his hand to the less fashionable world of paint. “Oh yeah, it’s still a surprise,” he says. “Even today it’s a surprise, I’m surprised that you’d want to talk to me. Why do you think I turned up? I don’t think I deserve any interest at all.”

When he was nominated for the Turner, he wrote about being worried that he would finally get found out. “Yeah,” he says, “Because there’s nothing remotely magical about any of it. About my take on anything or my ability or nothing. There are better painters, better collectors of music, better everything. So every time I do an interview I’m thinking, ‘You should really go and see this painter instead.’”

Hallett, who’s nearby, rolls his eyes. He points out just how much American audiences loved the retrospective when it was in the US last year – not for its quaint Britishness as much as for its relatability, which survived the trip over the Atlantic. Even Shaw concedes that he’s often told a pond or a tree will remind someone of something and he’ll think: “You were brought up in Sweden. What the fuck are you talking about?”

But of course, the pond or the tree is not what people are really seeing. “It’s more the increasing distance between myself and the place I grew up,” he says. Shaw cites Rembrandt’s decade-spanning series of self-portraits as an influence, before returning to his pop roots: “I just wanted to make a painting that had all the feeling of the Beatles’ In My Life, or I’d Rather Not Go Back to the Old House by the Smiths.”

His Tile Hill paintings certainly succeed in this. To look at them is to see a life reflected back in all its fullness. Perhaps that’s why he keeps returning. “I often think I’m finished with them,” he says. “Then I’ll visit my mum who still lives there, pop out for a walk, and I get inspired once more. My wife will say, ‘Oh no, not again.’” He shakes his head, exasperated by his lack of free will.

“In a sense, I’m painting my own departure – to keep going, until the final painting is empty, and you’re no longer casting any shadow on it.” He muses on this for a while. “That’s when you paint the greatest painting of your life. But the fact is, you’ll never be around to paint it.”

 George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field is at Holburn Museum, Bath, until 6 May. The complementary exhibition Secondhand Daylight is at Paul Mellon Centre, London, until 3 May.

 
The Guardian

The Oscar-nominated actor, who reinvented himself as an action hero in the Noughties, has made several problematic remarks this decade. Alexandra Pollard looks back over his career and wonders whether his fearless pensioner shtick will continue to be received so warmly

After his latest revelation, it remains to be seen whether Neeson
After his latest revelation, it remains to be seen whether Neeson ( Getty )

When Liam Neeson’s name began trending on Twitter yesterday afternoon, you might have assumed the 66-year-old Oscar-nominee-turned-action-star had announced another instalment of his beloved Taken film series. But the reality was far more unsettling.

In an interview with The Independent, to promote his new film Cold Pursuit, the actor revealed that his fascination with violent revenge far precedes 2009’s Taken. After learning of the rape of a close female friend many decades ago, and discovering that the rapist was a black man, Neeson “went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody. I’m ashamed to say that, and I did it for maybe a week – hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] “black bastard” would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him.” The revelation has, unsurprisingly, caused deep shock and hurt.

 

Neeson went on to attempt to contextualise his attitude, referencing his early experiences with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “I had acquaintances who were very caught up in the Troubles, and I understand that need for revenge, but it just leads to more revenge, to more killing and more killing, and Northern Ireland’s proof of that.”

 

:: Read the original, exclusive interview that started a global conversation

Born William John Neeson in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland, the son of a school caretaker and a cook, Neeson grew up in a “very working class” family. Though the Troubles – a complex, decades-long conflict over British rule of the country – began when he was a young teen, it was while studying physics and computer science at Queen’s University Belfast that he was first confronted with the reality of it. After the Bloody Sunday killings of 1972, he arrived to lectures only to be surrounded by hundreds of students protesting against the atrocity. “I had been totally unaware of the events the day before,” he later recalled to Irish Central, “totally unaware of the students’ strike, and almost totally unaware of the larger grim struggle that was going on in Ireland. It was an experience that shook me deeply, in complicated ways. But the message I took then was, 'Boy, you’ve got to wake up. Get moving. You’ve got to get going.' It came to me maybe with more of a short, sharp shock than it does to most.”

 

He didn’t leave the country immediately: after leaving university, he returned to his hometown, where he worked as a Guinness delivery driver, and a forklift operator, before joining a theatre troupe in Dublin. There, while playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men, he caught the eye of director John Boorman, who cast him alongside Helen Mirren in the 1984 film Excalibur. Neeson and Mirren began dating, and lived together in London for four years, where she helped him land a string of American films.

Liam Neeson: ‘I walked the streets with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by a 'black b**tard' so that I could kill him’

It was Steven Spielberg’s 1992 Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, though, that put Neeson on the map, earning him an Academy Award nomination for his role as Oskar Schindler. Several more acclaimed parts soon followed, in films such as Husbands and Wives (1992) and Michael Collins (1996).

During that time, having split from Mirren, Neeson married fellow actor Natasha Richardson, and they had two children together. But his role as a grieving widower in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003) would grimly foreshadow the tragic turn his own life was soon to take. In 2008, Richardson had a skiing accident while on holiday in Canada. “I spoke to her and she said, ‘Oh darling, I’ve taken a tumble in the snow,’” Neeson later recalled. “That’s how she described it.” Hours later, his wife fell into a coma and died. Grief, he said, “hits you. It's like a wave. You just get this profound feeling of instability. You feel like a three-legged table. Just suddenly you just – the Earth isn't stable anymore. And then it passes and becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes.”

To cope with Richardson’s death, Neeson forced himself to stay busy. “I’m not good without work,” he said. “I just didn’t want to – especially for my boys – seem to be wallowing in sadness or depression.” Instead, he threw himself back into his career, which a year earlier had taken a sudden, unexpected turn in the form of revenge thriller Taken. The film, and Neeson’s oft-quoted “I will find you” telephone scene, transformed him into a bankable action star.

 

“That certainly was a shock,” he said of the film’s success, but he took the mantle and ran with it at full speed. In the following years, he either played a gruff assassin or a gruff everyman with killer reflexes, appearing in a string of high-octane blockbusters: The A-Team (2010), The Grey (2011), Unknown (2011), Taken 2 (2012), Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015), Taken 3 (2015), and The Commuter (2018). 

(Neeson and January Jones in 'Unknown' Warner Bros Pictures)

He's made 40 films this decade, but has also made several problematic remarks. When the #MeToo movement kicked off in 2017, he showed more sympathy towards the accused than the accusers. “There is a bit of a witch hunt happening,” he told RTE. “There’s some people, famous people, being suddenly accused of touching some girl’s knee or something and suddenly they’re being dropped from their programme.” Wading into the accusations that Dustin Hoffman had touched a fellow actor’s breasts, pulled up her costume and repeatedly touched her inappropriately, Neeson opined, “When you’re doing a play and you’re with your ‘family’, other actors, you do silly things. And it becomes kind of superstitious. If you don’t do it every night, you think it’s gonna jinx the show. I’m not saying I’ve done similar things – apparently he touched a girl’s breast, but it’s childhood stuff.”

 

And despite his celebrated role in Steve McQueen’s Widows last year, which was noted for its positive portrayal of a mixed-race marriage – “Here I am, in bed with Liam Neeson, and he’s not my slave owner, I’m not a prostitute, we simply are a couple in love,” said co-star Viola Davis – Neeson is no stranger to controversial comments about race. “We all racial profile,” he told The Guardian while promoting 2014’s Non-Stop. “It’s a horrible thing to admit to, but we all do it. I know I do. And I’m used to it because I’m a child of Northern Ireland, and from 1970 onwards, I’d be travelling on my own, hair down to here, single Irish guy, always pulled over.”

 

When asked if he thinks he’d be a different person now if that hadn’t happened, Neeson said, “No, I don’t think it affected me. I understood it. It wasn’t the Swedish grandmothers doing all this stuff.”

Neeson emerged largely unscathed from those comments, but after his latest revelation, it remains to be seen whether his fearless pensioner shtick will continue to be received so warmly. “I’m going to be doing action movies until they bury me in the ground,” he said in 2017. It might not be up to him anymore.

Independent

The story of a sound engineer recording effects for an Italian horror film is coming to the Donmar Warehouse. It’s not a gorefest, say its director and writer

An axe, a music box and a cabbage with a knife in it … Tom Brooke in rehearsals for Berberian Sound Studio, directed by Tom Scutt.
 An axe, a music box and a cabbage with a knife in it … Tom Brooke in rehearsals for Berberian Sound Studio, directed by Tom Scutt. Photograph: Marc Brenner

The first thing you see when you walk into the Donmar rehearsal space is a control room taking up the whole of one wall. The actor Enzo Cilenti sits behind glass issuing orders impatiently in a thick Italian accent to three of his co-stars, who are squeezed around a microphone in a smaller booth opposite; one of them, Tom Brooke, the soldier-turned-sniper from the BBC thriller Bodyguard, looks as amusingly bewildered as Beaker from The Muppet Show. Props strewn around the room include an axe, a Tom and Jerry music box and a cabbage with a knife lodged in it. Someone is looking for a misplaced electric toothbrush, though this turns out to be a matter of sound effects rather than dental hygiene. An engineer says, “Let’s put some reverb on that,” while two men relax in chairs nearby. They are wearing caretaker coats and high heels.

Picking his way through this scene in tracksuit bottoms, T-shirt and socks is Tom Scutt, an acclaimed stage designer who has also worked as creative director for Christine and the Queens. Scutt is making his directing debut on this theatrical version of Peter Strickland’s chilling 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, about a timid analogue recordist named Gilderoy (Toby Jones on screen, Brooke in this version) who travels to Italy in the mid-1970s to record foley for a giallo – one of those florid, operatic chillers where the deaths are almost as painful as the dialogue. Only one cast member, Strickland’s regular collaborator Eugenia Caruso, appears in both play and movie, though she hasn’t brought any reminiscences to the rehearsal room. “There are so many deviations from the film, it would be irrelevant,” explains the writer, Joel Horwood.

The poster for Peter Strickland’s 2012 film.
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 The poster for Peter Strickland’s 2012 film. Photograph: Allstar/Artificial Eye

Strickland always saw his movie not as horror but as a workplace drama about office politics, and Scutt and Horwood are equally keen to give the h-word a swerve. The in-house DVD library may be heavy on Dario Argento(Suspiria, Tenebrae) but cast and crew can also borrow the documentary Notes on Blindness, or audio-centric thrillers including The Conversationand Blow Out, and the play itself will be accessible to even the greenest giallo-come-lately. Ask Scutt about its influences and it’s like turning on a tap full blast. “We’ve discussed Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, Yorgos Lanthimos and The Archers,” he says. Inevitably for a story steeped in analogue recordings, there are echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape. “It’s Carry On Beckett!”

“We’ve never thought of having to scare people,” he continues. “It’s more about a subliminal atmosphere that permeates the characters’ relationships. There are horrific ideas but it’s deliberately not a gorefest. It relies entirely on the audience’s imagination. You don’t see the film Gilderoy’s working on, and the idea of a piece of theatre where everyone is watching content being made is very interesting. It’s like we’re seeing the wrong bit of the product.” So it’s like a sinister Noises Off? “Yes, there’s that element of farce, too. Booths where people can only hear when they’re plugged in, or can’t see each other. Some characters speak only Italian, Gilderoy only English. It’s about failures of communication in power hierarchies and across gender and language.”

It wasn’t that Scutt went looking for contemporary resonances, more that the play attracted them like knives to a magnet. “I originally wanted to do the show because I was interested in using sound viscerally on stage. Having a sub-bass hitting you in the chest – it’s more like a gig than straight theatre. But then Brexit happened and I thought: ‘Oh, this is about being a Brit in a European country.’ And obviously Trump and Weinstein added all this extra relevance to the play’s story of gendered violence. It just sort of kept rolling.”

Tom Brooke and Tom Espiner make sound effects.
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 Creepy … Tom Brooke and Tom Espiner make sound effects. Photograph: Marc Brenner

The villain of the piece is Santini (Luke Pasqualino), the film director who manipulates and terrorises those beneath him, especially women. “It feels like the right thing to be discussing at this political moment,” explains Horwood. “How and why we make work, why we tell certain stories, what they represent and who gets to be in charge of them.” Scutt gestures to the set behind us: “I mean, look at this: these isolated booths where a man can control the faders on a woman’s voice. It’s exactly where we are in the world at the moment. This is a landscape where women’s voices are harvested and used by men but their actual opinions and feelings are of no interest.”

Back in rehearsal, the lights are now tinted red. Brooke walks over to a table and performs a series of ritualistic actions: removing the knife from the cabbage, he stabs the vegetable again before placing a metal pitcher over a spinning top. The two high-heeled caretakers – Hemi Yeroham and Tom Espiner (who doubles as the production’s foley designer) – are now in the vocal booth, buzzing the toothbrush inside a metal container and winding the music box in excruciating slow-motion. Scutt listens for a moment. “That’s just too creepy.” Then he grins. “It’s brilliant.”

The Guardian

Friends is the world’s most streamed show – 25 years after it first began. We know what happened to the stars, but what about Fun Bobby, Jack Geller and the other characters?

The beloved supporting cast of Friends
 The beloved supporting cast of Friends Composite: Getty

In May 1994, a then-unknown actor called Jennifer Aniston ran into a studio set made up to look like a Manhattan coffee house, and flopped on to a sofa. She wore a white wedding dress, her hair was wet from the rain, and she had just run out on her wedding. Around her, a group of relatively unknown actors – Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and Courteney Cox – gawped. And so began the first episode of a sitcom about six friends, written by New York City playwrights David Crane and Marta Kauffman.

Twenty-five years on, Friends is still one of the most successful television shows of all time. After it arrived on Netflix on New Year’s Day 2018, it became the most-streamed show on the internet. And, despite the fact that the final episode was broadcast in May 2004, long before the vast majority of them were born, it is the favourite TV programme of the UK’s five- to 16-year-olds.

The show’s stars are now exceedingly famous and obscenely rich. By the final series, they were each being paid $1m an episode, making Aniston, Cox and Kudrow the highest-paid female TV actors of all time.

But before Friends became a cultural phenomenon, before the “Which friend are you?” quizzes, the layered haircuts and the cries of: “We were on a break!” – and before the show became a trusted companion on hungover days spent in bed – Friends was just another television pilot being tested for NBC executives in the hope of being picked up.

May 4, 1994: the Friends pilot is filmed on the Warner Bros lot in Burbank, California. In it, five friends – Monica Geller, Phoebe Buffay, Chandler Bing, Joey Tribbiani and Monica’s brother, Ross – are hanging out at their favourite coffee house when Rachel Green runs in. Ross has just separated from his wife, Carol, who has gone off with another woman. And Rachel has just stood up her fiance, Barry, at the altar and is in need of a place to stay. By the end of the episode, Rachel has moved in with Monica and started working at the coffee house.

A publicity shot for the first episode.
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 A publicity shot for the first episode. Photograph: Allstar

Mitchell Whitfield (Dr Barry Farber, Rachel’s orthodontist ex-fiance): It sounds a little egomaniacal to say that I’m the reason the show exists. But when you look at the pilot, with Rachel dumping me at the altar and coming in to meet everybody, that moment was the impetus for the show.

Christina Pickles (Judy Geller, Ross’s and Monica’s mother): I knew Jennifer Aniston would be a huge success from the moment I saw her in rehearsals. But I didn’t know that the show would be. I’ve done so many pilots I thought were good that didn’t work, and so many that I thought were bad that did work. I just knew I was witnessing a really special actor at work.

Mitchell Whitfield (Barry Farber): Back in the day, there used to be something called pilot season. Everyone wanted to test their pilots to see how audiences reacted to them. Actors would fly in from Chicago or New York and live in LA for the three months of pilot season, and audition every day, just hoping to get into one of those shows that would get picked up and made into a series. I got the script for Friends in the middle of the season. The second I read it, I called my agent and said: “We have to make this happen.”

Vincent Ventresca as Fun Bobby.
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 Vincent Ventresca as Fun Bobby. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby, Monica’s on-off boyfriend in seasons one and two): I was so young and full of myself, and I’d just done a pilot for Fox’s new medical show. I thought I was the coolest person in the world. I was at home, and my agent said: “Hey, do you want to go and audition for this new show?” It was a really small part, so, of course, I’m whining like a little actor. But something inside me told me, just do it. So I went in and cried in front of Marta Kauffman, and she was like: “Great!”

Directing the pilot is James Burrows, co-creator of Cheers.

Elliott Gould (Jack Geller, Ross and Monica’s father): I wanted to work for Jim. I’d heard a lot about him: that he knew what he was doing, and he was smart. And he understood what was funny. At one point, I actually called casting because there were some people who said: “No, no, no. Friends is not enough money for you.” But I wanted to work and meet new people.

Christina Pickles (Judy Geller): Burrows was instrumental in creating the atmosphere of Friends. He took the six leads to Vegas before they started working, and they all had a good time together. That was probably very helpful in cementing a sweetness about them.

Elliott Gould as Jack Geller.
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 Elliott Gould as Jack Geller. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

Casting for Friends takes months, and executive producers Kauffman andCrane, and fellow producer Kevin S Bright, see hundreds of hopefuls.

Mitchell Whitfield (Barry Farber): I was brought in to audition for Ross and Chandler. I went back multiple times, and then they realised Ross was the role for me. I got down to the very end, and was testing for the show. At the last minute, they said: “We’re bringing in one more guy to read.” That guy turned out to be David Schwimmer.

Jane Sibbett (Carol Willick, Ross’s ex-wife and mother of his son, Ben. She replaced the original actor, Anita Barone, who left the show after the first episode because the part wasn’t big enough): I got a phone call from my agent, saying they wanted to offer me one of the lead roles. I said to my agent: “That’s great, but you told them I was pregnant, right?” My agent said: “God, no! We’re not going to tell them that.” I insisted. Because I knew this show was going to go [and get picked up by the network], for sure.

Mike Hagerty (Mr Treeger, the building superintendent): I knew Matt Perry socially a bit, years before. When he was a kid, he used to come into the Formosa bar on Santa Monica, which was a famous Hollywood hangout. I was a patron, and we’d chat. He was a really precocious kid – but very interesting. He’d done lots of pilots already, and was on the cusp of becoming a star.

Cosimo Fusco (Paolo, Rachel’s Italian boyfriend in season one): They were all very normal. All of them had a great human side. They were very humble – and really trained. They’d spent years trying to get the right jobs.

Christina Pickles (Judy Geller): At the beginning of Friends, Matt LeBlanc was anxious. Every time he did something, he would look for approval to the director, the producers or the writers if they were around. There would be a look of: “Am I doing this right?” He ended up being amazing. He was so perfect as Joey. He slowly built that character into a wonderful, real person.

Mike Hagerty (Mr Treeger): Those kids were just ready to pop; they were all good enough to have their own shows. And the casting people somehow put them together at the time, and they were all just ready to have something wonderful happen – and it did.

Mike Hagerty as Mr Treeger.
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 Mike Hagerty as Mr Treeger.

After the pilot is taped, NBC orders a further 12 episodes.

Cosimo Fusco (Paolo): When I taped my first episode, no one had seen it on TV yet. While we were filming, they announced the show had been commissioned for 12 episodes. Jennifer Aniston basically cried in my lap because nothing like that had ever happened to her before.

Larry Hankin (Mr Heckles, Monica and Rachel’s irritable downstairs neighbour): I was there before it all started. I got there early and was watching rehearsals, and the show hadn’t been on the air yet, but I remember thinking: “These young actors are really talented.”

Mitchell Whitfield (Barry Farber): There was this excitement. There was no ego on set. People had a sense of how good the project was.

Jane Sibbett (Carol Willick): My son was born on 10 September 1994. The next day, my agent called and said: “Friends has come back around again; they’ve let go of Anita Barone and would like you to take over the part tomorrow.” I said: “Wow, I’m kind of sore! I don’t think so.” But my agent said: “Jane, this is a huge offer. They’ve said they’ll go easy on you, and you can bring your nanny.” I said: “I don’t have a nanny! I’ve got my mom.” “So bring your mom!” So I sat down and nursed my son, and watched the pilot episode. And the moment I saw David Schwimmer do the longest take ever, I was hooked. I knew I had to work with him.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): I was starstruck by David Schwimmer. Of course, the girls were incredible and you sort of fell in love with them. But David was the one I desperately wanted to like me; and he was the one most not interested in meeting anyone.

Mitchell Whitfield (Barry Farber): Towards the end of the first season, I started getting people saying: “Oh, you’re that jerk on Friends.” That’s when I thought: “This thing is definitely starting to take off.”

Larry Hankin as Mr Heckles.
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 Larry Hankin as Mr Heckles. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

Friends airs on 22 September 1994. The initial critical response is lukewarm, but viewers like the show, and ratings are solid. By the end of the 1994-1995 season, Friends is the eighth most-watched show on air.

Larry Hankin (Mr Heckles): I went home, and the show didn’t air for months, so I forgot about it. And then it came out, and it was a hit.

Mike Hagerty (Mr Treeger): They weren’t stars when it all started. They were becoming very popular, and probably working on their contracts, but it wasn’t like you were walking into a room full of superstars. That came a bit later.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): I taped the first season, and there was a comic warming up the studio audience, and the energy was good. By the time we filmed the second year, it was like a circus. I remember metal detectors. The studio was packed with people. That was around the time that the Rolling Stone cover came out with all six of them – May 1995.

Cosimo Fusco (Paolo): In season two, there was a change in everything. You’d notice it in the cars they would drive, or they’d talk about buying this or that. There was wealth coming in.

Jane Sibbett (Carol Willick): Because I was part of the early days, they weren’t so private around me. But other guest stars would complain about how they didn’t have access to this or that area. They had to clamp down on security and be much tighter about who went up into the dressing rooms, and that kind of thing.

Larry Hankin (Mr Heckles): The third or fourth time I came on set, they were No 1. [Episode 11 of the second season of Friends, The One With the Lesbian Wedding aired on 11 January 1996, and was the top-rated episode on US television with 31.6 million viewers.] Matt LeBlanc had just bought a house, and they were ecstatic. I’m not a big social person, and it was hard to crack that group. They talked to each other. Every time the camera took a break or something, the actors and producers would huddle. I’d become an outsider. There was a feeling of seeing these actors go from nowhere to being on top of the world over a period of three or four years.

Jane Sibbett (left) in The One With the Lesbian Wedding.
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 Jane Sibbett (right) in The One With the Lesbian Wedding.

Cosimo Fusco (Paolo): You know, someone’s life changes when they get a big paycheck. The money starts rolling in, and you’re obliged to spend it. They would be recognised and followed, and there would be paparazzi. It wasn’t easy for them to just have a coffee at the corner any more. But as people? They didn’t change. Not with me.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): The first season, they had a show that was doing pretty well on the air, and it looked like they were going to do more, but they weren’t the Beatles. And then they came back the second year, and they were the Beatles.

By season three, the cast have made the decision to negotiate their contracts as a group, even though this means some members will take a pay cut. They continue negotiating as a group for the show’s entire run.

Mike Hagerty (Mr Treeger): As a group, they decided it was time to get more of a share of the profits. It was quite a risk. They were putting it all on the line.

Marlo Thomas (Sandra Green, Rachel’s mother): It’s unusual to do contracts together, and I think they set a standard for a lot of other shows to follow. When the network is negotiating against you, one at a time, things can become adversarial. But they all realised, to their benefit, that it took every single one of them to make the show that good.

Jane Sibbett (Carol Willick): I was on the lot this one time. I’d just had lunch. And I came around the corner, and I see Jen, Lisa and Courteney. It had just rained, which is a rarity in LA, right? And they’re splashing in this puddle outside the sound stage. I was so struck by it because there was no one else around, and they were just falling around laughing with one another. That was the lightning in the bottle because they captured that joy of being friends, and that playfulness, and it was magic. The love this group had for one other was extraordinary.

Christina Pickles (Judy Geller): They were a united group. They would watch each other’s work. If someone had a scene they weren’t in, the others would watch it and laugh. It’s very unusual to be so supportive of each other on set.

Paget Brewster (Kathy, Joey and then Chandler’s girlfriend in season four):They would make fun of each other. If someone made a joke and it didn’t work, they’d all turn on the person and be like: “You blew it, Lisa!” They would bust each other’s balls. And they started adding this thing into the script that they did to each other in real life: one of them would be talking, and they’d all pretend to fall asleep.

Paget Brewster as Kathy.
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 Paget Brewster as Kathy. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): You’d do a pass of a scene. If the audience didn’t laugh, we’d huddle together and Matthew Perry would say: “What if we tried this?” And Matt LeBlanc would say: “Yeah!” And we’d break again and do the scene. It was like being at a football game.

Paget Brewster (Kathy): Matthew Perry always had to have the last bit. If it was the end of the scene, he would consistently pitch something. They’d make fun of him for literally always wanting to have the last laugh.

Christina Pickles (Judy Geller): Everything begins and ends with the writing. David and Marta didn’t write every show – they hired a lot of good writers – but they had the final say, and they had impeccable taste.

Alexandra Holden (Elizabeth Stevens, Ross’s girlfriend in season six. She was one of his students, and Bruce Willis played her father): We’re in the cabin in one episode, and Ross and I are making out on the couch. He says: “I can’t stop thinking about your dad.” The writers stopped and said: “After he says that, why don’t you say: ‘Whatever works for you?’” We added the joke in at the last minute, and it was so funny. They could just come up with stuff like that on the spot.

Alexandra Holden as Elizabeth Stevens.
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 Alexandra Holden as Elizabeth Stevens. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

Christina Pickles (Judy Geller): David and Marta would come down from the office to watch the run-throughs, which was terrifying. They’d sit in a row of chairs, with the writers and NBC executives. And you could see they were thinking, and they’d give comments and then go back upstairs and change it all. David and Marta were the giant stars of the writing team.

Jane Sibbett (Carol Willick): There was one joke we kept changing. We couldn’t get it right. It was the episode where Susan and I are celebrating our anniversary, and Ross comes over at an inopportune moment, and I had to telegraph to him that it isn’t a good time. So I removed a little pube from my tongue. That was the only time I pitched something that was really outrageous, and it actually got on air.

With Friends’ increased popularity comes intense media scrutiny. But on set it’s business as usual.

Aisha Tyler (Dr Charlie Wheeler, Joey and then Ross’s girlfriend): I remember walking into Monica’s apartment, and looking out of the window to see if I could see Ugly Naked Guy, but of course it’s just a hallway back there.

Paget Brewster (Kathy): I was terrified of those guys. I hid in my room because they were so famous. It was the biggest show in the country.

Aisha Tyler (Dr Charlie Wheeler): It was a very intimidating set to walk into. I think the cast had had some pretty notable experiences with guest actors coming in and struggling because of the pressure of having to be funny on the Friends set.

Marlo Thomas (Sandra Green): It’s not always easy to walk into a show that has already been established and where everyone has their characters, and they’re a tight-knit family. Sometimes, it’s not roomy enough for a new person to come in. But they made it very roomy.

Alexandra Holden (Elizabeth Stevens): I got called in to do a “chemistry read” with David Schwimmer. It was terrifying because the producers told me to come in looking “as hot as possible”. I didn’t know what to do with that information. It sent me into a tailspin. I stayed up all night trying to figure out what to wear … Now that I’m older, I wouldn’t be happy getting that message.

Elliott Gould (Jack Geller): We did the scenes for the episode in London, with the wedding [between Ross and Emily in season four]. I was doing something else back in the US, and there was a cliffhanger. And I very foolishly gave the cliffhanger away. Some of the producers were really angry at me.

Jane Sibbett (Carol Willick): It was important to us, and the producers, that we showed a couple that was in love. But certain affiliates wouldn’t air the episode with our [Carol and Susan’s] wedding. They completely blocked it out.

By the time Friends wraps its final season in 2004, the lead actors have become some of the highest-paid TV stars of all time, earning $1m an episode.

Mitchell Whitfield (Dr Barry Farber): My wife, she cringes a little bit because if I had ended up getting the part of Ross, I’d have made tens of millions of dollars. But I never think about that.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): Every time I get a cheque [for residuals, from reruns of the show] I think to myself: “Wow, they [the main cast members] must be really rich.” I get about $2,000 a year in residuals, and I only did two episodes.

Jane Sibbett (Carol Willick): I’m quite content. Obviously, I didn’t get paid the million-dollar paycheck, but I’ve had the best of Friends. I was able to raise my children and I got offered some really sweet projects.

Cosimo Fusco (Paolo): I have a little bit of regret; I feel like I could have capitalised more on the success of the show. I was having a divorce, and was distracted by my personal life. I didn’t get a publicist, which I should have done.

Mike Hagerty (Mr Treeger): People have a tendency to pigeonhole you a little bit, but it’s always good to have something that people can recognise you from.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): I got offers right away … It did kind of throw me, ego-wise. I started thinking I was really cool, and nothing was good enough for me. I always admired how gracefully they [the main cast members] handled it. Because I only had a little taste of it and I could barely handle it. Friends did help my career. But I don’t think I let it help my career as much as it could have done.

David Schwimmer as Ross with Aisha Tyler as Charlie Wheeler.
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 David Schwimmer as Ross with Aisha Tyler as Charlie Wheeler. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

In the two and a half decades since Friends first aired, the show has been continually rerun. In recent years, critics have re-evaluated the show’s legacy, identifying problematic storylines and criticising Friends for its lack of diversity.

Aisha Tyer (Dr Charlie Wheeler): People of colour were always aware of it [the lack of diversity]. Even at the time, people were constantly pointing out that Friends wasn’t as diverse as the Manhattan of the real world.

Cosimo Fusco (Paolo): Today, one of the six would have to be black, of course.

Aisha Tyler (Dr Charlie Wheeler): My character wasn’t written on the page to be a woman of colour, and I auditioned against a lot of other women of different ethnic backgrounds, so I like to think they picked me because I was the right person for the role. But I knew it was something new for the show, and it was really important because, the fact of the matter was, it was a show set in Manhattan that was almost entirely Caucasian. It was an unrealistic representation of what the real world looked like.

Cosimo Fusco (Paolo): There was one scene where I was getting a massage, and I had to be this greasy guy who was touching Phoebe’s ass. I had a problem with how it portrayed me, as if guys from Italy are like that. What they wanted me to do was quite disrespectful. But I remember we were able to find a compromise, so I felt comfortable.

Paget Brewster (Kathy): It’s so bizarre to compare the show at that time to what’s happening now on social media. No one can do anything right, ever. That’s basically where we are. Everything is people being questioned or attacked. Yeah, if you look at the world today, and you look at Friends, you go: “Oh, wow, there were gay jokes and they don’t have friends of colour.” But that’s what it was then.

In 2018, Netflix acquired the rights to Friends in a $100m deal. Thanks to streaming, the show has become known to a new, younger audience.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): As an actor, you want to be a part of something: your work will be here when you’re gone. And you get an insight into that when a show that is 25 years old gets reissued on Netflix, and a whole new audience discovers it.

Alexandra Holden (Elizabeth Stevens): My 12-year-old niece just asked me for a T-shirt with “Central Perk” on it. That’s so bizarre to me. She wasn’t even alive when I worked on the show.

Christina Pickles (Judy Geller): Kids come up to me and recite the script.

Paget Brewster (Kathy): People in their 20s recognise my voice. They turn around in supermarkets and say: “You’re Kathy!”

Mitchell Whitfield (Dr Barry Farber): “Dude, what was it like? You got to kiss Jennifer Aniston!”

Elliott Gould (Jack Geller): I met Taylor Swift, and she said: “I know you! I’m a Friends freak! You’re Mr Geller.”

Cosimo Fusco (Paolo): I can work in the most exquisite film, but the minute people find out I was Paolo, they’re like: “Oh my God!”

Now, 25 years since the show first aired, Friends is the most-streamed show in the UK, and perhaps even the most beloved TV show of all time.

Paget Brewster (Kathy): A show like Friends was one in a million. Normally a pilot doesn’t go, or it goes and you shoot three episodes, or you make a year and it’s gone.

Aisha Tyler (Dr Charlie Wheeler): There have been other shows that have advanced that concept of friends as chosen family, but Friends was just a perfect encapsulation of that idea.

Marlo Thomas (Sandra Green): They’re independent, their parents aren’t telling them what to do, they’re making their own decisions, they’re making their own mistakes – and they’re succeeding at it! That’s aspirational for young people to see.

Alexandra Holden (Elizabeth Stevens): Television was a very different thing back then. I don’t know if there will ever be another show as successful as Friends. I feel like there’s too much content out there now, and too much variety.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): I was so young. I was 27. I don’t remember feeling young then, but now it’s like looking back in time. But I love looking back at it. It’s a good memory, and it’s a reminder that time is passing. Not a lot of people get to look at where they were half their lifetime ago.

Alexandra Holden (Elizabeth Stevens): It feels like a different life. When I watch Friends now, I think: “Was I really there? Did that really happen? Was I really part of this thing that’s become such a huge influence all these years later?” It’s kind of surreal.

Marlo Thomas (Sandra Green): Everything you do is part of the tapestry of your career, and your life. Every little thread gets pulled in some way. And the Sandra Green thread is certainly a colour in my tapestry that people remember and have some affection for, as do I.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): When someone comes up to you and says: “Hey, you were good on Friends,” it connects you with them in a way. You were part of a thing that meant something to them, and that means something to me. It makes you feel like: “Maybe you didn’t really waste your life.”

Elliott Gould (Jack Geller): I saw Matt LeBlanc at the studio recently, and we embraced. Without being pretentious, we’re all a part of each other.

Vincent Ventresca (Fun Bobby): Things don’t change as much as you think they do. What’s important to us: friendship, family, community and laughing at silly situations. That’s what Friends is all about. And that’s timeless.

The Guardian

After the Recording Academy president's insulting comments last year, the Grammys finally recognised a diverse range of female talent, writes Alexandra Pollard

“Every voice we hear deserves to be honoured and respected,” said Jada Pinkett-Smith
“Every voice we hear deserves to be honoured and respected,” said Jada Pinkett-Smith ( Rex )

 

“I want to begin by saying how honoured I am to be nominated among so many incredible female artists,” said British pop star Dua Lipa at last night’s Grammys, accepting the award for Best New Artist. “Because I guess this year, we’ve really stepped up.”

It was a deliciously barbed comment on a night in which female artists dominated, aimed squarely at the Recording Academy president Neil Portnow. Last year, responding to a noticeable lack of female winners (only one woman won an award during the televised portion of the ceremony), Portnow said, “I think it has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and their souls who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, who want to be producers, who want to be part of the industry on an executive level, to step up.”

 
 

He later claimed that his words were taken out of context, which – unless it turns out he preceded that comment with, “Here’s what I would say if I was really sexist” – is hard to believe. Still, some good came from his remarks: there was enough of an outcry that this year, the Grammys could not get away with sidelining women. Having appointed a task force led by Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff Tina Tchen, aimed at identifying “the various barriers and unconscious biases faced by underrepresented communities”, the Grammys ensured that this year’s nominees were far more diverse.

As, indeed, were the winners. The biggest award of the night, Album of the Year, went to Kacey Musgraves’s wonderful psychedelic country record Golden Hour(which also won Best Country Album); 21-year-old newcomer HER. won Best R&B album; openly gay country singer Brandi Carlile, meanwhile, won Best Americana Album. “I came out of the closet at 15 years old when I was in high school and I can assure you that I was never invited to any parties,” she said in one of the best speeches of the night.

 

Perhaps the most notable female triumph, though, was Cardi B’s. The only woman in her category, alongside Nipsey Hussle, Pusha T, Travis Scott and Mac Miller, Cardi won Best Rap Album for her playfully inventive debut Invasion of Privacy. This made her the first female solo artist in history to win in the category.

Cardi B becomes the first female solo artist to win Best Rap Album (Rex)

And the tone was set from the off. Alicia Keys, who mercifully took over presenting duties from James Corden, opened the show by inviting her “sisters” Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Michelle Obama and Jada Pinkett-Smith onto the stage. Sure, the Record Academy were blatantly overcompensating here, but it was powerful stuff nonetheless. “Every voice we hear deserves to be honoured and respected,” said Pinkett-Smith. “Tonight we celebrate the greatest in each other, through all of us, through music,” added Alicia Keys. “Who runs the world?”

There were myriad performers, meanwhile (too many, perhaps, given that 90 minutes in, there had only been two awards given out) – and women dominated that arena too. Diana Ross celebrated her 75th birthday by performing two of her biggest hits, “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”; Janelle Monae sang “Make Me Feel” flanked by dancers in pink vagina suits; St Vincent and Dua Lipa flirted their way through a mash-up of “Masseduction” and “One Kiss”, and Lady Gaga delivered a fearsome, reworked rendition of her A Star is Born song “Shallow”.

Diana Ross pays tribute to herself at the 2019 Grammys (Rex)

But the biggest showstopper of the night came courtesy of Dolly Parton, who last week was awarded the MusiCares Person of the Year. After Parton joined Musgraves and Katy Perry for “Here You Come Again”, her goddaughter Miley Cyrus turned up to duet “Jolene”, supported by the likes of Maren Morris and Little Big Town. Given that Parton spent much of her 50-year career being underestimated by those who couldn’t see past her unapologetic femininity, her climactic performance felt fitting.

 

There were a few low points – the Jennifer Lopez-led motown tribute fell flat, largely because Lopez has little to do with the genre – but for the most part, the Grammys were a triumph, finally celebrating those who deserved it. There’s a way to go, but it was a step (up) in the right direction.

Independent

On the eve of a surprise Oxford show, the artist gives us a tour of his vast studio – and talks about inflatable metaphors and the controversy over his giant tulips

‘I don’t labour over each piece – but I oversee them tremendously’ … Jeff Koons with a Balloon Dog sculpture.
 ‘I don’t labour over each piece – but I oversee them tremendously’ … Jeff Koons with a Balloon Dog sculpture. Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

‘To get great clarity in the balls, you really need to blow them a lot,” says Jeff Koons, with all the solemnity of a man explaining his tax returns. He gazes lovingly at his balls, which in this particular case are a row of stainless steel spheres suitably blown up to bear an astonishing resemblance to his most famous artistic muse: inflatable rubber toys. But given that Koons shot to notoriety with his 1991 series Made in Heaven – in which he photographed himself and his then girlfriend Ilona Staller in pretty much every sexual position legal in the state of New York – this ball chat really could have gone another way.

Koons, who looks like Pee Wee Herman and talks like Mister Rogers, is taking me around his 10,000 square foot studio in Chelsea, New York. And if you think that sounds big, wait until you hear about his house: he, his wife Justine and their six children (Koons also has two older children from previous relationships) are about to move into their new fixer-upper, which is almost an entire block on the Upper East Side. Koons bought two mega mansions for a total of $35m and spent almost another $5m knocking them together.

It must be nice to not only be an artist but to be your own Medici,” one of his disgruntled neighbours huffed to the New York Post, and after spending an afternoon with the man himself I can confirm that it does seem very nice indeed. While Koons strolls around in a quietly chic outfit of dark blue patterned shirt and blue trousers, young people in white coats skitter around doing what looks to me like most of the work: painting, sculpting, blowtorching.

‘I’m still very, very proud of those’ … Koons with ex-wife Ilona Staller in one of his Made in Heaven images.
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 ‘I’m still very, very proud of those’ … Koons with ex-wife Ilona Staller in one of his Made in Heaven images. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

“Maybe I’m not on each piece labouring over it,” he says, “but I’m overseeing each one tremendously.” Without help, he explains, he “would be able to make only one sculpture every few years. It’s about the gesture, that’s where the art is. It’s being able to work with people and to articulate ideas the same way you articulate your fingers.”

Koons, until very recently the world’s most expensive living artist, has the calm, unruffled air that, in New York, is generally only found in the heavily medicated. But in him, it seems more like the zen of a man who has all but the licence to print money. His works sell for multimillions. Art collector Peter Brant bought one of my favourite pieces by Koons – Puppy, a 40ft west highland terrier made out of flowers – and spends $75,000 a year just maintaining it. “Koons,” read one recent, and typical, critical assessment, “has made his name manufacturing toys for rich old boys.”

Of course, Koons hates this kind of chat. “The rest of the world talks so much about money,” he says, “and one of the reasons is I think they feel uncomfortable talking about art. So if they’re writing about art, and they don’t really want to talk about art, then they talk about money – and it’s like, ‘Whew! I didn’t have to talk about art!’” To which it’s tempting to respond: “Sure, Jeff, but it’s kinda hard to see the art when it has a $58m price tag hanging off its neck.”

This was Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) which in 2013 fetched what was then the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. But the day after our interview, David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) was sold for $90m and Koons lost his title. Still, who cares about money? Koons’s claim to think only about higher things would, however, be a little more credible if he didn’t literally pink with excitement when we talk about the recent sale of the Edward Hopper painting Chop Suey: “Ninety-one million dollars! Wow!”

Coming to Oxford … Seated Ballerina, a new work by Koons that will be in the Ashmolean show.
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 Coming to Oxford … Seated Ballerina, a new work by Koons that will be in the Ashmolean show. Photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

We’re meeting because Koons is preparing for his first big show in the UK since his 2009 exhibition at the Serpentine in London. I loved that show, with its re-creations of giant inflatable toys made from stainless steel and ludicrous Popeye paintings. (“Art for people with short attention spans,”Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian. Hi!) But was it fun? No question – and it’s even more fun seeing those pieces and many more closeup in his studio.

His famous inflatable pieces are so realistic that when I reach out to squeeze what looks like a blowup plastic seal and find myself touching cold hard steel instead, the sensory confusion makes me burst out laughing. Scattered through the maze-like rooms in the studio are re-creations of his giant “porcelain” figures, also made from stainless steel. One, an especially kitschy image of two deer rubbing their noses together, looks like the kind of thing a little girl would pick out for herself in an airport giftshop in the 1980s, because that’s exactly what it is. “I had that figurine when I was a child!” I say in astonishment.

Koons nods, as if he expected as much. “That’s what I’m going for, that sense of familiarity, and you are open to it. The reason I work with readymades” – meaning already existing objects – “is to remove judgment and hierarchy. Every object is a metaphor for yourself.” In what way? “I try to make work to make you think everything is perfect in itself. It’s all a metaphor.”

What this response may lack in explanation, it more than makes up for in brilliant deflection – and if there’s one thing Koons is genuinely great at, it’s deflecting criticism. In early 2018, he announced that he was giving one of his sculptures – Bouquet of Tulips, which depicts a giant hand grasping some 38ft-high balloon flowers – to Paris as “a symbol of remembrance, optimism and healing” after the terrorist attacks in 2015. Alas, the city proved less than enthusiastic and high-profile Parisians, including film-maker Olivier Assayas, wrote a spectacularly vicious open letter criticising the “inappropriateness” of the gift.

‘Inappropriate’ … Koons with his Bouquet of Tulips gift to Paris.
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 ‘Inappropriate’ … Koons with his Bouquet of Tulips gift to Paris. Photograph: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty

“While he may have been brilliant and inventive in the 1980s,” they wrote, “Koons has since become the emblem of an industrial, spectacular and speculative art … Koons’s studio and dealers are hyper-luxury multinationals, and offering them such prominent visibility and recognition amounts to publicity or product placement.” This controversy roared on until October when a compromise was reached: the work will be installed in front of the Petit Palais, instead of the originally planned and much more prominent position by the Palais de Tokyo.

Surely this saga must have irked Koons? He makes a small smile that seems less like an expression of amusement and more like the donning of armour. “I remember back in 1985, I made a show called Equilibrium. A review came out and it looked at it in not such a positive light. I was really surprised because my intentions were so good. I think I learned early on that people just take positions without knowing everything, and these things can gain a momentum. I always believe, if people really open themselves up and just look at my work, they’ll realise the reason behind it and what my motivations are.”

In other words, if you don’t like Koons’s work, the problem is you, not him. The new show will be at the Ashmolean in Oxford, and it’s all thanks to some Oxford students who voted him their favourite contemporary artist. Koons came to give a talk, one thing led to another, and now he’s on display at the world’s oldest university museum. Like Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, it is often said that Koons’s art is best experienced in person – to get a sense of its genuine spectacle, although I’m not sure I’d recommend asking Koons about this.

“I hope people who view the exhibition feel a sense of wow, but realise that wow is about their own being, and what gives them that wow is their own potential in the areas they’re most interested in, not in the areas I’m interested in.” Despite Koons’s emphasis on accessibility in his work –what he calls “removal of hierarchy” – it often feels like you need either a PhD or a lobotomy to understand his explanations.

Gazing Ball Belvedere Torso.
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 Gazing Ball Belvedere Torso. Photograph: Jeff Koons

Koons was born and raised in Pennsylvania, the son of a furniture dealer and interior designer. This was such a happy time that he bought the 650-acre farm owned by his grandfather, and he and his family go there every weekend. “My childhood was wonderful,” he says and that’s that. Despite his claims of openness, Koons is strikingly opaque about subjects he considers irrelevant to his art. In the 2014 book Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, the artist is asked if he likes movies. “I think the form of narrative that I’m involved with in my own art I find more interesting,” he replies.

After studying art and working briefly as a commodities broker to make money, he came to prominence in New York in the 1980s. “Let’s see, I did the Pre-New, the New, Equilibrium, Banality,” he says, ticking off his art series. “Then what came after that? Oh yes, Made in Heaven.” This began when Koons saw a photo of Staller, a porn star and Italian politician, in a magazine and set out to meet her. “I enjoyed very much that she was standing there without any pants on,” he later recalled.

He photographed them having sex and gave the works names such as Jeff Eating Ilona and said he was taking away sexual shame. Alas, he couldn’t take away sexual prurience so, while people queued round the block to see it, the art world cringed in embarrassment. When Staller moved to Italy with their son, Ludwig, leading to a long custody battle, Koons destroyed many of the works. Did he, despite his intention with this series, feel ashamed of the photos?

“Not at all! I’m still very, very proud of those works, but I was in a custody situation for my son and my ex-wife, Ilona, was saying that what I made was pornographic. So I decided that the works I could control I’d destroy, to help my chances of gaining custody.”

A lot of people destroy photos of themselves with their ex. Is it not weird to look at pictures of you having actual sex with someone you split from so acrimoniously? “No, I look at it as art,” he says. Does Ludwig look at it that way? “I think my son understands what my motivations are,” he says, the shutters coming down.

In an article written in 2008, the New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, said Koons told him: “I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton. She didn’t help Ludwig.” This was a reference to his desperate attempts to get his child back from Italy. When I ask Koons about this, he recoils. “I can’t speak to what I said at a certain time. But I was involved with the [2016] Hillary campaignand I supported Hillary.”

Did he ever meet Donald Trump, I ask, given they were in similarly monied circles in New York in the 80s? “I met Trump superficially a bunch of times and our children went to the same school. But I never knew him.” Shutters down.

Koons met his wife, Justine, when she worked in his studio. Surely it must be hard for them to keep their equilibrium with their six kids running around, even if they do live in a house the size of a multiplex? “Oh no, I love the freedom!” he says, with the smile of a man who has a serious amount of childcare.

Our time is up and as I get up to leave, he suddenly leans over and speaks urgently. “Can I ask you something? I’d prefer it if you don’t go into the political stuff,” he says.

And it’s at this point that I finally lose faith with Koons. I can enjoy an artist who works with banal ceramics, plastic pool toys, or even quasi porn. But one who prioritises his carefully cultivated blank image over engaging with the reality around him so as to maintain his elite everyman appeal? What’s the point of art anyway? Sorry, Jeff, I don’t buy it. Mind you, I couldn’t afford it anyway.

The Guardian

After Columbine, Dave Cullen swore he would never write about a mass shooting again. But over the next 20 years, he realised that he and other journalists had a duty to destroy the deadly myths they had helped create

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were joined by over 800,000 people at a gun control protest in February 2018.
 The March for Our Lives protest in Washington DC in March 2018. Estimates state that between 1.4 and 2.1 million people attended protests across the US that day. Photograph: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

As I drove down Highway 6 toward the Rocky Mountains on 20 April 1999, hoping to find this high school I had never heard of in Columbine, where shots had been reported but no injuries, I had no conception of what I was about to witness. What was happening inside that high school was unimaginable. What it ignited was far worse.

Who could have known what we were in for? The police weren’t ready: they surrounded the school and waited for demands that never came. There was no active shooter protocol; the “lockdown drill” was still unconceived and inconceivable. Why would we drill kids to hide from gunmen? None of us had an inkling that the school shooter era had begun.

The school shooter era. Even 10 years after Columbine, I still couldn’t perceive what we were living through in that way. No one could. It had been going on far too long, but it was hard to predict its endurance or trajectory. While I despise the media scorekeeping – awarding the killers titles like prizefighters, giving them exactly what they crave – one stat is worth noting: what was then the most notorious mass murder in recent American history no longer ranks in the top 10. Four of the five deadliest attacks in the US have occurred since then, three of them in the past three years. In a five-day period near the end of last month, the US suffered four mass murders in four different states: Louisiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Florida. This is not going away, it’s getting worse.

Twenty years later, I am still on this story not just because of what happened, but also because of how the media responded. We got it wrong. Absurdly wrong. We were shocked and horrified and desperate for answers, serving a public hungry for a reason for the “madness,” so we found an answer. It was wrong.

Since 20 April 1999, I have studied most of the major mass shootings and some of the smaller ones. I have written about them individually and collectively. I have joined the Academy of Critical Incident Analysis (ACIA) team in studying several incidents, including on-site studies at Virginia Techafter the 2007 shooting and in Las Vegas in 2017, and an off-site analysis of Norway’s 2011 Workers’ Youth League attack in Utøya. A troubling trend emerged: many of the mass murderers emulated Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The FBI released more than 1,500 pages of documents about the horror at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, when Adam Lanza killed 20 first-grade students and six members of staff, as well as his own mother. It details just how obsessively Lanza was following Harris and Klebold. He amassed a hoard of Columbine information on his hard drive, frequented a chat room dedicated to the attack, and role-played the killers in an online game. If only this were an isolated incident.

I experienced two breakdowns of secondary traumatic stress seven years apart writing Columbine, so I studied the subsequent tragedies at a safe emotional distance and swore I would never plunge back into the scene of a crime. Last year, when a shooting erupted at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, I broke that promise, because Parkland seemed different. The Parkland students immediately led an uprising against lax gun laws. Emma González hit back. David Hogg called out adult America for letting children die. The nation was galvanised, and five weeks later, their band of high school students led one of the largest protests in American history.

Any reasonable observer outside the US would have concluded long before the Parkland shooting that something had to be done. In fact, as the death count rose, media and public attention had waned. The public advocacy group The Trace has studied media coverage of these tragedies, and measured a significant decrease in coverage by 2018. Nearly two decades into this epidemic, the US had settled into a state of defeatism.

We had good reason. In the wake of Columbine, America was united in one idea – that something had to change in three obvious areas: police, schools and guns. The police surrounding Columbine High had failed to consider the possibility that the gunmen had no demands. They just wanted to kill people. After considerable analysis, police forces across America upended their response to these attacks with the active shooter protocol. They now neutralise most major attacks within minutes, saving countless lives. Schools responded too, with threat assessment teams, lockdown drills and advance coordination with law enforcement, who now have blueprints to their buildings and alarm codes. The changes were swift, and dramatic, but they were primarily aimed at reducing the death count once bullets were already in the air.

On prevention? On minimising the ability of perpetrators to arm themselves to the hilt, US politicians responded with ... nothing. Worse than nothing, they have regressed. Columbine brought great hope for gun control, but almost no meaningful legislation. Politicians of all stripes were afraid of the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA). In 2000, vice-president Al Gore stuck his neck out. He defied the conventional wisdom that gun control was politically toxic, ran on it and lost the electoral college, by a whisker, in two southern states he should have carried easily. Either one would have led to him defeating George W Bush. Guns were blamed, and the Democrats went from squeamish on gun control to terrified.

In the media, meanwhile, we carry at least some of the blame for this spiralling problem. What I failed to grasp that day I arrived in Columbine was how we were botching the story – and the staggering ramifications of mislaid good intentions. I had no idea that I might be playing a role, and bear some responsibility for the children still dying around us two decades later.

My first clue came that evening, on my drive home to Denver. I had filed a report by phone to Salon.com in San Francisco. I flipped on the radio for some respite and there was no music. It was all Columbine all the time on every station, and the story I was hearing sounded alarmingly different from the one I thought I’d just witnessed. The “what” was exactly what I’d reported – “up to 25 dead”, though that would be proved equally wrong – but the “why” all over the radio was unnerving. I’d spent nine hours with students, cops and distraught parents in Clement Park, the huge grassy area surrounding the school, and still had no clue at all why those boys had done this, other than insanity – which would also be proved wrong. Every other reporter in the field had apparently uncovered their motives: the killers had targeted two groups, jocks and black people, and were obviously racists striking back against ruthless bullying. I was distraught. How had I missed all that? It was the biggest story I’d ever been a part of, and I’d blown it.

Members of a police SWAT team take a break in front of Columbine High School, after the shooting stopped.
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 ‘The police waited for demands that never came’ ... a SWAT team rest outside Columbine High School, after the shooting stopped, on 20 April 1999. Photograph: POOL/REUTERS

The next morning, I did something worse. I changed my story. I’d gone home and turned on the TV to see the radio story validated everywhere. I’d awoken to the morning papers and the TV news correcting the death count from 25 to 15, but trumpeting the primary narrative, still with us today, of two bullied, loner outcasts from the Trench Coat Mafia exacting revenge. It’s a powerful story, but entirely fictional. Every element of that narrative would turn out to be false. But that morning, the driving emotion for me was humility. Obviously, I was the one in the wrong.

It had all happened so quickly. Years later, I expected to trace the origin of the myth over the first week or two, analysing all the major newspapers’ coverage. But the genesis had to be measured in hours, not days, and the CNN transcript from 20 April told most of the story. It’s a remarkable document, because the networks cut between four local stations’ feeds, providing a cross-section of virtually all the live on‑site TV coverage. Most of the major myths still haunting us solidified in those first few hours. Over the course of that afternoon, reporters went from asking if the killers targeted jocks and black people, to asking kids to confirm reports of the targeting, to beginning to state it as a fact. There was a similar progression with the killers being bullied, loners, outcasts and goths.

The attack began outside, where every witness reported Harris firing indiscriminately. And two days later, two huge propane bombs were discovered in the cafeteria. It was clear that the killers had intended to blow up a wing of the school, killing close to 600 students instantly. Could that really be called targeted?

The 23 April edition of the New York Times is chilling. The front page led with two Columbine stories, side by side. The story on the left explored the motives, unequivocally stating: “The killers, who targeting athletes …” The story on the right revealed the bomb discovery – disproving the targeting theory reported as fact beside it. Worse, the stories ran under a single banner announcing that the killers intended to “Destroy the school”. No one called them out on the absurdity – because nearly all of us were locked in the same cognitive dissonance, reporting it the same absurd way.

The jock theory hinged entirely on four words one of the killers shouted in the library: “All jocks stand up.” But they had shouted all sorts of slurs about every conceivable group during the slaughter. Why did we turn the jock phrase into the primary motive, and the explanation for the entire attack?

Because it made a great story. Not just to journalists, to the survivors too. The nation was desperate for an explanation, and bullying jocks made plausible targets. It didn’t just fit, it explained everything. So easy to imagine these outcast boys, ruthlessly tormented until they reached breaking point and struck back. So what if none of the evidence fitted?

David Hogg  March for Our Lives rally 24 March 2018 Washington.
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 Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school student David Hogg speaking during the March for Our Lives rally on 24 March 2018 in Washington. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The problem didn’t start with Columbine. Journalists began the afternoon with leading questions, and Columbine students acquiesced so easily, because smaller-scale school shootings had already been afflicting us, and there was a widespread “understanding” of the shooter profile: bullied loner outcasts. Both the FBI and secret service would later debunk those profiles, but there was little reliable data at the time. Past misconceptions were quickly projected on to the Columbine killers: imaginary heroes of the downtrodden concocted largely over the course of one afternoon.

In fact, the two were uninterested in their particular victims, just the body count. Mark Juergensmeyer, one of the great thinkers on terrorism, captured the essence of that phenomenon in one phrase: performance violence. A defining characteristic of terrorism is some sort of political agenda. But the Columbine killers realised they could employ those same tactics for their own petty self-aggrandisement. A whole generation of murderers have followed in their wake.

It took several months, but eventually all the major media concluded that we had the motive story hopelessly wrong. Within a year, most big print outlets had published some sort of correction. The problem was that hundreds of millions of people had gobbled up the early coverage – CNN logged its highest ratings in its history to that point, the New York Times page one featured Columbine for nine consecutive days – and hardly anyone noticed the corrections. They certainly didn’t dislodge readers’ entire conception of a seminal moment in modern American history. Myths are for ever.

I spent a decade after Columbine battling those myths, sorting the truth and eventually publishing a book, Columbine, around the 10th anniversary. Reporters still ask me what they should learn from the Columbine debacle, and I say get it right the first time, because we can never untell the myths we spin.

It was only in the second decade of the school shooter era that we discovered just how pernicious those Columbine myths would prove. An exhaustive secret service study found that most of the school shooters during that period were distraught and deeply depressed, with suicidal thoughts or intentions. Most felt a sense of loss or failure, and seemed to be crying out in desperation for a sense of power and a voice. They were rarely targeting the individuals they killed; the victims were collateral damage in the service of an impressive body count. I have taken to calling them spectacle murders, because they are essentially performances – and without the media, they have no stage. No voice. We play right into their hands.

Students rally against gun violence in New YorkNEW YORK, USA - APRIL 20: Hundreds of high school students take part in a protest against National Rifle Association (NRA) at Washington Square Park in New York, United States on April 20, 2018. Students mourn shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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 Hundreds of high school students take part in a protest against National Rifle Association (NRA) in New York in April 2018. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The No Notoriety movement began to gain a foothold about a decade after Columbine, but didn’t really gain momentum until 2015. The manifesto at nonotoriety.com is quite modest and sensible, calling on journalists not to stop naming or showing killers entirely, but to “minimise harm”. It asks them to “limit the name to once per piece as a reference point” and downplay photos, for example, putting them below the fold in newspapers. Yet even though Anderson Cooper began refusing to name mass killers on his highly rated CNN show AC360, demonstrating how easy it was, very few shows followed. In 2015, People magazine became the first major publication to adopt a No Notoriety policy. In November 2018, BuzzFeed announced a new harm-reduction policy directing reporters and editors to end the gratuitous use of the names or images of mass shooters.

For many outlets, the problem remained that the killers tended to be more interesting than their victims – not just to journalists, but to readers and viewers. As the recent controversy around the forthcoming Ted Bundy film illustrates, humans will always be fascinated by criminal minds. It’s why cop shows dominate TV and crime fiction sells. We in the media can diminish the killers’ profiles, but as long as the audience craves stories about them, they will become famous.

In the case of school shootings, that conundrum seemed unsolvable – until the Parkland kids flipped the script. David Hogg became the first mass shooting victim to become more famous than his attacker. It took him less than 24 hours. Two days later, Emma González went viral with her “We call BS” speech and was a household name across the US and much of Europe. In her first week on Twitter, she surpassed a million followers. Their attacker is a nobody.

 

When writing my book about Parkland, I chose to erase the killer’s name. It was an easy choice. He is insignificant. We need to study these killers as a class, but the FBI has done that. It wasn’t a tough decision, though. The Parkland kids made it easy. I didn’t go to Parkland to cover the gunman, I went because I was fascinated by the students. America was fascinated. The world was fascinated. In November, Archbishop Desmond Tutu bestowed on them the International Children’s Peace prize, calling their campaign “reminiscent of other great peace movements in history”.

The Parkland students decided in the first few days that they needed to speak with one voice, and focus on gun safety. March for Our Lives followed on 24 March 2018. Estimates state that between 1.4 and 2.1 million people marched in the US that day, making it the third or fourth largest one-day protest in American history, equivalent to the largest protest of the Vietnam war era, led by college students, who had been rallying for the better part of a decade. The Parkland uprising was organised by high school students in five weeks.

When Parkland was attacked last Valentine’s Day, supporting gun safety was considered politically toxic. Suddenly, for the first time in a generation, it is starting to grow politically toxic to oppose it. The NRA is not rolling over and the battle will rage for years, but the Parkland kids have achieved stunning success in the first year. State legislatures reversed the NRA momentum, passing 67 laws tightening access to guns. But the big prize was the November midterms. Democrats finally stopped cowering on gun laws, ran on reforming then, and retook the House of Representatives. Even Republicans in some key swing districts ran on gun safety. They didn’t all win, but the movement exceeded the wildest expectations last February of what they might accomplish.

The Parkland kids have also helped to solve another problem: robbing spectacle murderers of the spotlight they crave. I was pleased to discover that, while doing media interviews for my book, hardly any journalists could recall the Parkland shooter’s name – even those who had covered the story. Yet millions of American schoolchildren can name a dozen of the March for Our Lives kids, and follow them daily on social media.

These survivors have truly eclipsed their killer. The solution was very simple: they did something more powerful.

The Guardian